Friday, February 21, 2014

Faith and Religion

A long time ago our Diocese undertook a process of evaluating parish life and ministries throughout the Diocese.  It was a long endeavor, and for the most part had positive effects for most parishioners and places.  Basically this endeavor asked us to examine who we are as Church.  It revealed our strengths as communities and peoples of faith, but also exposed a lack of ecclesiology and understanding of the connection we have with the mission and ministry of Christ and the Church.

Yesterday's Gospel from Mark tells the story of Jesus inquiring of the apostles, "who do people say that I am?"  We know the story; various responses are given, and Peter declares Jesus to be the 'Christ.'  Yet, in the same breath Peter urges Jesus not to go through the passion and death, as Jesus had enunciated it.  Peter had yet to reach that faith level, the depth of relationship with God which leads to an intense intimacy, and outpouring of love and mercy.

This certainly demonstrates the difference between the concepts of Faith and Religion.  Our faith indicates our belief, as St Peter will say much later, and embrace, of those mysteries that are unseen but lead us to a deeper understanding of our life with  God.  Our religion, those external practical facets which give expression to our faith, helps assist and guide us through our life, and can lead us to a deeper faith experience.  Having a religious practice does nothing if it does not transform and expand our hearts.

Eons ago, at a parish far away, I would go to the local 'Y' to swim and lift weights.  Each time I went there was this same rather stout man sitting in the locker room.  He never seemed to budge from the bench which he and his gym bag occupied.  He probably told others that he went "To the gym three times a week," yet I never ran into him at any other place in the Y.  We too can "go to church three times a week," but if we simply occupy space, and our hearts are not moved, then our religion does nothing for us.

Pope Francis in his Evangelii Gaudium, wants to impress upon us that we are a missionary Church.  God so loved the world, St John tells us, that he came into our midst as one like us, to suffer, die, and reveal the resurrection.  Filled with that same love we are to go forth into the world and share the Good News of the Gospel with all of our brothers and sisters.  Our religion calls from us a faith response in accord with the needs and concerns of the world today.  Pope Francis reminds us that an evangelizing community gets involved in the world today, taking up our cross, and following the Christ.  We are to take responsibility for our faith.

I recall having a young person imploring me to bless him prior to a math test.  When I pushed him as to whether he had studied, he admitted that he had not.  We can bless ourselves, go through all sort of religious motions, but unless we have a close and intimate relationship with God through Jesus Christ, our hearts are never transformed.  More so, the mission of the Christ is not expanded.

In the spirit of God's love and mercy we have to continue to move forward in life, embracing the mystery of the cross, and remaining close to Jesus.  Then we become a living testimony, a faith-filled witness of all that we have seen and heard in faith.

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