Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ Jesus,
The month of January is dedicated to the Most Holy Name of Jesus: let us reverently pray His Holy Name and make reparation to our good Lord for the many times that His name is spoken with irreverence! This weekend I share with you a reflection on personal formation in our Catholic Faith. I encourage you to reflect over this message a few times this week:
“Doctrinal Formation - The Reading of the Gospel: The first reading of today’s Holy Mass (Neh. 8:2-6: 8-10) makes claim on our emotion as it narrates the return of the Chosen People to Israel after so many years of exile in Babylon. Once they reach Jewish soil, the priest Ezra, explains to the people the content of the Law that they had forgotten during the years spent in a foreign land. He read from the sacred book from early morning until midday. His audience stood and followed the teaching attentively and all the people wept. Their response is a lament compounded with joy as they hear God’s Law once more, and with grief also because their previous neglect of the Law had brought about their exile.
When we gather together to take part in the Holy Mass we stand, in an attitude of watchfulness, to hear the Good News that the Gospel always brings us. We have to listen to it with a disposition which is at once attentive, humble and grateful because we know that God is speaking to each one of us in particular. We should hear the Gospel, writes St. Augustine, as if Our Lord were present and speaking to us. We must not say ‘happy were those who could see Him’, for many of those who saw Him crucified Him; and many of those who have not seen Him have believed in Him. The very words that came from Our Lord’s lips were written down and kept and preserved for us. (St. Augustine, Commentary on St. John’s Gospel, 30)
We can only love someone we know. In order to get to know Christ many Christians dedicate some minutes each day to reading and meditating on the Gospels. This practice leads us by the hand, as it were, to the knowledge and contemplation of Jesus Christ. It teach-es us to see Him as the Apostles saw Him, to observe His reactions, to watch the way He behaved and listen to His words which were always filled with wisdom and authority. The Gospels show Him to us on some occasions moved with compassion at the plight of peo-ple in misery. At other times they show Him full of understanding for sinners, or firm with the Pharisees who are presenting a false image of their religion. He is full of patience with those disciples who so often do not grasp the meaning of His words.
It would be very difficult to love Jesus Christ, to get to know Him really well, if we did not frequently hear the Word of God, if we did not attentively read part of the Gospel each day. That reading - per-haps lasting only a few minutes - nourishes and increases our piety.
At the end of each reading of Sacred Scripture the priest says, The Gospel of the Lord, and the faithful reply, Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ. How is it we praise Him? Our Lord is not satisfied with our bare words; Show me, He says. He wants to be praised with deeds.
We cannot run the risk of forgetting God’s Law, of allowing the teaching of the Church to remain in us as little more than truths which are diffuse and inoperative, or of which we have a merely superficial knowledge. To us this would mean an exile far more devastating than that of Babylon. God’s greatest enemy in the world is ignorance, the cause, and, as it were, the root of all the evils that poison entire nations and perturb many souls. (John XXIII, Encyclical, Ad Petri Cathedram, 29 June 1959)
We know well that the one great evil that afflicts so many Christians is the lack of doctrinal formation. What is graver still is that many people are turned astray by error, a sickness even more serious than ignorance. What a pity if we, because we lack the necessary doctrine, cannot show Christ to them and give them the light they need in order to understand His teaching!
A Christian’s formation continues throughout His life. The need for good formation: In today’s Holy Mass we read the be-ginning of the Gospel according to St. Luke (Luke 1:1-14; 4:14-21), who tells us he has resolved to write down the life of Christ so that we may know the truth of the teachings we have received. Each of us, according to the unique circumstance of his life, has the obligation to know Christ’s doctrine in depth. This obligation lasts for as long as our path here on earth shall continue. The growth of the Faith and of the Christian life, even more in the adverse context within which we are living, needs from us a positive effort and the continuous exercise of our personal liberty. This effort begins when we have come to see our Faith as the most important thing in our lives. From this consideration is born an interest in knowing and practicing all that is contained in our Faith in God. This leads us to want to follow Christ throughout the complex and changing context of the reality of daily life. (Spanish Episcopal Conference, Witnesses to the Living God, 28 June 1985) We must never allow ourselves to think we have had sufficient formation. We must never be satisfied with the amount of knowledge about Jesus Christ and His teaching that we have so far acquired. Love always seeks to know the beloved better. In professional life, doctors, say, or architects or lawyers, though they may be good at their profession never think they have finished studying once they have qualified: they go on learning - always. And so it is with the Christian. We can apply Saint Augustine’s maxim to doctrinal formation: Did you say, ‘enough’? You have perished. (St. Augustine, Sermon 169, 18)
The quality of the instrument - for that is what we all are, instruments in God’s hands - can improve, it can develop new possibilities. Each day we can love a little more and give better example. But we will not achieve this if our understanding is not continually nourished by sound doctrine. I cannot say how often I have been told that some old Irishman saying his Rosary is holier than I am, with all my study. I daresay he is. For his own sake, I hope he is. But if the only evidence is that he knows less theology than I, then it is evidence that would convince neither him nor me. It would not convince him, because all those Rosary-loving, Tabernacle-loving old Irishmen I have ever known… were avid for more knowledge of the Faith. It does not convince me, because while it is obvious that an ignorant man can be virtuous, it is equally obvious that ignorance is not a virtue; men have been martyred who could not have stated a doctrine of the Church correctly, and martyrdom is the supreme proof of Love: yet with more knowledge of God they would have loved Him more still. (F. J. Sheed, Theology for Beginners, Sheed and Ward, London)
The so-called plain man’s Faith (‘I believe it all, even though I don’t know what it is’) is not sufficient for a Christian in the world who is confronted each day by confusion and a lack of light regard-ing Christ’s doctrine - the only doctrine that saves - and is daily encountering ethical problems, both new and old, at work, in his family life, and in the environment in which he lives.
A Christian needs to have the answers which enable him to counter the attacks of the enemies of the Faith, and to know how to present them in an attractive way, (nothing being gained by over-reaction, heated argument or bad humor), with clarity (without watering down important issues) and with precision (without sounding hesitatingly uncertain).
The plain man’s Faith can perhaps save the old Irishman in question, but in other Christians ignorance of the content of the Faith generally means a lack of Faith, it means negligence, a lack of Love. Ignorance is often the daughter of laziness (St. John Chrysostom, Catena Aurea, III, p. 78)... It is most important in the struggle against a widespread lack of Faith to have, as near as possible, a precise and complete knowledge of Catholic theology. This is why any child well instructed in the Catechism is, without realizing it, a true missionary. (Cardinal J. H. Newman, Sermon on the In-auguration of St. Bernard’s Seminary, 3 October 1873) If we study the Catechism which is a true compendium of the Faith, and under-take the reading we are advised to do in spiritual direction, we will be able to combat the ignorance and error rife in so many places, and among so many people, and which can lay the way open to many false doctrines and teachers of error.
Spiritual reading: It takes time and per sistence to acquir e good formation. Continuity helps us to understand and to incorporate, to make our own, the doctrine that is presented to our understanding. If we are to achieve this, we have first of all to ensure that the right channels are open for sound doctrine to be transmitted and received. We have to pay sufficient attention to our own formation, convinced of the transcendental importance of what we are about. We must make sure we undertake our spiritual reading in accordance with a well-directed plan. In this way knowledge builds up gradually in our soul.
It has been said that in order to cure a sick person it is enough to be a good doctor; it is not necessary for the physician to contract the same disease. Nobody should be so ingenuous as to think that if he wants to have theological formation he needs to try all types of potions, even though they may be poisonous. This is a matter of common sense, not only of supernatural sense, and the experience of each one can corroborate it with many examples. (cf. P. Rodriguez, Faith and
Life of Faith) For this reason asking for advice about reading is an important part of the virtue of prudence, very especially if it is a question of theological or philosophical books, which can radically affect our formation and even our Faith itself. How important it is to be right about books! It is still more important to consult our spiritual director about books specifically destined to aid the formation of our soul.
If we are constant; if we are diligent in the matter of using the means by which we receive good doctrine (spiritual reading, study circles, classes of formation, spiritual direction…), we will find, almost without realizing it, that we have been amassing a great interior richness that little by little we will be able to incorporate into our lives. We will find as well that, to other people, we are like the laborer who approaches the ploughed field with a basket full of seed, for what we receive is something useful not only for our own souls but also for transmitting to others. Seed is wasted when it does not eventually bear fruit, and the world is an immense ploughed furrow in which Christ wants us to sow His doctrine” (From In Conversation with God, by Francis Fernandez) Through the intercession of Mary, the Mother of God, St. Joseph, St. Michael, and St. Paul, may our good Lord grant us the grace of dedicating time to study our Faith each day!
In Christ through Mary,