In the first installment of this article, I sketched how Pope St. John Paul II’s teaching on Christocentric catechesis should lead us to view our work as an opportunity for the words of Jesus to be spoken through us in such a way that people encounter him and hear his call to follow him (the sequela Christi). I also suggested that we can best serve as spokesmen for Jesus when we focus on his initial words in preaching the Gospel (the four pillars of Gospel-living: the Kingdom of God is at hand, repent, believe, and come follow me), and I then traced the path to authentic discipleship through the call to seek the Kingdom of God and to repent.
In this second installment, I continue to trace the path of discipleship through the call to believe to its culmination in the sequela Christi, wherein the true meaning of Christian discipleship emerges as the following of Jesus through union with him. Additionally, I recall some common obstacles that people face in embracing this meaning of discipleship.
Having cultivated the heart through an orientation to the Kingdom of God and a readiness to repent, Christocentric catechesis begins to hit its full stride as it comes to its next basic guidepost: the call to believe. The full theological explanation of belief is at once broad, deep, and complex, with seemingly innumerable details as to how belief unfolds in the human heart. Nonetheless, the work of Christocentric catechesis can help people cultivate greater faith by focusing on how faith means recognizing God and accepting his invitation to experience the impossible through his transforming power.
Cultivating faith begins with understanding that to believe most fundamentally means responding to Divine Revelation, taking up the dynamic begun in God’s initiative toward the human person. God reveals himself in order to invite us into a relationship with him, and believing means making the adequate response to him and to this invitation (CCC 142-143). In other words, we should never present faith as merely (or even primarily) an intellectual assent to truths proposed in an abstract form but rather as the acceptance of the interpersonal relationship that God offers us when he reveals himself.
Since God has revealed himself as Trinity, Christian faith obviously entails the recognition of the God who has revealed himself as Triune, and specifically means acknowledging Jesus as the Son of God and the Holy Spirit as the Advocate given to us. Yet, such a recognition is not possible by our natural powers and must be received as a gift from God himself. The words of Jesus to Peter tell us that not from “flesh and blood” can we recognize God and his Son but rather only when such recognition is given to us from the Father in heaven (Mt 16:17). For this reason, the first movements of faith consist of opening ourselves to the gift of faith and being ready to cooperate with the work of God that takes us beyond our natural powers. We can believe only by opening ourselves to the supernatural, anticipating the impossible.
We must open ourselves to the supernatural, not just to recognize the Triune God but also to accept his invitation, which reveals a plan equally beyond our natural powers. The plan of God expressed in Divine Revelation culminates in his offer to bring us into the Communion of the Trinity, which orientates us to heaven where this communion will be realized in its fullness but also has the immediate significance that we become his dwelling place in this life (CCC 257-260). The words of Jesus clarify that God’s revelation includes not only the promise of eternal life and also the invitation to become the dwelling place of God (Jn 14:23). These two elements of God’s plan converge in the “divinization” of man, encapsulated in our tradition by the idea that the Son of God became man so that man could become God (for example, St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, and St. Thomas Aquinas, Opusculum 57, On the Feast of Corpus Christi).
To believe, we must accept the stupendous plan of God, whereby we will enter into the Communion of the Trinity for eternity and become the dwelling place of the Trinity in this life through our own divinization; therefore, faith necessarily means opening ourselves to something that only God can accomplish. In a certain sense, this explains why we begin our Profession of Faith with the proclamation that God is almighty. However, the words of Jesus also invite us to see the vital role of our faith in unleashing the almighty power of God. As he does with the ten lepers (Lk 17:19), the woman with a hemorrhage (Mt 9:22), and the blind beggar (Lk 18:42), Jesus often attributes his miraculous healings to the faith of those healed, saying at one point that if we believe “everything is possible” (Mk 9:23). In doing this, Jesus highlights a core meaning of faith wherein the power of God awaits the “obedience” of faith (CCC 144): our yes to his will and our trust in the power that accomplishes this plan. Faith is the power to move mountains (Mt 17:20 and 21:21) because it is the power of God unleashed by our obedience to him and his plan.
Our tradition points to Abraham in the Old Testament and the Blessed Virgin Mary in the New Testament as the premier models of faith, not because they intellectually grasp obscure truths but because they exemplify obedience to the (seemingly impossible) plan of God made known to them. The Gospel accounts of the call of the Apostles likewise exemplify the obedience of faith that unleashes the power of God, as do the lives of many saints of our tradition who heard the voice of God and obeyed (for example, St. Athanasius, The Life of St. Antony, St. Gregory, The Life of St. Benedict, and St. Bonaventure, The Life of St. Francis of Assisi). Learning from these examples, we can also see that the obedience of faith extends from a trust in God to a willingness to leave off one’s former way of life and the readiness to accept the dignity that God’s plan confers on us.
Faith necessarily rests on God’s trustworthiness and requires us to “trust God in all circumstances” (CCC 227); however, faith must also embrace the radical transformation that the power of God seeks to accomplish in us and the dignity that his plan confers on us.
Opening ourselves to the power of God in faith requires a willingness to become a new creation, or in the words of Jesus to Nicodemus, to be “born again” (Jn 3:3). These words of Jesus highlight the utter newness of what comes forth from the power of God. We are not talking about a dramatic makeover or a simple upgrade, so faith takes the form of a consent to radical transformation. Yet, such a transformation remains frustrated unless we are willing to cease being what we have been in order to become the new creation that God wills us to be, and this is why the process of repentance and renunciation logically lays the foundation for answering the call to believe.
Such a radical transformation also includes embracing the magnificence of what God brings about through this radical transformation: the magnificence of being divinized, of becoming the dwelling place of God, of entering into the communion of the Trinity, and of being entrusted with the role of unleashing and manifesting the power of God. Simply put, faith requires us to accept the dignity that God bestows on us and to trust ourselves as much as God does when he entrusts his plan to our faithful obedience. To be commissioned by God with the fulfillment of such a magnificent plan speaks volumes about his trust in us, and faith requires us to view ourselves with the same high opinion in order to embrace his plan.
All of this gives us more than enough reason to ask, like our model of faith, “how can this be?” (Lk 1:34), and we should expect the same response she received: by the power of the Holy Spirit. Until we have that moment when the plan of God seems impossible, faith cannot find its proper context, and unless we become convinced that the Holy Spirit can accomplish the impossible in us, faith cannot lead us to genuine Christian discipleship. As such, Christocentric catechesis must seek to bring people to both of these pivotal moments.