On October 11 the Catholic Church entered into the "Year of Faith." For the next year Catholics are called to deepen their knowledge of and involvement in the faith in a special way, not simply for our own spiritual profit but also so that we may better witness it to the world at large.
While the Year of Faith is exciting to many, I also know that there are others who feel a bit lost. Perhaps you have been struggling just to make it to Sunday Mass (maybe you haven't even been in years), or you're simply a harried mom or dad who can't imagine fitting in one more thing on top of all your other responsibilities. You may be asking yourself, "This sounds great, but what can I practically do to enter in the Catholic faith more fully? Where do I even start?"
Pope Benedict XVI and our bishops have encouraged all Catholics to make an effort to read out of the Catechism and study the documents of the Second Vatican Council. (Did you realize that in just a few paragraphs a day you can read the entire Catechism within the year?) In addition to this, there are numerous ways to walk closer with Jesus and become more passionate, more authentic and more informed in our "ever ancient, ever new" faith!
Some of them are very simple. You can start today without spending a cent or leaving your home.
Some of them require greater sacrifice, and may be uncomfortable or intimidating at first glance. They may cost you some time, some money, or both.
Choose what you think is most realistic for you to faithfully commit to at this season in your life and then do it, keeping in mind St. Paul's encouragement that "the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us!"
Here we go:
1. Attend a daily Mass during the week
Or start going back to church on Sundays. Wherever you are in your Mass attendance, take this opportunity to increase it! If the source and summit of the Christian faith is the Eucharist (CC 1324, 1327) then one of the best ways to mark the Year of Faith is by frequenting the Sacrament more often. Even if you cannot receive due to sin or circumstance, there are many benefits to be had simply by sitting in His presence and participating in the liturgy.
2. Become acquainted with a new Saint
Maybe you know a lot about St. Therese of Lisieux or St. Francis of Assisi, but what have you heard of St. Nicholas of Flue (he left his wife and 10 kids - with their permission - to become a hermit; it is said he lived his last 19 years on nothing but the Eucharist), St. Catherine of Genoa (she was married to an abusive, unfaithful and spendthrift husband; their union never produced children and she struggled for years with depression and spiritual apathy before undergoing spiritual conversion), or St. Margaret of Cortona (young and beautiful, she lived with a man for nine years and had a child with him out of wedlock before radically amending her life - though she still underwent strong temptations to the worldly life)?
St. Philip Neri said, "Reading the lives of the Saints is a great means to preserve piety." Take time this year to explore some of the Church's great examples of faith, especially those that are unfamiliar to you. They are a rich source of inspiration!
For further reading:
Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales (*I highly recommend this, as it is practical and easy to understand)
Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila
The Confessions of St. Augustine by St. Augustine
Diary: Divine Mercy in My Soul by St. Maria Faustina Kowalska
Story of a Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux
The Dialogue by St. Catherine of Siena
Purgation and Purgatory, The Spiritual Dialogue by St. Catherine of Genoa
Summa Theologica (Concise Version) by St. Thomas Aquinas
3. Share the faith with others
Our faith calls us to proclaim Christ to all peoples (Blessed Pope John Paul II called it our "supreme duty"). However, I think many Catholics hear the word "evangelize" and get visions of roaming the streets inviting random strangers to Mass or standing on the corner handing out pamphlets and warning about eternal damnation! Naturally, this is a bit...terrifying.
Happily, we can choose different and more effective methods.
First, use social media. If you can post status updates about what your child did to your kitchen or the tailgate food you're eating, you can also mention going to Mass, what you're doing on All Saint's Day and the Scripture passage you just heard on the radio that touched you. Did you read a well-researched article on the reasons why the Church believes Jesus is fully present in the Eucharist? Share it on your Facebook page with a friendly comment about what you found particularly insightful. Tweet about your favorite Catholic iPhone apps. Share a fun Catholic joke. Simply put, let others know you are Catholic and it is relevant to your life!
Second, consider starting a blog. You don't need much computer savvy to begin one, and there are many free providers (blogger.com being quite popular). A blog can be used in a variety of ways to share your faith. For instance, you can post primarily about Catholic topics, offering explanations and reflections on the Church's teachings, or you can simply write about your life and demonstrate how you live your Catholicism through the every day moments. Both are useful and both are needed! With almost 2 billion people using the internet worldwide, a blog is an incredibly easy way to give witness to the Catholic faith.
Third, invite someone to Mass. Of the lapsed Catholics who have come back to a full participation in the faith, the majority testify that they returned simply because someone asked them whether they wanted join them at Mass one Sunday. Most of us, unfortunately, know somebody who was "once Catholic." Why not casually ask them if they'd like to go to a Mass with you? Easter, Christmas and other major feast days are perfect excuses to invite people who aren't regular church-goers to attend a service. Or, perhaps you go to daily Mass down the street from your workplace -- ask your co-worker before you leave next time whether they'd like to see what it's like and suggest going to lunch afterward. You may be surprised at people's receptivity!
4. Volunteer for RCIA or Religious Ed
In the 1859 apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Wisconsin, she stressed the importance of instructing the people in the basics of the faith (particularly the children). In my opinion and the opinion of many much more spiritually astute than I, much of what is troubling the North American Church today is directly due to a lack of solid catechesis - at home, in the parish and in the Catholic schools.
To be effective, we must all be part of the solution in turning the tide so that our children - and new converts - fully understand and can authentically practice the faith.
If you have the time in your evenings or weekends, this may the perfect time to volunteer for your parish religious education classes ("Sunday School") or RCIA classes. These important ministries of the Church are almost entirely volunteer-driven and their success depends on the generosity of regular Catholics like you and me. I know it's easy to complain about the sub-par instruction our children or converts sometimes receive, but few want to actually get in there and be part of the change. Keep in mind that it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.
However, if you are in the season of life where you're knee deep in maternity clothes, diapers and toddlers, this won't be feasible for you. Instead, use this year to purposefully teach your children about the beliefs, prayers and practices of the Church. This need not be an exercise in drudgery (in fact, I recommend it not be)! For babies and toddlers simply say the Our Father and Hail Mary with them each night as you lay them in bed, gently moving their hands to make the Sign of the Cross (if they won't shriek, that is...).
Preschoolers and kindergarteners will enjoy learning the facts of the faith through catchy songs and rhymes, and they love memorizing so don't hesitate to teach them some new prayers to add to their daily repertoire.
For older kids make it fun by writing topics on pieces of paper, placing them in a jar, and randomly drawing one to discuss at the dinner table.
5. Celebrate the liturgical year
Almost every day in the Catholic Church is a reason to celebrate! As a convert from Fundamentalist Protestantism, where even the seasons of Christmas and Easter were marked with relative brevity, this came as a significantly pleasant shock.
If you were blessed to be raised in an actively Catholic family, celebrating the liturgical year probably comes as second nature to you. If so, wonderful! For those of us that haven't had that formation, now is the time to start!
An easy way to begin is by having a special dinner on the feast day of the saint after whom you were named (or your patron saint). If you were never given a Christian name or you don't have a patron saint, simply choose a saint you especially admire and celebrate their feast day. If they lived in Italy, have an Italian-themed meal. If you know their favorite food, include it in your menu. Read up about their particular spiritual practices and do them yourself (perhaps they were especially devoted to praying the Rosary, feeding the hungry, or frequenting the sacrament of confession).
Make soul cakes on All Hallow's Eve. Pray the Litany of the Saints and, if you have kids, do a fun craft on All Saint's Day. Visit a cemetery on All Soul's Day. By marking the liturgical year, your faith will be enriched (and besides, it's just a lot of good fun).
6. Try out a new devotion
As humans we have a natural tendency to get stuck in our habits -- and then we lament that we never seem to go anywhere or do anything different! In our spiritual life sometimes we just need to do something new in order for our faith to expand and develop. How is God calling you to refresh and revitalize your relationship with Him?
- Learn the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, the Chaplet of the Seven Dolors of Our Lady or the Chaplet of St. Michael the Archangel
- Wear a scapular
- Pray the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary
- Meditate on the Stations of the Cross
- Wear a chapel veil to Mass (women only)
- Regularly spend an hour with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament
- Consecrate yourself and your family to the Sacred Heart of Jesus
7. Step out of your comfort zone
Building on the theme of breaking out of old ruts, there are some very little yet significant things we can change about our lives to get us to stop being so darn comfortable and apathetic with our faith.
Do you hide in the back of the Church? Start sitting front and center!
Do you go to confession two or three times per year? Start going every month!
Do you always drop the standard ten percent into the collection basket? Try adding just five or ten more dollars!
Do you rush through the communion line and barely lower your head in respect before you receive Jesus in the Eucharist? Take a real bow next time! Better yet, genuflect.
Do you get to Mass right before the opening hymn and leave before the priest has even made his way down the aisle? Start coming ten minutes early. Pray! Take a moment after Mass has ended to kneel back down and say a silent prayer of thanksgiving and adoration. Go have the coffee and rolls with the other parishioners. Chat with the new couple that just joined the Church last Easter.
And Jesus rebuked him, and the devil went out of him, and the child was cured from that hour. Then came the disciples to Jesus secretly, and said: Why could not we cast him out? Jesus said to them: Because of your unbelief. For, amen I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain: Remove from hence hither, and it shall remove: and nothing shall be impossible to you. But this kind is not cast out but by prayer and fasting. (Matthew 17:17-20)
There are some demons in our personal lives and our world at large that are too big for us, with our often meager faith, to "cast out." We struggle and work tirelessly on our own to try to cure the ills we see around us, but nothing happens because we do not pray and we definitely do not fast. Prayer and fasting increases our faith and, as we see so clearly in the Scriptures, God's response is measured according to that faith! Jesus could do very little for the people who had no faith in him, but for those who believed he wrought life-altering miracles.
For the next year, take up fasting and see what it does for your faith. Some specific issues to fast about may include:
- religious freedom
- health care
- domestic violence
- child abuse
- specific personal intention (troubled marriage, conversion of a friend or family member, infertility, etc.)
9. Read a defense of the faith
In 1 Peter 3:15 it is written, "in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you."
In an increasingly secular culture that also includes over 30,000 different Christian denominations, it is imperative now more than ever that as Catholics we are prepared to give intelligent, respectful reasons for the beliefs we hold. Furthermore, two of the seven spiritual works of mercy in the Church are to instruct the ignorant and counsel the doubtful. How can we do that if we ourselves are the ignorant and doubtful?
Fortunately, the Church has no shortage of outstanding apologetic books, audio and video that explain her teachings. Pick at least one and educate yourself so that you will be ready, in season and out of season, to defend the Faith you profess.
- Catholicism (DVD) by Fr. Robert Barron
- The Catholic Controversy by St. Francis de Sales
- If Protestantism is True: The Reformation Meets Rome by Devin Rose
- The Fathers Know Best by Jimmy Akin
- Where We Got the Bible by Henry G. Graham
- Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on "Romanism" by "Bible Christians" by Karl Keating
- By What Authority? an Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition by Mark Shea
- Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper by Brant Pitre
- The Lamb's Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth by Scott Hahn
- How The Catholic Church Built Western Civilization by Thomas E. Woods
Another excellent plan of action is to research and familiarize yourself with the Church's stance behind the current "hot topics" of the day: homosexual marriage, religious freedom, birth control, abortion and immigration.
10. Demonstrate your faith with deeds
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?...Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:14,20-24)
Is your faith on life-support? Scripture tells us plainly that faith without works is dead. We are not called to a life of going to church on Sundays and six other days of spending our time with our feet kicked up on the couch watching sitcoms and spending our money at the outlet mall.
No, to truly live out our faith we must do more. Much more. Our lives must be in service to others and not merely about our comfort, recreation and entertainment. As Blessed Mother Teresa said, "When a poor person dies of hunger, it has not happened because God did not take care of him or her. It has happened because neither you nor I wanted to give that person what he or she needed."
What are the needs of your parish? Of your neighbors? Of your relatives? Of your town? Who is it that God needs you to help right now?
The Year of Faith is the time to begin doing unto others what you would do unto Jesus if he walked this earth today. Volunteer your companionship and a listening ear, give away some of your clothes and donate some of your food.
Above all, do not be discouraged if the deeds you can offer seem very small and insignificant. Take up St. Therese of Lisieux as your model, who, while a cloistered Carmelite nun, wrote: "I prefer the monotony of obscure sacrifice to all ecstasies. To pick up a pin for love can convert a soul."
Please do share with me what you are planning to do to mark the Year of Faith - I would love to hear some other ideas!
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