A Life of Faith

Papal Theologian Speaks on the Grace of Faith

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By Edward Pentin

Since around the time of the Reformation, too much emphasis has been placed on providing answers for the faith generated by science and reason, and not enough on how a life of faith begins.

This is the view of Fr. Wojciech Giertych, O.P., the Pope’s theologian, who shared his opinion on the all-important aspect of the beginnings of faith which he sees as especially crucial during this Year of Faith.

In a rare interview on the side lines of a recent event in Rome, Fr. Giertych explained how St. Thomas Aquinas, in his definition of the virtue of faith, says this virtue has a dual function. “He uses the expression ‘beginning of eternal life’, and so begins the eternal life within us, and it adapts our mind to accept that which is not evident,” Fr. Giertych said.

But he added that from about the 16th century, with the Reformation and the Enlightenment, a major focus was placed on the second part of that definition – eternal life. The Church had to react to scientific and rational enquiry, but as a consequence, the beginning of a life of faith was hardly examined.  

“This wasn’t denied,” he said, “but in some sense it wasn’t brought to the fore, it wasn’t developed.” Citing the late American theologian, Cardinal Avery Dulles, he likes to call this the “first instalment of grace.”

“When we make an act of faith, which is possible when we’ve received the grace of faith, immediately there is a contact with God,” explained Fr. Giertych, who teaches at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. “So we can say this first movement of faith is like a spark plug in a car engine which issues the spark, ignites the petrol and gets the car moving.”

But he stressed it is important to understand and recognise that faith is a supernatural gift of God. “It’s a tool given by God, infused in our reason and, in part, the will, and which enables our mind to go beyond the limits of reason, towards the mystery,” explained the British-born Dominican.

To illustrate his point, he recalled the story told in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke of the sick woman who touched Jesus cloak as he was travelling to Jairus’ house.

The woman had been subject to haemorrhaging  for twelve years, suffered greatly and spent all she had on medical care. But instead of getting better, she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak. Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.

“At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him,” reads the passage in Mark 5:30-36. “He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?”

“You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’ ”

The apostles, noted Fr. Giertych, believe Jesus must be crazy not to notice that all the crowd is touching him as he’s in the middle of the throng of people. “But Jesus says no,” the Dominican theologian continued. “She touched Jesus’s coat with her finger, but she touched his heart with her faith.” Jesus knows this, he said, because he says “power came out of me.”

What this means is that every time we make an act of faith, “the power of God comes out of God and fills us,” Fr. Giertych explained. He agrees that the initial act of faith comes from God, but it still requires a response from us. “The possibility of making the act of faith comes from God because faith is a grace,” he said, “but the lighting of the sparkplug is up to us. We make these acts of faith because we’ve been enabled by God to do this.”

Sometimes we only do it “once in a moment,” he said, “but the issue for the new evangelization is to learn how to make these acts of faith every day - when you’re preaching, when you’re teaching, when you’re praying, or engaged in a conversation with a difficult teenager who’s going through a difficult phase. In every situation before we open our mouths, we [need to] make an act of faith and believe that that faith has the power of touching God.”

Then, he said, “the spark plug is lit and the grace of God is then within us, and we can call as an ally to our conversations the Holy Spirit who is living in the hearts of those to whom we are speaking, or writing, or those who are listening to us as we’re speaking.”

Fr. Giertych, who is not participating in the current Synod of Bishops but observing from afar, said he believes “the novelty, the newness of the new evangelization doesn’t consist in some new technology.” Technology changes, he said, but the novelty “comes always from a new movement of the Holy Spirit that has been ignited every time that we make an act of faith.”

“We need to believe in the supernatural quality of the virtue of faith that has been given to us, as a tool, so that we can encounter God,” he reiterated. “Then there is a divine fecundity in what we do, the fruitfulness of grace.”Sometimes that might involve something very simple, such as saying “God loves you.”

But must all these acts be done with the conscious awareness of God ? “The act of faith is something that is conscious,” he said. “We cannot feel grace, but we can psychologically perceive the fact that we are making an act of faith and there are  situations where sometimes reason and emotions, the whole context, may suggest going against faith: To love our neighbour when our neighbour is difficult, we need to make an act of faith, to believe that God is here to invite the charity of the supernatural love of God into this difficult relationship, into this difficult situation.”

Moreover, Fr. Giertych stressed that as each person grows in faith, these acts of faith “become an almost spontaneous habit of inviting God into every situation.” But he stressed that each person “must learn that” through contemplative prayer and when kneeling in front of the Blessed Sacrament and “believing that he’s there.”

“It becomes a habit in the psychological sense of being sort of automatic, but in moments when we forget about this, we have to call ourselves back and make these acts of faith,” he said. “And that’s why this Year of Faith is great, because it reminds us we have to learn how to make these acts of faith and trust in the power of faith, which is a gift of God.”  

“Since the supernatural life is a life, and the internal dynamism of that life is the source of its growth, we should not think that, with our new techniques, ideas, words, new training or whatever, that we will bring life to the Church. We won’t,” he said. “The life of the Church is divine, and since it’s a divine life, life has within itself the dynamism for life, but it grows when we live out that life, when we live out that faith.”