Posted August 26, 2018
‘Many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him’ (John 6: 66).
People lose their faith for a variety of reasons. Some lose it as the result of some personal trauma, or as a result of witnessing the sufferings of a loved-one. How could God allow this? Where is that loving God I once believed in? It is doubly tragic when people lose their faith in such circumstances. When it happens, there can only be fellow-feeling and respect on our part, never blame. There is a gloom that can banish the light from the heart of any believer, and who is to say that it won’t be me and you?
Others lose their faith almost casually as they are growing up. This could be simply because they come to see their childhood religion as just that: part of their childhood. They grow out of it as you grow out of your school uniform and Santa Claus. Or it could be that they have been brought up in an environment that did not favour faith. The seeds fell among the brambles. Children grow up enveloped in materialism; often the spiritual side of life doesn’t get a look-in, either inside or outside the family.
One could continue the list of typical reasons why people lose their faith.
Conspicuous in that list today must be the widespread loss of faith caused by revulsion from the Church as institution. Who can ignore the fact? The BBC and the newspapers are full of it in their comments on the pope’s visit to Ireland. There are many, inside and outside the Catholic Church, who are saying: ‘The Church has lost all credibility.’ The abuse and injustice perpetrated by clergy and hierarchy and by many Catholic institutions, and the sinister cover-ups at all levels, have been endemic and hideous. ‘Pure evil’ is a phrase I heard recently from someone reflecting on what has happened in the recent and not-so-recent history of the Catholic Church in Ireland. But it is not just Ireland; it’s all over the world. Such phrases (‘pure evil’, ‘loss of all credibility’) are understandable. We do have to ask ourselves: What sense is there any more in claiming that the Church is the light of the nations? The only self-presentation of the Church that is now credible is the one given in St Matthew’s parable of the wheat-field invaded by darnel. ‘An enemy has done this’, the landowner said. At harvest time the wheat and the darnel are separated, and the darnel burnt. Or St Matthew’s parable of the dragnet. The net pulled in fishes of all sorts, good as well as bad, wholesome as well as noxious. The fishermen separate the good from the bad, and throw away the bad. The institutional Church is a wheat-field entangled with darnel; or a dragnet containing good and evil alike. That may not have been the Church’s favourite selfie over the centuries. But it is the truest one now. Many will lose their faith when they see the Church bereft of its luminosity. And we have to say, who can blame them? They were brought up to look for a Church placed on a lampstand to shine for everyone in the house. Now they see it’s not like that. And no amount of apologies or papal visits or calls for repentance is going to change that. Perhaps time will change things. There have been shameful periods in the Church’s history before, and somehow goodness shone through eventually. It takes centuries, though.
In the meantime, we need to look to ourselves. For all our justified anger and revulsion, we must not be uncritical of our own reactions. While we decry the Church’s fall from grace, we must not turn away from the genuine goodness that also exists in the Church, alongside the evil. If, in turning away from the institution, we also turn away from God, and from our personal love of Jesus, we must ask ourselves whether something culpable has happened inside us to cause us to make such a disproportionate move. Could it be that we never cared for goodness deeply enough to hang onto it at all costs? Could it be that we never really had a deep and genuine love for Jesus in the first place? Could it be, even, that people are turning away from the institution in order to claim respectability for evils of their own choosing? Can righteous anger at clerical abuse explain an overwhelming vote for abortion in a Catholic population without some mysterious third factor entering into the equation that has nothing to do with the abuse? That third factor scares me even more than the abuse. At least the violation of a child can only ever be called what it is: criminal abuse; but depriving an unborn child of life can now, by popular vote, be called exercising your ‘reproductive rights’. There is, surely, something of the devil in that.
We need to be honest with ourselves. There are cases where the real reason people say no to faith is not the defensible reason they want to claim, but some sinister, unacknowledged immorality on their part. It is shocking to hear St John say, elsewhere in his Gospel, that ‘people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil’. He is saying that people whose hearts are morally disordered shun the truth that otherwise they would be capable of embracing. While it would be absurd to suppose that everyone who lacks or relinquishes faith is morally disordered, it is certainly true that moral disorder does nothing for your ability to see the truth objectively. Sin blocks the mind once it has got hold of the will. We may persuade ourselves that our loss of faith is due to shocking behaviour on the part of people we trusted, or to some traumatic experience, or to our discovering that religion is at odds with scientific knowledge, or whatever, but in reality the real reason may be hidden in murky waters, and it is just possible that when we attribute our withdrawal from faith to some such factor, we are in reality looking for some means of rationalizing some fault within us – some sinful attachment, maybe, a refusal to come out of our comfort zone, the bandwagon effect, the itch for a new and specious freedom, or whatever. Underneath the surface reasons there may be reasons less capable of being dressed up as intellectual honesty.
Whatever happens in and to the Church, Jesus still confronts each of us in our conscience with the question he puts to Peter at the end of St John’s Gospel. ‘Peter, do you love me?’ Peter replied, ‘Yes, Lord, you know I love you.’ If we can say that, sincerely and truthfully, then faith is still there in its essence. But we have to be sure that we can say it, sincerely and truthfully.
An important lesson of this sermon is: Each of us must protect the faith that has been given to us, cherish it, purify it. Above all, we must nourish it with prayer. Faith will not survive without prayer, just as a marriage won’t survive without the spouses being together and fusing their souls. In both cases, neglect can destroy something very beautiful; and it can be culpable.
Stay close to Jesus, never leave him, even when your faith is being sorely challenged, for in challenging your faith, God may be calling you to a deeper and more authentic faith. Pray that when the question is put to you that was put to the twelve disciples, ‘Do you want to go too?’, you are ready to answer sincerely: ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.’
May this Eucharist inspire and strengthen us to make those words our own.
Fr Tom Deidun