Which faith do we live and announce? From duty to grace

Which faith do we live and announce? From duty to grace

By Brother Enzo Biemmi

Toward a Christianity of freedom and grace

The previous two sections of our journey have helped us understand how an epochal change requires a pastoral paradigm shift on the part of the ecclesial community. Evangelii gaudium has presented us with a new way of understanding mission, a new vision of the Church, a new way of conceiving the content of the proclamation. But another question remains, the most important. We are called not only to change apostolic mentality: we are invited to review the image of the faith we have received and which, in an unconscious way, we communicate to others in our mission. For us and for others, we search for an image of faith which is “culturally inhabitable, thriving, meaningful and desirable” in the contexts of our apostolate, everywhere now marked by plurality, by biodiversity.

What do we mean by “image of faith”? We mean the way by which we interpret Christianity, we establish our relationship with God, we translate it into attitudes and orientations in life. The image of faith we are living today is culturally understandable and habitable, for us and for those to whom our mission is directed? We can neither live nor propose a form of faith which was characterizing the XIX century, time when the charism was born. The challenge for the mission is not only a question of changing pastoral strategies: it requires a new way of understanding and living the faith.

This is, in my belief, the most important question and challenge today for the Church and for religious life.

Which image of faith in a plural context? From duty to grace

It is necessary that we are aware of the education and formation from which we come.

A Christianity of duty

We come from a Christianity of duty. To speak about Christian faith, fundamentally it meant three things: doctrine (the things one had to know); religious practices (the functions to which one had to take part, first of all Sunday Mass, under pain of mortal sin; confess at least once a year and receive communion at least at Eastertime); the commandments (what one could and could not do). Duty was at the centre.

This way of conceiving and living the faith was according to a culture of order, a society hierarchically constituted, in which one was educated to honor the commands, to carry out faithfully one’s assignments, to execute the orders received, to respect conformity of behaviors. In this culture Christianity was appreciated as a decisive contribution to common living and social stability. A layer of each of us is indelibly structured by this image of faith. Christianity is the religion of duties, towards God and towards others. In Europe, when we meet adults, this is the faith they have inherited and they have experienced in the Church. It is also the image of faith which has led many to leave the Church, mainly youth.

A Christianity of commitment

But there is also another layer. The one of an image of faith born during the period of the Council and developed in the following years: Christianity of commitment, of causes, of humanitarian and sociopolitical challenges, of charitable organizations, of service to the poorest. This form of faith has marked an important passage with regard to the previous, without supplanting it; in this case, too, a culturally marked passage. We were within a context characterized by a great trust in human development, by optimism regarding what the strength of a person can do, to the image of a future characterized by a relentless progress and by wellbeing.

This Christianity remains within us as a second layer: we are, at the same time, the Christians of duty and of commitment, those of the commandments and of limitless generosity. Even our formation as religious persons is imbued with this vision: we have a strong sense of duty (the first layer) and we feel that we have to spend ourselves for others to the very end (the second layer), in the name of the gospel. Our mission is evidently marked by this horizon. This sense of duty united to that of dedication, sometimes, have made us lose our balance. We have involved ourselves totally with others, neglecting personal formation and the necessary time to take care of ourselves. This, sometimes, to the detriment also of our serenity in the apostolic commitment.

The majority of Christians around the world has this experience of faith: it is a question of duty and commitment.

Beyond sense of duty and commitment

Now, this way of intending the faith (duty and commitment) is no longer attractive, no longer felt as responding to the deep exigencies of persons today, us included. Why? Because we are in crisis regarding those two cultures characterized by duty and commitment. It is no longer an epoch of stability and conformity; it is no longer one of dreaming about the transformation of the world based on a limitless optimism in human strength. To duty has followed freedom, to omnipotence the sense of limit. The culture of duty has left space to that of freedom, with the risk, certainly, of an empty freedom (freedom ‘from’, without the accompaniment by a freedom ‘of’, ‘for’ and ‘with’). The culture of commitment, after the disillusionment, has allowed the emergence of a calmer desire for care, first of all for oneself, for nature, for the future of our planet, for our community. With the risk, certainly, of falling back on the subject and his individual wellbeing (narcissism). Beyond the cultural risks (which we cannot undervalue) today we feel the necessity for a vision less voluntary, less omnipotent, more aware of the evil we can do to ourselves, ultimately, more needy of salvation.

Which image of faith, then, could be culturally habitable today, for us and for the persons we meet? The problem, in fact, does not exist only for the others, but first of all for ourselves.

Which faith could make us live in this time of disillusionment, of rediscovery of human fragility, of the risk of dehumanization, of loss of memory and hope?

Which faith could enchant again occidental culture after the disillusionment?

A Christianity of grace

As we have seen, Pope Francis has brought the centre of gravity of our faith on another firm point, which is neither duty nor commitment. It is enough to look at the titles of his programmatic texts: Evangelii gaudium; Laudato si’; Amoris laetitia. This last document begins in a way particularly beautiful: «The Joy of Love experienced by families is also the joy of the Church». To say ‘gospel of joy’ in speaking about evangelization (EG), expresses a jolt of praise to God for the gift of the common house (LS) and to speak about the ‘delight of love’ for family ties means tracing the features of a faith welling from an event of grace, bursting into existence without merits, reaching us ahead of any moral action of ours and any generous commitment of ours, and this is the reason which makes us joyfully grateful. It is the feeling of being a gift to oneself, by mercy, for it “is always unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous” (AL 296-297). This is “another image of faith”.

It is Christianity of grace. Faith in the sign of grace is based on the experience of an unconditional love. Everything is given to us: the gospel, the common house to take care of, the love of a couple and of the family. This experience marks with joy (certainly not carelessness) the mission of the Church (to evangelize), the care of creation and of each expression of human life. It is, then, a faith in the possibility of living with hope, because something precedes and guards us.  And this not

because of our strength, but by grace. Such faith does not demand to discard anything of what we have received in our formation, nor the moral structure which has been given us (for which we are grateful), nor the generosity and the commitment to which we have been trained. But it transfigures them. It does not make them the starting point, but the grateful echo of lives marked by evangelical joy, even in moments of darkness and suffering, because they have been saved. Thus, the rediscovery of a faith not based on fear (from which stems duty) nor on merits (commitment) but on gratitude, not only does not make us irresponsible and uncommitted, but it multiplies responsibility and generosity, because the person who has experienced being loved is spurred to not to spoil such a precious gift and is enabled to make of one’s life a gift to others: a gift of gratitude for what has been gratuitously received and which is being preserved by gratuitously donating it. With a fundamental difference: we learn the right measure,  the one that comes from the fact of knowing that everything comes from Him, even our own strengths, and it is He who has saved and continues to save the world. We are useless servants.

We are called to enter into an horizon of grace, of gratuity and of gratitude. Paradoxically, it is only when accounts do not tally any more in our life, when we have nothing else to show off before God, when we have nothing else but our poverties to present to Him, only then the images of idols may die within us and, finally, the light of God the Father’s face may appear. The Merciful One.

The faith identified with duty and even the faith identified only with commitment do not have future and do not speak any more to the people of today. Neither the first nor the second are the images of a “missionary” faith, that is a faith able to surprise, question, convert.

Any renewal of the mission will not bring about results unless we operate this conversion and do not enter into an horizon of grace, that grace which renders us responsible and committed. People need to see reflected in us the joy of a faith which leads us to gratuitous witness and to commitment. Not a faith linked to duties and voluntary offering of our energies. Only our faith conversion to grace will surprise and start off other persons towards faith.