Next month, on October 11th, the Church throughout the world will begin the observance of a Year of Faith. Pope Benedict called for this special year to help all of us to be renewed in our Catholic faith, to promote the rediscovery of the truth, beauty, and power of the faith.
Our faith is not merely an idea or philosophy, an ethical system or ideology. It is first and foremost communion and friendship with a Person, with Jesus Christ, the Son of God who became flesh and who suffered and died for us and rose from the dead. Faith is communion with Him and living a life in conformity with that communion, with that friendship, a life according to the Spirit. It is a faith that, according to Saint Paul, works through charity.
In a passage from the letter of Saint James, which we heard at Mass last Sunday, he asks: what good is it if someone says he has faith but does not have works? James insists that faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. This may seem to contradict what Saint Paul teaches in his letters where he writes that we are justified by faith apart from the works of the Law. Martin Luther added the word “alone” and said we are justified by faith alone. This controversy about justification by faith, a cornerstone of the Protestant Reformation, became a principal reason for the division between Catholics and Protestants. Thanks be to God, much progress has been made through ecumenical dialogue to overcome the misunderstanding since the time of Martin Luther concerning the issue of justification and faith.
So how do we resolve the apparent contradiction between the teaching of Saint Paul and Saint James? It is important that we understand the meaning of the word “faith.” What is faith? It is, above all, as I have said, being united to Christ, entrusting oneself to Christ and to his life. In doing so, one enters into His love. Faith creates charity. Charity is the fulfillment of communion with Christ.
Luther was right that we can’t be justified by works. The Council of Trent taught that neither faith nor works merit the grace of justification. We are unable to justify ourselves. Justification is a gift from God. The Council of Trent taught that “nobody should flatter oneself with faith alone, thinking that by faith alone one is made an heir and will obtain the inheritance.” We are called to live in God’s grace, to persevere in faith and good works.
It is important to see the intimate connection between faith and good works. As Saint James taught, faith without works is dead. The Catechism teaches that “when it is deprived of hope and love, faith does not fully unite the believer to Christ and does not make him a living member of his Body (CCC 1815). If it is genuine and authentic, faith is expressed in charity. A faith without charity is not true faith.
As we prepare to celebrate the Year of Faith, it is good to recall these truths: that we are justified through the gift of faith in Christ (as our Protestant brothers and sisters insist), but also that this faith must be lived in charity or else it is dead. Faith without charity bears no fruit.
Pope Benedict sees the Year of Faith as a good opportunity to intensify the witness of charity. He reminds us of the teaching of Saint James and also the teaching of Saint Paul who wrote that, in the end, faith, hope, and love abide, but the greatest of these is love. Faith and charity require each other, the Holy Father teaches us. Through faith, we can recognize Jesus in the least of our brothers and sisters and assist them through our good works, our charity and love. Jesus taught that this is how we will be judged. Saint Paul also wrote that we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body (2 Cor. 5:10).
The Year of Faith is a great opportunity for all of us and for every parish to be renewed. Many Catholics seem to have grown lazy in the faith (so many even neglect Sunday Mass). We must reach out to them and to others who are unchurched, who are adrift in our increasingly secularized culture. A truly vibrant parish is one that evangelizes, that reaches out to others, inviting them to embrace faith in Jesus Christ and to be united with Him in His Body, the holy, Catholic Church. We must not be afraid to profess our faith and to propose the Catholic faith to others. In doing so, we must bear witness to that faith through love, through good works.
The best evangelization is our witness of charity, the witness of our Christian lives. That attracts people to Christ and His Church even more powerfully and effectively than our words.
May the Lord bless all of you with many graces during the upcoming Year of Faith!
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