Topic: Evangelization

Br. Peter Junipero Hannah, O.P.'s picture

The Foolish Necessity of the Gospel

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Preached at Vespers, Feb 2nd, 2012, St. Albert's Priory

For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting.  For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!  For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission.  What then is my reward? Just this: that in my preaching I may make the gospel free of charge, not making full use of my right in the gospel.  For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more.  To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak.  I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.  I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”

With less than three months to go until I make solemn profession in the Order of Preachers, I have a confession to make.  I have no idea what I am doing.  I do not know and cannot explain the paths my life took which led me to enter the novitiate of the Western Province in 2006.  I do not know and cannot explain why I, among pretty much all my friends and companions in the world, was given a particular experience of Our Lord that led me to abandon otherwise normal pursuits, and desire to renounce marriage, property, and that self-determining path which the vow of obedience undercuts.  I do not know and cannot explain why I, after joining the Western Province, have been given the grace to pesevere until now.  And yet, here I am.  And it is worth it.

We are all by now familiar with the famous Via Negativa of St. Thomas Aquinas, which he appropriates from Pseudo-Dionysius.  The Mystery of God’s Character is so far-reaching and beyond anything we could come up with in our finite little heads, that even our accurate and true ideas of Him fall infinitely short of the full reality.  As with God, similarly with God’s wise Providence, which has overseen and guided and fashioned the course of history, and each of our very lives, up until this day.  We can, as it were, observe the effects of Providence, but its inner-workings remain a sublime mystery. 

Each of us in our own vocations may have encountered great difficulties: difficulties in our prayer life, difficulties in our life of study, difficulties in learning the art of preaching or in doggedly sticking to some ministry while it stretches us so thin we begin to run on fumes; difficulties too in common life, where our personal temperaments and habits mix together in the cauldron of every other man called to this life, sometimes with various boiling and steaming effects.  Yet for all this, here we are.  Why?

To ordinary human eyes – I confess, to myself, apart from faith – this way of life contains a good deal of absurdity: we give up marriage, property, and ordinary human pursuits to dress in white robes, sing together several times a day, study abstract philosophy and theology from centuries past, and have as our mission telling the world about a Divine Human Being who walked on earth a long time ago but wants to be in relationship with us today.  He is invisible but we claim to be able to speak to him, even on a daily basis; he is still around today but he looks like bread, which we all eat in a daily ritual service.  This picture, to eyes without faith, is absurd;  it is also what St. Paul calls the foolishness of the Cross; and each of our vocations shares to some extent in this foolishness; the vital thread is that underneath the appearance of this foolishness lies the very power and mystery of God; for which it is worth sacrificing everything.

The mystery of Christian vocation, and perhaps in a special way a vocation to the Order of Preachers, indeed finds its archetype in the the Great Apostle Paul’s vocation.  We may have come into the Order for any number of various reasons, some more or less exciting, some more or less noble: yet each of us somehow has felt in the depths of his conscience and life with God the urgency and necessity of preaching: “Necessity is laid upon me,” says St. Paul, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel.”  The first and greatest missionary of the Church felt himself to be simultaneously a slave to Christ Jesus and slave to all men: the one giving him his commission to preach after encountering him on the road to Damascus and rooting him in the Christian community, the others, those to whom Paul is sent, Paul feels an obligation of debt so strong he is willing to throw off and renounce anything and everything that gets in the way of bringing the truth and power of the Gospel to them.  “To the Jews I became as  a Jew, in order to win Jews...To those outside the law (i.e. Gentiles) I became as one outside the law to win them. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak.  I became all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”

Paul’s language in our reading today is charged with his characteristic emotional intensity.  The grammar of the passage actually breaks up at points in the Greek, revealing his hard-to-control enthusiasm for spreading the gospel.  “Necessity” is laid upon him.  He is a “slave”; he works “free of charge”; he “renounces his ordinary rights” to comfort and pay.  And what is his reward?  Simply, he tells us, that he is able to preach, since he knows God the Lord saves souls through him.

My Domican brothers, whatever precise path the Lord has paved to see each of us here at this moment, we too share in the foolishness and the glory of the Cross of Christ which St. Paul knew so well.  I personally have no ultimate explanation for why I am here other than the mystery of the grace of God in my life; I could point to any number of books I read, people I met, experiences I had, but somehow they would all be insufficient.  In the end, the only sufficient answer is the grace, the sheer grace, of our God.  And maybe it’s a good thing that that is the only explanation I, or we, can ultimately give.  In any case, like St. Paul, we friars preachers are also “charged with a commission”: the reward of this commission is not that we live comfortable and easy lives, not that we are accepted and praised by the world and by people, not even – dare I say to the student brothers, including myself – that we get a class and formation schedule exactly to our liking; our only ultimate reward for the commission, the only ultimate consolation we’ve been given is, of course, that we have served and labored well for the Father, who desires to save souls through us.  For that, it is worth sacrificing everything.

Pope Honorius III’s letter to St. Dominic in 1221 at the founding of the order rings as true down the centuries for us here now as it did in the 13th century to St. Dominic and his band of early preachers.  We may envision afresh our fundamental identity in the picture Honorius paints, a picture St. Paul would have been quite pleased with:

“He who never ceases to make his church fruitful through new offspring wishes to make these modern times the equal of former days and to spread the Catholic faith. So he inspired you with a holy desire to embrace poverty, profess the regular life and commit yourselves to the proclamation of the word of God, preaching everywhere the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

In God’s ineffable and wonderful Providence we too have been called to do just this; I, none of us, at a certain point, can fully grasp why God has chosen us for this task; yet he has, and here we are: “Necessity is,” as it were, “laid upon us,” in our hearts and in our minds by the power of the Holy Spirit: “Woe to us if we do not preach the Gospel!” Countless blessings in God our Father and his Son Jesus Christ as together we do.

Br. Bradley Thomas Elliott, O.P.'s picture

Not by "Faith Alone"

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Council of Trent

Over the last week of ordinary time before the season of Lent, we have been reading from the epistle of St. James during the weekday mass. As a former Lutheran, this epistle has played a special role in my life, due to the wrestling match forced upon me as I tried to reconcile my inherited belief in salvation by “faith alone” with the clear words of the second chapter of this letter, that salvation is not by faith alone. Needless to say, I lost the wrestling match, a loss which is not uncommon when fighting against sacred scripture, and have now embraced the full teachings of the Catholic Church. However this week has provided yet another occasion for me to reflect once again on how my own thinking developed during the years leading up to my entrance into the Catholic Church.

            When I was a Lutheran, I believed that, within the doctrine of salvation by faith alone the unpolluted, and pure core of Christianity was expressed with simple clarity. I believed that within this doctrine existed a key to that “Mere Christianity” that all Christians had been searching for. The very essence of the Christian faith was here contained and summarized, that man cannot save himself but is entirely dependent on the Grace won for him in Jesus Christ.

            But what about the epistle of James?

            “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But some one will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe--and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness"; and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.” James 2:14-16

            What could James be talking about here by saying that faith without works is dead? What about all of those times in the writing of St. Paul where faith is continually contrasted with works and the two are apparently opposed?  How was I to understand this?

            The best explanation that I came across from the protestant camp, and the one that I held for some time, was this, that what James was talking about when he used the word “faith” was a mere intellectual assent, not true faith that saves. He is referring to the mere assent to certain propositions as true, like facts that are checked-off as on a list. There was no contradiction at all. What the reformed doctrine of Luther is referring to as opposed to St. James is (and this is the important phrase) a “Saving Faith”.

            I reasoned along with many Protestants that what is required for Salvation is a “Saving Faith”. Faith cannot be mere intellectual assent; it must be that faith which St. Paul speaks of, the faith that will unite us mind and heart to God. This is the answer; a clarifying and nuancing of the word “faith”. What is required for salvation is a “saving faith”. This is the faith that “alone” can save. This is at least how I would have reasoned ten years ago.

            But by saying this, what did I just do in my reasoning? By clinging to the doctrine of faith alone I was forced, in order to be faithful to scripture and to make sense of St. James, to clarify what I meant by faith. I was forced to make a distinction. I was forced to distinguish between faith in one sense and faith in another sense. The idea of faith must be qualified if it is to be a faith that saves. There is something about saving faith that makes it different from that mere faith that doesn’t; something about the faith of the saints that renders it wholly other than the faith of those who St. James is condemning for having “faith alone”. If there is truly a distinction between the faith of mere intellectual assent that James is referring to and the faith that saves, and there has to be if we are to understand James at all, then there must be something by which saving faith is different than mere faith. This something by which faith becomes saving must be something real; it must have real being. If it did not have real being there would be no reason to speak of the distinction at all and we must go back to the unacceptable contradiction. Also, this something by which faith becomes saving must be different than faith itself, it cannot just be “more faith”; otherwise St. James’s warning against “faith alone” would still stand as a contradiction. So there is something that must be added to the notion of faith to render it saving; and even if I were to recoil from the phrase ‘add to faith’ I still had to admit that there is something real to distinguish mere faith from saving faith. What is that? If there is something truly real by which the faith spoken of by St. James is distinguished from the saving faith of St. Paul, than that something must also be saving and essential.

            The next question: what is it that distinguishes faith to render it salvific? The faith that I had in my mind when I spoke of salvation through faith was a faith that opens the heart to the grace of God. It was a whole disposition of the soul, intellect and will, towards God. When I asked myself, “what is it about faith that is saving?” I had to conclude this. That faith in and of itself is an entire re-orientation of my life in the direction of God. And this is by no meansonly intellectual assent. It is indeed an intellectual assent at first, but that assent is immediately accompanied by ahope in God, a hope which surpasses human reason, and alove of God which is not of ourselves, not a love that arises from our own natural ability to Love, but a love that is infused from above, true Charity. This is the answer; what is added to faith that distinguishes it as saving is CHARITY! It is Charity that saves.

            This is the faith that St. Paul was talking about, a faith that, as soon as it was born in the heart, rebounded to acts of hope and love, and, as soon as the opportunity arose, overflowed into acts of obedience to God and acts of Charity to ones neighbor. This is what is truly saving, true Charity.

            I concluded thus: there is no such thing as the gift of the theological virtue of Faith alone. It is always accompanied by an infusion of all of the theological virtues and those virtues immediately begin the perfection of my natural powers to flourish as a human being and to know God. God Never gives the gift of faith alone but the gift of all the virtues. The faith can remain after the virtue of Charity has been lost, but once charity is lost through sin the faith that remains is “dead”.


It is Charity that saves. Just as what St. Paul said in the thirteenth Chapter of 1st Corinthians, it is Charity that is the supreme virtue.

            I came to realize that these two concepts, faith and works of Charity, were not separated at all but were two aspects of the same reality that was given to me at my Baptism, sanctifying grace. The gift of faith that, far from destroying my natural abilities to know, perfects them by granting them the power to rise and assent to divinely revealed truths that reason alone could not know, and the gift of charity, perfecting my nature by giving me the ability to love God for His own sake, are both aspects of the same gift of grace. This sanctifying grace was given to me as a free gift when I was reborn through baptism, but this grace did not remain dormant. This grace, then in seed form, began to sprout shoots, not only of acts of faith, but act of charity as well. This grace was not merely nourished by acts of faith but also by acts of love of God and love of neighbor. If this sanctifying grace given to me as a free gift at my baptism did not grow into free acts of charity towards my neighbor, the only thing that could be said about my faith is thatit is dead. As St. James so plainly puts it,“For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead”.

            This is by no means an exhaustive account of the debate that has raged for almost five hundred years over the nature of salvation. It is, as I said earlier, my own personal reflection, in summary form, of how I struggled to come to terms with discrepancies between the teachings that I inherited from my Lutheran training and the truth as revealed through Sacred Scripture. I wrestled with scripture for many years. But to fight against scripture is to lose. For me, it was a glorious defeat. When the fighting was over I found myself staring at the true Gospel of Grace as articulated by the Catholic Church for the last two thousand years; and how beautiful a teaching it is.



Trent (session VI, Decree on Justification) canon 28


See the November talks (esp Nov 19) from 2008. Pope Benedict shows that it is Charity that saves, not faith.


Br. Richard Maher, O.P.'s picture

St. Patrick, The Irish, and the Catholic Church

Given the profound contribution to the Catholic Church and the Dominican Order in the United States of Irish Catholicism, which is attributed in large part to St. Patrick’s evangelization, a short reflection on this great Saint and principal patron of Ireland is appropriate.

St. Patrick, born in Scotland in the late fourth century, was captured into slavery as a young boy and brought to what was then a predominantly pagan Ireland. It was there, while being forced to labor as a sheepherder, that he was immersed in the Irish culture and developed a deep affection for the Irish people. During these years of slavery, Patrick never lost his devotion to Christ and our Lord appeared to him in a dream so as to show him the way to freedom from slavery.

This period in which Patrick tended sheep on the Emerald Isle was a preparation of sorts for the time when he would be called back to Ireland as a bishop who would bring many into the fold of Christ’s spiritual flock. Not long after he had been ordained, the Irish people appeared to Patrick in a dream and pleaded with him to return. Indeed, his love for the Irish was too strong to keep him away. Upon his return to Ireland, Patrick embarked on an exhaustive and effective evangelization effort which would last for nearly four decades, until his death on March 17, 461. He was noted for his powerful preaching and his many miracles, through which he converted people of different social and political classes. Needless to say, this effort was far from seamless. Patrick was repeatedly imprisoned and subjected to torture; numerous attempts were made against his life. Amidst these trials, Patrick’s focus and determination to see the Irish brought to Christ won him respect, acclaim, and devotion. Indeed, the evangelization of the “Isle of Mists” is attributed to Patrick and his immediate followers.

If Jesus promised that only a little bit of yeast was needed to leaven the dough, such a promise was fulfilled by St. Patrick’s evangelization of Ireland. Taking Patrick as a model of strength and stalwartness, the Irish Catholics persevered in their faith, most notably amidst the cruel and sustained systematic oppression by the British from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. Following in the footsteps of Patrick, the Irish Church burgeoned during this period as the Catholic faith provided for a separate and strong identity for these people as distinct from their Protestant persecutors. Indeed, it was during this time that they grew closer to Our Lord through deep, yet discreet, devotion. Additionally, both Irish immigration to other nations throughout the world and the missionary efforts of its dedicated and abundant priests and religious, spread the influence of Irish Catholicism. The Church in nations such as the United States can attribute much of their ethos and infrastructure to the Irish. The embracing of St. Patrick as a model of the faith and missionary activity is not only for Irish and those of us who can claim Irish ancestry. Indeed, the entire Church can embrace Patrick’s evangelical witness and that of the people to whom he brought the faith.