Sunday October 21, 2001 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Twenty-ninth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Exodus 17:8-13) Reading II (2 Timothy 3:14-4:2)
Gospel (St. Luke 18:1-8)
At the end of the Gospel reading today, we have a question that the Lord poses which strikes to the very core of our being. It is one of those haunting kind of questions: "When the Son of Man returns, will He find faith on earth?" Now, we look around and we can see that people come to Mass. Over the last month or so, we have seen "God Bless America" all over the place; God has suddenly made a return to the media without any kind of apology even. We would look at that and say, "Well, how could such a question even be asked? Of course people have faith."
But I think we need to look at the context, and look a little bit beyond it - beyond the question of asking, "Does somebody have just a generic belief in Jesus?" You see, this is one of the areas of difference between Catholics and non-Catholic Christians. The non-Catholic Christian would say all that is necessary is what Martin Luther called "fiducial faith". Fiducial faith means just that kind of confident feeling that Jesus died for me, therefore, I am going to Heaven. "You do not need anything beyond that; that is all that is necessary to be saved," they would say. The Catholic Church rejects that outright. There are lots and lots of Catholics who have fiducial faith: a general belief that Jesus is there. "I believe He is God, but what does it mean to me? Do I act on it? Does it make any difference in my life?" I suspect if we were honest we would have to say, for the most part, that the answer is 'no'; it really does not make that much difference in our lives. It means we get out of bed on Sunday morning and come to Mass, but the rest of the week: Where is the Lord?
The Lord talked to His disciples about the necessity of praying always and never losing heart. One of the difficulties in our society, and this is part of Satan's genius in the way that he has worked here in America, is that we live in a very sensual society. Consequently, most Americans suffer from sensuality. The difficulty of that is that sensuality seeks the pleasure of the senses, seeks the comforts and the ease. Consequently, when something is different or it is difficult, we tend to give up very quickly because the senses are not getting the gratification that they want.
We look at the first reading, for instance, and we see Moses as an old man climbing up a mountain, along with Aaron and Hur. God has told Moses that he is to climb that mountain and take the staff in his hand - the staff that he used when he hit the Red Sea, the staff that he threw down on the steps and turned into a snake and so on - he is to take that staff with him and, holding the staff in his hands, he is to raise his arms, and in that way to bless the people of Israel. Moses realized that as long as his arms were up with the staff in his hand, Israel had the better of the battle. But when his arms got tired and he put them down to rest, Amalek had the better of the battle. Finally, Aaron and Hur took a rock and put it underneath Moses for him to sit on and then held his hands up until sunset.
Now, if you stop and ponder that for just a few seconds, you will be able to understand that this was not an easy task. First of all, just try to hold your arms straight out for ten minutes. And then put a staff in your hand, a walking staff, and hold that up. Try to do that for five minutes. You will begin to see the difficulty for Moses to sit there from morning until sunset with his hands raised in the air.
And you begin to understand that in the prayer life, in the spiritual life, things are not always easy. In fact, sometimes they are going to require an awful lot of difficulty and even some pain. God will look at us and He will say, "Look at the areas of sin in your life." We need to get rid of them. Most of us, of course, will recognize that, yes, we do need to get rid of them. But we are not willing to do what it requires to get rid of them because that will require self-denial, that will require some pain, that will require some difficulty. It will be like sitting there with our arms held aloft from morning until night. Imagine what Moses' shoulders felt like the next morning when he woke up. He probably could not lift his arms because they would be stiff, and probably for several days thereafter. Americans look at something like that and say, "I don't think so. It is probably easier just to leave the sin there than to deal with what is going to be required to get rid of it."
But even beyond that, we can ask the question that Our Lord talked about in the Gospel: If you pray for justice, do you think that God is going to be slow in answering that prayer? Now, most of us would immediately chime in and say, "It is pretty obvious from my life that God is very slow in answering these prayers because it seems to take years, sometimes, before it is finally answered." We could ask ourselves why. First of all, we have to understand that God does allow some injustices in our lives in order to bring about virtue because, sometimes, that is the only way it is going to grow: when it is difficult and we have to keep doing what is right, even in the face of some of the pain, injustices, and difficulties in our lives. God asks us to practice virtue even when it is very difficult. And so, sometimes, He does not straighten up the situation for quite a while because we have not really learned entirely what we need to from the situation. He allows it to sit, sometimes for many years, until finally we have been able to overcome the effects of the difficulty and practice virtue. Then, when it does not matter to us anymore, He will straighten it up.
But there are other things that we pray for. Parents pray for their children to come back to the Church; that goes on for years and years and it seems to be unanswered. Sometimes a spouse abandons the family and the faithful spouse continues to pray for the unfaithful spouse. There are difficulties of spouses with alcohol problems or children with drug problems, our own health issues or different problems that friends have. How many difficulties we face! It seems, sometimes, that the prayer goes unanswered.
I am reminded of the young priest who came to Saint John Vianney. Remember, when Saint John Vianney came to Ars there were only a few families that even came to Mass on Sunday; faith was completely lukewarm at best, nonexistent for the most part. This young priest had taken over a similar parish and after he had been there for some period of time he came to the saint of Ars. He was very frustrated because nothing seemed to be happening and he said to Saint John Vianney, "I do not understand what the problem is. I preach the Gospel truth every week; I have cleaned up the liturgical problems; I am hearing the confessions of the people, but they are not coming anyway; I am trying my best; I am giving them the right stuff; I am trying to do the right things - and nothing is happening." Saint John Vianney looked at him and said, "You are not fasting enough. You need to practice more self-denial. You need to die to your self for the sake of the people."
I hear this over and over from people in the confessional and people who talk to me about the struggles in their lives. They will tell me that they try to fast and it lasts about half a day; then the hunger pangs take over and, well, a sandwich sounds a little better than fasting. Or they give something up. But anytime that we are going to try to give something up, as soon as we decide to give it up, we have never wanted it more. (Of course, we have all experienced that; we experience it during Lent.) Suddenly, we have these incredible desires for this thing that we have decided to give up; they overtake us and we fall flat on our face. Our good intention in giving something up or taking on some penance (or whatever it may be) seems to falter very quickly.
That is where the trouble with sensuality comes in. When it becomes even slightly inconvenient, we give up because we are so accustomed to all the comforts and all the ease and all the joy and having all of our desires met that we do not know how to live without those things. When they are not there, we give up very quickly. So we need to look at what Saint Paul says in the second reading: He tells Timothy to hold fast and to proclaim the Gospel whether it is convenient or inconvenient. Not just when it is easy, not just when it feels good, not just when you have a group of Catholic friends who agree with you over for dinner and you can talk about your faith and enjoy the evening immensely. That is convenient; that does not require anything. But when it is not convenient, that is when we need to put it into practice. That is when we need to come back to that question of the Lord: How much faith really is there?
It is not about plastering "God Bless America" up on some marquee. It is about living the faith. A month ago, I stood in this pulpit and I told you straight out that if the people of America do not make some changes we are going to see many worse things happen than what we have already seen. The only change is that God's name gets plastered all over things, but very few have changed their actions. In fact, I found it a rather astounding thing, as somebody pointed out an article to me in a paper this week where a woman was writing using the events of September 11 - and I had talked about how if we do not stop killing our babies that things are only going to get worse - this woman wrote an article about the real terrorists in America: the anti-abortion terrorists. I thought, "Look at the way that they twist this. They are killing babies and saying that the people who are trying to stop it are the real terrorists in America." You see the twisted logic and you see the total lack of faith. These are the same people who will say, "God Bless America, but let's go after these anti-abortion terrorists." You see the way things get twisted.
So, again, we need to go back to Saint Paul and we see that he tells us that everything is there for us. He said, "Hold fast to the faith that you have received." You have learned the fullness of truth. The Catholic Faith is the fullness of truth. Everything is there for you, absolutely everything. Now, of course, that means we need to learn it. Once again, that may be a little bit inconvenient for some of us. It might not always feel real good to spend some time every day studying our faith. Then he goes on to tell Timothy that he has known the Scripture since his infancy and that all Scripture is inspired by God, that it is good for teaching and for reproof and for refuting. So we need to know the Scriptures, and we need to know them well. Once again, it may be a little inconvenient because it might be more fun to read a mystery novel than to read the Scriptures. We let the Scriptures sit because we prefer to watch TV or read something that is more exciting to us. Sensuality strikes again. Saint Paul tells Timothy that with the Faith and with the Scriptures that he has, he must teach, he must challenge, he must refute - all of these things, even when it is inconvenient.
When most of us see that, we shy away. In fact, we probably run rather quickly the other direction because we do not like the way it sounds. Faith when it is easy - fiducial faith - that is kind of fun. "Just believe in Jesus, everything is alright." We know that is nonsense. We know it does not hold water. But we prefer to believe in that than to believe in what we have to really live, if we profess our faith. And so that question of the Lord must be a haunting question for us. But it is a challenge to us to pray always and never grow weary, to put our faith into practice. Saint Paul tells us that we are equipped for every good work - every good work. We have the Faith and we have the Scriptures; we are lacking nothing. We have the Holy Spirit; we have Christ; we have the Eucharist; we have grace; we have everything that we need - except the will, oftentimes.
We need to pray earnestly to God to strip us of the sensuality so that we can put our faith into practice, even when it is inconvenient; so that we are willing to continue in our good works, even when we are rejected, even when it hurts, even when it is very painful. Because if we do not, and if we do not do it very quickly, as things continue to regress in this society and in this world, as the evil begins to grow even more quickly than it has and things that we are accustomed to relying on are pulled out from underneath us, you are going to watch people walk away from God and the signs saying "God Bless America" will come down very quickly because their faith is only as deep as their skin. God wants our faith to be as deep as our soul, to the very core of our being. Keep that question of Our Lord in mind and let it haunt in the depths of your being: "When the Son of Man returns, will He find any faith on earth?"
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.