23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)
Every week an abundantly rich reflection on the coming Sunday’s readings arrives in my inbox from the faculty of Catholic Theological Union (CTU).
As an alumnus of CTU I appreciate the opportunity to read the words of my professors with whom I spent many years studying and whose wisdom continues to pervade my theology. As I read, I hear their voices and recall their scholarly encouragement (and the readings, and papers, and lectures, of course). Just as often the reflection comes from a professor or faculty member with whom I never studied. This week was one of those times.
This writer’s words touched me so deeply I requested his permission to post it here for the readers of The Good Disciple. The author is Fr. Mark Francis, CSV, the president CTU. His writing hit home with me, I explained, because even while I am one who studies and writes about the meaning of discipleship, and who strives to embrace the body of Christ in all I do, I find the more deeply I wade into the waters of faith the louder my doubts become, clamoring for my attention. Clearly, crises of faith are to be expected, for why would doubts arise if our faith was not challenging us to rise above them?
Fr. Mark opens his reflection with remarks about Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who will be canonized today, and delves into what it means to remain despite “the impossibility of faith.” She and all of the saintly doubters who came before her should give us reason to reach higher, to continue to move beyond the messy feelings that our doubts stir in us.
By Fr. Mark Francis, CSV
This Sunday Mother Teresa will be canonized and very few doubt her holiness. But in light of this canonization I think it is important to note that for many years this saint experienced a real crisis of faith. In a collection of her letters Mother Teresa: Be My Light, compiled by her spiritual director, we read that after founding the Missionaries of Charity, she had doubts about the existence of God, about the soul and therefore the promises of Jesus – and heaven. This revelation has been received in a variety of ways. In an extensive article in Newsweek published by the late journalist and atheist Christopher Hitchens, he criticized her as being an over-promoted religious celebrity. He also contended that Mother Teresa’s doubts made complete sense because the Catholic faith is based on asking people to believe “impossible things.”
While I was never a great fan of Mr. Hitchens – who seems to have become somewhat of an over promoted anti-religious celebrity himself – (his book God is not Great was a scathing screed against any kind of religious faith), I think he may be on to something. The Catholic faith does ask us to believe impossible things – or at least things that are impossible from a certain point of view. The fact that Mother Teresa doubted God’s existence may rattle some people, but anyone who has a mature faith has experienced similar moments of doubt and despair – when God’s presence just seems absent. St. John of the Cross described it as the “dark night of the soul,” Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict, XVI, in his book Introduction to Christianity speaks of all of us being constantly inhabited by both faith and doubt. Flannery O’Connor, the great American Catholic writer, criticized glib ideas regarding what the faith is all about. She wrote, “most people believe that faith is a big electric blanket, when it is of course the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe.”
Our readings today seem to underscore the “impossibility” of faith. Jesus speaks about discipleship – following him. This involves three very hard, if not impossible, things to do: prefer Jesus to one’s family, carry your cross, and renounce your possessions. How unreasonable. How impossible. Once again the Gospel turns the world-common sense – on its head. This is not normal behavior especially in the Middle East of Jesus’ day when one’s family was the only real support one had. To prefer Jesus to them (to hate family is the Semitism used) would leave you completely exposed and vulnerable – and you would be forced to depend not on them – but on God. The same is true of renouncing possessions…security and comfort all go out the window.
And then there is the case presented in our second reading. Paul’s letter to Philemon over the slave Onesimus also reveals this same “turn the world on its head” attitude. To appreciate what’s going here is that Onesimus is with Paul not because he is a runaway slave, but availing himself of a stipulation in Roman law called amicus magistri (friend of the master). He has felt himself mistreated by Philemon, and has gone to Paul who is in prison in order to intercede for him. While with Paul, Onesimus becomes a Christian. And now Paul is asking Philemon to do the impossible – accept Onesimus back not as a slave, but as a brother in the Lord. How unrealistic, how impossible.
So, Mr. Hitchens appears to have been correct. We are called upon to believe and to act on the impossible things we believe. That God will somehow provide for us. That we are all equally loved and cherished by God as brothers and sisters in Christ. That a little nun, who after starting a work in the slums of Calcutta, and after struggling with faith all her life, is being canonized and that her work with the poor has grown to almost 5,000 sisters in 14 countries. How impossible all of this sounds. But that’s the point. Mother Teresa, despite her tests of faith, took up the cross and was faithful – and was able to accomplish the impossible.
We are called to do these same impossible things in our own way, in our own time, despite doubt and despite a lack of clarity: to take up our cross out of love…in order to bring the presence of Jesus into our world.
Mark Francis, CSV
Published September 4, 2016. © Copyright 2016 Catholic Theological Union. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with the author’s permission.
“Catholic Theological Union is a Roman Catholic graduate school of theology and ministry serving both vowed religious and lay women and men. The mission of Catholic Theological Union is to prepare effective leaders for the Church, ready to witness to Christ’s good news of justice, love, and peace.” —Catholic Theological Union Mission Statement
My relationship with Catholic Theological Union continues to be a source of intellectual, theological and spiritual inspiration, and for that I am grateful. To learn more about degree programs offered at CTU, visit www.ctu.edu.
Image: Mother Teresa at age 77, 1979 Nobel Peace Prize winner praying during dedication ceremonies at her 400th world wide mission to care for the poor.