Monday, January 08, 2007

Faith that Overcomes the World

In a speech given in London (June 2, 2005) Fr. Raniero Cantalamess, OFM Cap, Preacher to the Papal Household said that Christianity is first and foremost about the Person of Jesus Christ. If we forget this, if he says we make doctrine and moral obligations primary and Jesus secondary, we distort the Gospel. He continues by observing that :

In connection with this [tendency to make tradition primary and Jesus secondary], a serious pastoral problem now exists. Churches with a strong dogmatic and theological tradition (as the traditional Churches and especially the Catholic Church are) sometimes find themselves at a disadvantage, owing to their very wealth and complexity of doctrine and institutions, when dealing with a society that has in large degree lost its Christian faith and that consequently needs to start again at the beginning, that is to say, by rediscovering Jesus Christ.

Friar Raniero's observation is as applicable to the situation of the Orthodox Church as they are to his own Roman Catholic Church. For too many Orthodox Christians, the Gospel is not about a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ, but (at best) a matter of being faithful to the tradition or of being faithful to one own cultural inheritance. In the worse cases, the Gospel in met with indifference and even hostility, as something that gets in the way of life instead of the Gospel being the Way of Life.

Commenting on Fr Raniero's words, Fr Mike Fones O.P., in his blog Intentional Discipleship writes that:

In the preaching, catechesis, sacramental preparation, service projects, and community-building events that take place in our parishes, perhaps we've forgotten or obscured the 'primordial nucleus' of the Gospel message that awakens faith. It is the transforming power of a personal relationship with Jesus, made possible by his grace and the hearing of the basic message of the Gospel, that sets hearts on fire with faith and love. It is intentional discipleship that compels people to desire to encounter Christ in the Mass and other sacraments and to rely on that encounter to continue as his disciples. It is intentional discipleship kept alive by a daily reliance on grace that fuels the Catholic Christian's desire to learn more about Christ in the Scriptures, and to seek the teaching of the Church as a guide for daily life. Dare I say it - it is intentional discipleship in our clergy that leads to inspiring, challenging, creative, passionate, orthodox homilies.

While the tradition of the Orthodox Church is profoundly rich, the sad fact is that for the majority of Orthodox Christians here in the U.S. at least, that tradition doesn't make a bit of difference. And while the clergy are often more knowledgeable about the tradition, the tradition, if not a dead letter, is a tool that they often don't know how to use because, like the laity the serve, they have never really been formed as disciples of Jesus Christ.

As I have had the opportunity over the last 10 years, first in the Pacific Northwest and now in Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio, to get to know more and more people, Orthodox Christians or not, I have become more convinced then every that there is power in the tradition of the Orthodox Church. This power is a power to transform lives, to lift people out of the effects of sin--both their own and other people's. This power is there for the taking--the grace is there, it isn't lack. What is lack, however, is our freedom.

We rather worry about jurisdictional, hierarchical and clerical prerogatives then the Gospel. We are more concerned with fund raising to build buildings, than evangelism and spiritual direction to build the Church. This has to come to an end now.

Rightly, I think, Fr Mike observes that new programs are not going to work. What is needed is "preaching the heart of the Gospel and inviting people into a lived relationship with Christ." He continues that "Unless we identify our intentional disciples in our midst, support them, hold them up as the norm for Christian living, and give them tools with which to evangelize others, we will continue to see the seed of faith planted in the hearts of baptized Catholics bloom in Evangelical churches."

But for this to work, we must foster trust in all levels of the Church. Trust is the psychological foundation of faith--without a trusting relationship faith simply will not grow. If anything the lack of committed Orthodox Christians (and committed Roman Catholics for that matter) suggests that--for all our rich patrimony--there is a painful absence of trust in the Orthodox (and Catholic) Church (-es).

I have seen the faith of the Orthodox Church overcome the world--what we must now do is allow that same faith to overcome the Church.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory