Fifty years ago, on October 11, 1962, Blessed Pope John XXIII formally opened the Second Vatican Council. The Holy Father called for the Council because he believed that the Holy Spirit wanted the Church to open its doors to the world.
He decided that the time had come for the Church to speak directly to the modern world, offering it the gospel message of hope and peace.
Over the fifty years since the Council, John XXIII’s successors have taken up the call of Vatican II in many different ways. Things like changes to our liturgy, an increase in lay participation in the Church, and the tradition of World Youth Day have all flowed directly from the Council. One result that often gets overlooked, however, is the number of special “years” that the Church has celebrated. Pope Paul VI called for a Year of Faith in 1967 to commemorate the martyrdom of the apostles Peter and Paul. Among others, Pope John Paul II dedicated 1987 as a Marian Year and 2004 as a Eucharistic Year. Similarly, Pope Benedict XVI dedicated 2008 to St. Paul and 2009 as a Year for Priests.
Each of these years—and the many others like them—drew inspiration and direction from the teachings of Vatican II. They were all seen as ways to shed further light on the Council’s documents and to show us practical ways that we can live them out. And now, Benedict XVI has called for another year. Last October, the Holy Father issued an apostolic letter entitled Porta Fidei (The Door of Faith), in which he declared October 11, 2012, through November 24, 2013, a Year of Faith.
So in this issue, we have two goals in mind. First, we want to take a look at how we can observe this Year of Faith, and second, we want to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Vatican II.
The Door of Faith: Content. Pope Benedict XVI opened his announcement of the Year of Faith by telling us that the “door of faith is always open for us” (Porta Fidei, 1). It is a door that we can pass through every day, deepening our relationship with the Lord and with all our brothers and sisters in the Lord. According to his apostolic letter, there are two ways of entering through this door— two ways of deepening our faith. The first is the way of “content,” and the second is the way of “act.”
On content, Benedict wrote that we can build up our faith by studying, learning, and meditating on the truths that we believe as members of the Church: “To rediscover the content of the faith that is professed, celebrated, lived and prayed, and to reflect on the act of faith, is a task that every believer must make his own” (9). The more we understand our faith, the more we will accept it and share it with the people around us.
Benedict pointed to the early Christian tradition of requiring catechumens to learn the creed by heart. To make this point, he quoted St. Augustine, who said: “You have received it and recited it, but in your minds and hearts you must keep it ever present” (9).
In addition to the creed, Benedict urges us to study the Catechism as a “tool providing real support for the faith” (12). For the pope, our Catechism is nothing less than a guide for life containing “the wealth of teaching the Church has received, safeguarded and proposed in her two thousand years of history” (PF 11).
This is a perfect model for us today. What could be more helpful than pondering our creed and studying our faith as it is taught in the Catechism? These two authoritative statements of our faith can teach us so much about the Lord, the Church, and even our own lives as we seek to draw closer to the Lord during this special year.
The Door of Faith: Act. But knowing the content of our faith is not enough. In fact, faith is not just about a set of truths. It is also a relationship with Jesus. This is why the Holy Father also emphasized the importance of what he called the “act of faith” (Porta Fidei, 9). This “act” is our response to God’s work in our lives. It’s the decisions we make based on the love and mercy we have experienced from our heavenly Father.
Of course, these two elements— content and act—go together. “There exists a profound unity between the act by which we believe and the content to which we give our assent,” Benedict wrote (10). As an example, he tells the story of Lydia’s conversion from the Book of Acts (Acts 16:13-15). The “content” in this story is the gospel message that St. Paul shared with Lydia and her friends. And the “act” is the combination of God’s grace opening Lydia’s heart and Lydia’s decision to accept the message and welcome Jesus into her life.
As it was for Lydia, it is for us. Pope Benedict gives us these words of encouragement and caution: “Knowing the content to be believed is not sufficient unless the heart, the authentic sacred space within the person, is opened by grace that allows the eyes to . . . understand that what has been proclaimed is the word of God” (10). So our call is to learn the truths of our faith with an open heart, ready for God’s grace to touch us and move us.
Faith: A Response to Grace. In all of this, God’s grace is vital. Grace is the magnet that draws us to Jesus. It puts a desire in us to embrace Jesus and his teachings. Scripture tells us that faith comes by grace (Ephesians 2:8). As Pope Benedict wrote: “Faith is choosing to stand with the Lord so as to live with him” (Porta Fidei, 10).
Without spending time with Jesus in personal prayer, without liturgy and the sacraments, “the profession of faith would lack efficacy because it would lack the grace which supports Christian witness” (11). That’s why everyone is called to stay connected to the vine (John 15:5), to drink the “living water” of the Spirit (4:10), and to eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood (6:53). It’s why the Holy Father asks us to “keep our gaze fixed upon Jesus Christ” (13). Without grace, faith will fall by the wayside.
Aim at Faith. This year, the Holy Father is asking us to walk through the door of faith. As we deepen our understanding of the content of our faith, we will learn more fully what Jesus did for us on the cross and how he wants us to live. What’s more, as we grow in a “living recognition of the Lord Jesus, present in our lives” (Porta Fidei, 13), we can be cut to the heart by his love and his grace. We will feel compelled by the Spirit to “act” according to the grace that we receive.
So the content of our faith teaches us that it’s possible to know God, and the grace of God moves us to accept the content—to act on it by believing it and basing our lives on it. And then, to complete the circle, this grace from the Lord will send us back to study the content more deeply because our hearts have been opened, and we want more.
May we all respond to the Holy Father’s invitation and “aim at faith” all year long (15).