In a few months’ time, I will be leaving Guelph behind and moving to Toronto to begin my theological studies at Regis College. As I reflected a bit on a Jesuit’s requirement to study theology as part of his formation, I also recognized that it should be an integral part of every Christian’s daily life, and not just the clergyman’s. It seems that today more and more of our adult Christians know less and less about their faith. For the most part, today’s adult Christians seem to have an elementary school level faith because their faith formation seemed to have stopped after their reception of the sacrament of Confirmation, which is usually received in grade eight.
So why is faith knowledge in such a bad state today? It seems to me that faith formation is in tough competition with other more appealing activities, which often win the fierce fight for our attention. After all, isn’t it more exciting and stimulating to go to a local pub with friends to watch a hockey game or to watch some TV shows in the evenings with a spouse?
True, going to a pub to watch a game or watching some TV can certainly be a good communal activity, but this is only so until these activities take over our lives and we cannot find the time to do anything that will nourish our soul and help us deepen our faith. I’ve tried to invite people to come and join some of the parish faith formation events. It’s tough work. People are always too busy for such things. They always have more important things to do. But isn’t faith supposed to be central to our Christian life? And if so, doesn’t faith formation have a lot to do with our growth in faith?
My theory is that that most people do not engage in faith study because they think it is boring, dull, and irrelevant for their lives. The scariest thing is that they don’t even give it a shot. Right off the bat, they decided that such things aren’t for them without even trying it out. Done deal. No more to be said. But I tell you, faith study is not boring! Just think of all the different controversies that the Church is trying to address these days. It’s everything but boring! Just recently I picked up a book on the Sacraments (see the list below) – the author of the book brought the Sacraments to life as I read on.
Another example. I have also recently read some books on the Mass and the Divine Liturgy (the Byzantine “equivalent” of Mass). I thought I knew a lot about the liturgy; was I ever proven wrong! Reading about the Mass parts, their meaning, the historical development behind each movement and activity, behind each gesture, etc., made the liturgies more alive for me! Understanding the different parts of the Mass helped me participate more fully in the liturgy. How this would benefit all our weekly churchgoers! I’ve spoken to many people about the Mass and most of them have no clue about what goes on during Mass.
In an address on Feb 14, 2012, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said: “One great problem facing the Church today is the lack of knowledge of the faith, ‘religious illiteracy.’ With such illiteracy we cannot grow. … Therefore we must re-appropriate the contents of the faith, not as a packet of dogmas and commandments, but as a unique reality revealed in all its profoundness and beauty. We must do everything possible for catechetical renewal in order for the faith to be known, God to be known, Christ to be known, the truth to be known, and for unity in the truth to grow.”
On the one hand, the Pope says that faith formation is necessary for our own growth in faith and intimacy with God. On the other hand, as the Pope continued in the address, one’s own faith formation is also for the sake of evangelization and the defense of faith to fellow co-workers, family members, and so on. The Pope stated that many adults “cannot – as adults, with competence and conviction – explain and elucidate the philosophy of the faith, its great wisdom and rationality” in order to explain the faith to others. To do this they need an “adult faith.”
That “adult faith” can be formed in a number of ways. The local parish ought to provide programs that help form peoples’ faith. BUT, if such programs are not present or if they are inadequate and are lacking, one’s faith formation has to be taken into one’s own hands. We cannot makes excuses to get out of it. We must take our own formation into our own hands if need be.
Some may be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of knowledge about the faith and so they simply don’t do anything. Where to start? What worked for me is to go by topic. Find an interesting topic in the faith, read about it, and then move on to the next. As I mentioned above, I read a book on the Sacraments, another one on the liturgy, and yet another one on Church history, and so on. As we read more and more topics, we will eventually start connecting the dots; things will start making sense.
The hardest part is to start – we need to have some encouragement because, as noted above, we often think that this kind of stuff is dull and lifeless. It isn’t! Try it! Once you try it, you’ll prefer this sort of reading over watching dull and lifeless TV shows. As scripture says,“there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl 1:9); all shows eventually end up being remakes of previous ones, anyway. All it takes is to commit just a little time every day to faith study. Maybe one can start with thirty minutes of reading a day.
Where to start? Here are some topical suggestions with authors that I’ve found helpful.
- New Testament Bible study: get to know the New Testament better! Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, with commentary by Dr. Scott Hahn.
- A general introduction to the Christian faith: Introduction to Christianity, Ignatius Press, 2014, by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
- Two great books by Dr. Brant Pitre on the Eucharist and the Bride-Bridegroom imagery in the Bible.
- Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper. Image Books, 2011.
- Jesus the Bridegroom: Seeing Christ and the Cross Through Ancient Jewish Eyes. Image Books, 2014.
- A book about the Mass and its connection to the Book of Revelation: The Lamb’s Supper, Doubleday, 1999, by Dr. Scott Hahn.
- The history and spirituality of the Eastern Byzantine Churches: The Orthodox Church, Penguin Books, 1993, by Bishop Timothy Ware.
- An excellent introduction to the Sacraments: For the Life of the World, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997, by Fr. Alexander Schmemann.
- A book addressing prayer in a busy world: Poustinia: Encountering God in Silence, Solitude and Prayer, Madonna House Publications, 2000, by Catherine de Hueck Doherty.