Picking up my youngest daughter from kindergarten at our local Catholic school one spring afternoon several years back, I experienced one of those moments that shifted, even just slightly, my understanding and appreciation of our faith.
Once released from the dismissal line, Catie dashed to the car with an art paper in her hand, clearly excited.
"I know what this Sunday is!" she announced as she jumped in.
"Really?" I responded, only half paying attention as I pulled out of the school parking lot.
"Yep," she said. "It's pom-pom Sunday."
"You mean Palm Sunday," I corrected.
"No, pom-pom Sunday because all the followers of Jesus cheered for him on his way to Jerusalem. And he got to ride a pony!"
Sure enough, the picture that she showed me when we got home was of Jesus sitting on a pony/donkey with all the people standing along the side of the road waving red and yellow pom-poms, vestiges of the maroon and gold pom-poms she'd gotten at a Boston College women's basketball game, no doubt.
I was right, of course, it was Palm Sunday. But Catie was right as well in that she caught the essence of that event. From that day forward, I have entered into the celebration of Palm Sunday with a renewed appreciation for the energy and vitality of that day. This has made the events of Holy Week more poignant and the celebration of Easter more triumphant. My own growing in faith often happens in simple interchanges like this one with my daughter.
Faith Beyond Belief
To speak about faith we need to consider two interrelated realities. The first is the "faith which we believe"; this can often by summed up by terms like "Church teaching" or "the tradition." At the conclusion of the profession of faith in the Rite of Baptism are the words: "This is our faith. This is the faith of the Church. We are proud to profess it in Christ Jesus our Lord." When we use faith in this sense, we are referring to the statements or propositions that give expression to our deepest commitments about the nature of God and God's relationship with human beings. Here the word faith is interchangeable with beliefs.
The other meaning of faith comes into play when we speak of "a person of deep faith." Here we refer not to beliefs alone, but to the perspective a person has on God, self, and others. Faith in this sense points to a way of life or a way of seeing and being in the world. Often when we refer to a growing or developing faith, this is the sense of faith we mean. To attend to faith in this sense, we need to examine the various dynamics that enhance our knowledge and understanding of the faith (as beliefs) as well as the power of faith (as way of life) to influence, shape, and direct our lives.
Setting the Context
The end of the 20th century marked a number of significant shifts in the way that we think about and engage in the process of growing in faith. These reflected the vision embodied in the writing of Vatican Council II and by the social, cultural, and ecclesial factors that influenced those who convened in Rome for the Council's deliberation each autumn from 1962 through 1965. It is beyond this essay to even briefly examine the theological and pastoral themes of Vatican II; my aim here is simply to name two of the significant theological/ecclesiological shifts that are constitutive to the vision and writings of the Council and then to draw out the implications for fostering faith.
Role of Human Experience in "Knowing" God
The renewal in theology that was taking place during the middle decades of the 20th century served as a foundation for deliberations at the Council. Of particular influence were the writings of Karl Rahner, S.J., especially his understanding of revelation. Simply put, the question is this: How do we come to know God?
On the one hand, we can speak of knowing God in cognitive, often propositional terms. Here the focus is on divinely revealed truths that are conveyed through scripture and tradition. While this is an essential component of a contemporary understanding of revelation, to focus exclusively on this leads to a narrowing of the scope of God's revealing action to only what can be put into words.
On the other hand, we can speak of knowing God through our human experience -- through creation, through relationships, through being human in the world. There are dangers in overemphasizing this dimension of revelation as well; a believer's personal experience of God needs always to be interpreted through the lens of the understanding of God's presence as testified to in scripture and tradition. Developing from the writings of Vatican II has come a renewed recognition of the complementarity of these two dimensions of revelation, and a re-appreciation of the human dimension that has, at times in our history, been neglected.