In our Gospel this weekend, Jesus asks questions as to who people think He is. This is not because He has an identity crisis. It is not a vox pop by way of a personal survey or opinion poll. Our Lord is using the technique to point out to the disciples how we come to really know Who Jesus is. Wouldn’t people know Him from His words and miracles? Well, the people who have heard Him and seen His miracles such as healings and feeding the five thousand, still think of Jesus in terms of John the Baptist or the prophets Elijah, or Jeremiah. It seems the Lord’s words and actions are not enough to create a true understanding of His identity.
Our Lord’s second enquiry is addressed to the disciples as to who they think He is? After all, they have been the closest to Him and have walked with Him, are very familiar with His teaching and preaching and have seen all His miracles. Surely they will understand? Yet, they hesitate, they are deep in thought. It is Simon who speaks out: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”. It is a good answer. Jesus is pleased. Jesus points out that Peter can say what he has said because he has been given help from above. He has received grace from God the Father through the Holy Spirit to identify Jesus. Without the grace, Peter would have been as silent as the others in response to Jesus’ enquiry. The lesson is clear: the Word of God and seeing miracles can point us to Jesus and indeed inspire us, but only God can give the grace of faith. Faith is a gift from above, we can’t demand it, it is freely bestowed by our loving God.
This Gospel causes me to wonder how I came to be as I am. I am priest, a servant of the Lord entrusted with the care of souls. But before this I was a Catholic layperson. I was a Catholic layperson because my parents had me baptised. Baptism made me sacramentally a Catholic Christian but it didn’t guarantee I would believe in Jesus. My saintly parents were devout Catholics. I was reared in a home of love and faith nurture with my three brothers. But my parents, for all their wonderful example could not guarantee I would identify Jesus as my Lord and be faithful to Him. Bless them they had done their best. They had created the conditions that encourage faith, the environment that exposed me to the living faith in others, indeed in themselves. I saw the joy and peace faith brought to them. No doubt, I had a wonderful start. But at some point, maybe incrementally, I was given the necessary grace from above, just like Peter, to believe. Without the gift of grace given from above I would not be here among you today.
I remember a conversation I had with Andy, a teenage boy, when I was chaplain to his high school. He was about to leave and go to college for further studies. He wanted me to help him. He said that he was feeling very insecure and a little in dread of what lay ahead. He was about to leave the system that had been his support from when he was a small child. He was leaving his family home, the Catholic school that he was familiar with and his friends, many of whom had been with him from primary days. He was now entering unfamiliar territory and he felt he was missing one essential. This essential was faith. He said he felt he had been carried by the faith of others. He had benefited from his parent’s strong belief and the qualities God had given them and the home they had given him. From his teachers whose concern had supported him and by his friends who believed and helped him to keep going to Mass when many others of his age never bothered. This support would soon no longer be there for him on a daily basis. He thought he was a believer, but it was the faith fabric/support of his relationships carrying him forward. He asked me help him to have a faith of his own; he had been carried too long by the faith of others. I told him, God would be very pleased by his realization and that it was never too late. I told Andy, faith is a gift. Jesus wasn’t out bending anyone’s arm, a person had to ask for the gift and pray God would give it. We both agreed to get down to work and pray he would be given the gift of faith. You ask: “In the short time span, did Andy come to a full mature faith?” Hard to quantify. But I am sure the ice had been broken, Andy had a made a good start. We continued to chat. Over the weeks I sensed a growing peace and confidence which were obviously absent in Andy when we first spoke. His teachers saw the change too. By the time it came for him to leave, Andy told me he felt God had helped him and he could move on with a confidence he had hitherto lacked. I do not feel God did a rush job on Andy. But I felt he had the hallmarks of a believer. Jesus was real for Andy in a way He never was before. He felt he could talk to the Lord in prayer and share his story. I was in no doubt that Andy had established a personal relationship with Jesus. For Him, the Lord was no longer someone else’s friend, now He was Andy’s too and they were growing closer to each other. I was very pleased and gratified when Andy wrote to me from his college, telling me he had joined the Catholic chaplaincy. He had made new, sound friendships and was going to Mass regularly. I sometimes wonder how Andy is doing and say a prayer for him. Something tells me that God and Andy are still the best of friends.
Today’s Gospel reminds us how blessed we are to have been give the gift of our Catholic faith. Everything that really matters in life is gift. I am sure, God could have made someone who would do a better job with opportunities given in my life, but he didn’t make that other person, he knew the mistakes I would make and He still made me. He could have given the gift of faith to someone who would be a much better Christian than me, but he decided to give it to me. As little Jimmy wrote in his RE copybook, “God made me and He don’t make rubbish”. (Jimmy’s English) Well, little Jimmy, He also called, you know Him and love Him and He doesn’t make mistakes.
I remember one of my priest friends having a crisis of faith. He told us he had woken up one morning and wasn’t sure he believed any more. A big issue indeed. We wouldn’t let him panic. We steadied him and encouraged him. As he recovered faith, he told us he realized he had taken a lot for granted. He had assumed, particularly as a priest, the Lord would just keep sending down a regular and sufficient supply of faith. Like faith was on a standing order! Our friend began to ask God, on a regular basis throughout the day, to give him faith. It took a while and a lot of prayer and support, but, thank God, he got there. It was salutary lesson to us his brother priests to not live on assumptions but to ask the Lord each day for faith fit for purpose. I think we all learned from our friend’s experience. None of us wanted to feel as he felt. Our friend’s crisis helped his brother priests to wake up a little. It is indeed an ill wind that doesn’t do some good; it did a great deal of good for us.
This is a day to rejoice in God’s choice. To praise and thank the Lord for His goodness and His most wonderful gift of Christian faith. Let us not let a day go by without thanking God for choosing us to know, love and serve Him; for being in receipt of His blessings especially the Holy Mass and the gift of His Mercy. On one occasion in the Gospel, only one leper out of the ten that were healed came back to say “Thank you” to Jesus. Repayment to God for His generosity would be quite beyond us. But, like the thankful leper, gratitude articulated and deeply felt goes a long way in God’s eyes. Let us make sure we take every opportunity to express our thanks. We can never show too much gratitude, but we can show too little. A cavalry officer prior to a battle in the English Civil War prayed: “I will be busy this day, Lord. I may forget Thee, I pray Thee will not forget me”. Please, take nothing for granted. Remember the magic words….
Fr. Gerard X