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Foundations of faith

30 November, 1999

What does ‘handing on the faith’ mean in present-day Ireland. There are no longer the many Religious-run institutions, like schools and university halls. It seems one has to be living it with conviction oneself to be really able to hand it on. Fr John Looby SJ explains.

Another Catholic place of education was closing down. After ninety-three years no more Catholic students would reside at what they called Hatch Hall in central Dublin. It was one more victim of the fall-off in religious vocations, which forced different religious orders to close down schools and colleges, which were once the only places Irish Catholics could get an education. But it was another function of those places that concerned one of those at the closing party.

This young man was asking who would hand on the faith to his children. For so long, the Church had depended on the Religious teachers to hand on the faith, that it was not conceivable to this young man that it could continue without them. Nor was he reassured when I suggested that the parents themselves would hand on their faith to their own children.

After all, it was on the basis of their faith that their children were baptized, and at that solemn moment, they had blithely promised to bring them up in the faith. The young parent ruefully confessed that he had belonged to the generation that sabotaged religion class into discussions about sex and drugs, often ending up woefully unfamiliar with even the basics of their faith.

In the interval, this conversation has been frequently repeated, nearly always ending without reaching a reassuring resolution. Rarely was anyone critical of the schools, but generally it was felt that while religion classes would continue, knowledge about the faith was not synonymous with the faith. The care not to discriminate relegates all faiths to an equal importance, so that without the whole life of faith which finds expression in school Masses, class retreats, special feast days, nativity plays, religious pilgrimages and youth days, religion is only just as boring or as interesting as any other subject.

Some piously hoped for a miraculous increase in vocations. Some would confidently consign the whole question to the bishop or the parish priest or whoever was responsible. Parents with either young or teenage children were the most concerned, as they were either facing the challenge or felt that they had not met it adequately. Questions of identity began to arise when it emerged that many homes did not have any religious image whatsoever, yet still felt that theirs was a Catholic home. Could having some religious image in the home play any role in handing on the faith?

We were on more reliable ground when we looked at what scripture might tell us about handing on the faith. Beginning with Abraham, called our father in faith, the trust and love which God inspired in him when in his old age God gave him a son, led him to leave his homeland and travel to a foreign country, which he was told his descendents would own someday. Similarly, the Israelites believed God was leading them through Moses to a Promised Land, because he had delivered them from slavery in Egypt. St. John tells us at the end of his gospel, ‘these signs are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God, and that believing you may have life through his name.

The Acts of the Apostles proved to be an essay in handing on the faith by the Apostles and St. Paul through the known world.

Once our memories were jogged, the names poured out: John the Baptist, St. Patrick, St. Columbanus, St. Francis Xavier, the apostles of lands at the ends of the earth. The broad band of Irish men and women who had also left home and carried their faith anywhere and everywhere Christ was unknown. Always there was the element of total commitment.

As I write, I am reminded of a Father John De Smet, a Jesuit missioner in the nineteenth century, who worked almost exclusively with different tribes of North American Indians. His efforts to reach one tribe seemed doomed to failure when he could not catch up with them, and after nine months on the trail he collapsed in the snow with exhaustion. And then they came back to collect him. They had been aware of him all the time, but watched to see if he would persevere. He had, and they were prepared to accept him because of his selfless commitment. That was the essential ingredient in the work of handing on the faith in a Christ who gave his all, even his life, without counting the cost.

We should not forget that our faith is not something static, but that it grows and develops, even if not like a physical body at a steady pace, but profoundly and at significant moments in our life. Ideally, Confirmation would be just such a moment when we take over responsibility for our faith from our parents, when it becomes ours, and not just something we have received from others. Are we expecting that growth too soon from our young people? In France they have postponed Confirmation until the young Christian is sixteen or seventeen. In Spain they must request Confirmation only when they have reached twenty.

There are other significant moments: when choosing what to do with ourselves in life, or when marrying and making a major commitment to another, before accepting priestly ordination, and, inevitably, facing death when we place our ultimate trust in Christ to bring us to eternal happiness. The various crisis moments in life, the moments of pain, disappointment, betrayal, even despair, are commonly the occasions of growth in faith, moments when we echo the words of the stricken parent in the gospel, ‘Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.’ We might travel the same road as the apostles who left everything to follow Jesus, ‘but having to be reminded, frequently enough, that they were men of little faith’. Yet they could go from Peter denying Christ, to Peter trusting him and walking on water, when Christ told him to come to him over the waters.

Maybe to hand on the faith, what we need is faith. 

This article first appeared in The Messenger (January 2008), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.