As St. Augustine, whose feast day the Church observed yesterday, famously said, “He who created us without our help will not save us without our consent.”
From the very moment we begin to freely choose ourselves, sin, and the world over the will of our loving God and creator, the epic battle for our soul begins. We make our First Reconciliation, we begin to live a sacramental life, and then somewhere along the way we become lost, mostly due to our own faults and failings. Then we begin to focus on the sins of others because it is far too difficult and painful to convict ourselves, and far too often, this is where we remain. A significant turning point in the spiritual journey emerges when we turn our critical gaze to our own sins and habits, and that is where true growth and progress can germinate and thrive.
Jonathan Montaldo wrote in L’Osservatore Romano:
From birth we receive genes that, when activated, become the body’s enemy. We receive genetic codes that, when activated, are anti-life. By nurture our beings are misinformed by exposure to the struggles against contamination (within themselves) of those who brought about our existences. We are seldom in our right minds. While “original sin” in this context becomes a viable postulate, the intuition that humanity begins in “original innocence” lacks experiential evidence: all of humanity seems punished to suffer illegitimately.
Montaldo goes on to say that, “The Holy Spirit groans and struggles in and with us (Rom 8:26-27), as we do the inner work of recognizing our contamination. Humanity is like Lazarus bound for death. Only Christ can save us now. Self-knowledge will eventually place us on our knees, waiting for a grace to live more freely (more compassionately) that we know for certain we can’t give to ourselves.”
I often reflect upon this very concept when catechizing my own children: this assumption that they are “born innocent” and are blank slates upon which we as parents and Catholic teachers can mold and shape at will, forming into perfect little Christians, if we only teach them every topic found in the Catechism, give them a stable home life, pray with them daily, and send them to good schools. Seems simple.
Or is it?
Some believe that if one isolates one’s children from public education, surrounds them only with like-minded families, and teaches them only conservative Catholic material, they will somehow be easily molded into a particular brand of mature adult Catholic. This practice, however, ignores many factors. One is genetic tendencies toward sin, proclivity to addiction or to certain behavioral patterns or family dysfunctions. Another is (sometimes unavoidable) childhood trauma, even generational sin. A third is—God forbid—the free will of the child! Parenting teens in today’s world is the fastest way to realize that good intentions can many times go awry, and that children truly do have minds of their own.
Montaldo’s acknowledgement that we must consistently perform “the inner work of recognizing our contamination” is essential. There seems to be a crucial developmental stage in the life of the baptized Catholic that we skip right over once we reach adulthood and remain stagnant, never quite reaching the level of spiritual maturity that Jesus wants for all of us.
In his book Will Our Children Have Faith?, Rev. John Westerhoff describes four stages of faith development: experienced faith, affiliative faith, searching faith, and owned faith. Westerhoff aptly points out that the “searching faith” phase which begins in adolescence is most troubling for parents and teachers, since authority is sometimes questioned as children begin to search out answers for themselves. However, the author emphasizes, this stage is both crucial and inescapable if one is ever to arrive at the fourth stage, which is that of owned faith. “The final stage of faith development, owned faith, rarely occurs before young adulthood,” says Westerhoff. “Because of the serious struggle with doubt that precedes it, owned faith may appear as a great illumination or enlightenment.”
Westerhoff writes that owned faith is God’s intention for everyone, even though most adults have had their faith arrested at the affiliative stage. And that is a very interesting concept. Those stuck in the affiliative stage naturally want others to remain with them; questioning is too uncomfortable.
Who Moved My Cheese?
Spencer Johnson’s 1998 book Who Moved My Cheese? challenged readers to anticipate change, to stop fearing the future, and to thrive in an environment of uncertainty and change. This was directed toward the secular business world, but it can be similarly applied to the spiritual journey.
In the book, two characters aptly named Hem and Haw spend their days looking for cheese in a maze. When they find some, they enjoy snacking on a little bit each day, but soon notice that it begins to diminish. Once they realize their cheese supply is running out, they become disillusioned. They had grown accustomed to their way of life, considering their cheese supply a fair reward for all of their hard work. One morning, they wake up to discover that someone had moved their cheese.
In the end, they become sad and depressed, never finding a new supply of cheese. They feel they have been treated unfairly and are in denial. Instead of seeking out new cheese sources, they keep returning to the old station, and become weaker and hungrier. They simply will not embrace change.
As humans, we are all creatures of habit. It is purely natural that once we believe that we have “found” salvation, we should just keep doing what we are doing and hold on tight! If we don’t deviate from the current path, we will be saved, after all; we have nothing to fear, and so we can sit back and enjoy the rest of our days on earth, while charitably and at times loudly admonishing those on erroneous paths to adopt our ways of thinking.
If only it were that easy.
This is the crisis point for many of us in our faith life, when we must move out of our comfort zones and examine ourselves in the light of Christ; this is where frequent celebration of the sacrament of Reconciliation becomes crucial. Pope Francis spoke of this during his special “24 Hours for the Lord” event, which he holds annually during Lent and which is aimed at encouraging Catholics throughout the world to go to confession. Otherwise, we turn our gaze outward to those we consider to be “less holy” than ourselves, or we adopt the “this is the way things have always been” mindset and refuse to move in a different direction.
And this is where some find it difficult to assimilate Pope Francis’s insistence on dialogue, trusting the nudgings of the Holy Spirit, and humility difficult to assimilate.
The Upcoming Synod on Synodality and Looking to the Future
Synodality, in many ways, is uncomfortable because it pushes the limits, asking us to find new sources of cheese, to grow our faith beyond the affiliative stage. In a foreword to a new booklet by a conservative group criticizing Pope Francis’s Synod of Bishops on Synodality, Cardinal Raymond Burke called the synod “deeply harmful and potentially schismatic.” Burke insisted that only the truth of Christ as handed down “in the unchanging and unchangeable doctrine and discipline of the Church, can address effectively the situation by uncovering the ideology at work, by correcting the deadly confusion and error and division it is propagating, and by inspiring the members of the Church to undertake the true reform.”
Pope Francis’s insistence on including everyone, on fostering dialogue, on creating a synodal church has been a goal, which the Holy Father says God “expects from the church of the Third Millennium.” At World Youth Day in Lisbon, Vatican officials praised the atmosphere as being one of “synodality in action.” One official told reporters in the Portuguese capital that “young people’s desires to be ‘protagonists’ in their own faith journeys sowed the seeds for the Vatican’s landmark, three-year global consultation of Catholics.”
This is both inspiring and a nod to the future of the Church, which has to be focused on our young people and not doggedly stuck in the past. In the end, if our children do not come into an owned faith, they will not become the next generation of Catholics the world needs and all our efforts will have been in vain; even more tragic, we may lose our own souls in a web of intransigence and prideful rigidity, rooted in mindsets that no longer reflect the heart of the Father.
The teachings of Christ are eternal and unchanging, just as two and two still equals four. Take it from a teacher and mom who loathes the new ways we are asked to teach math— it’s frustrating…but it works. In their faith, too, our children will get the same answer, but in a way that is their own.
Image: “Christ Blessing the Little Children” by Charles Lock Eastlake. From Wikimedia Commons.
Kristi McCabe is an award-winning freelance writer, Catechist, a former teacher and editor who lives with her family in Owensboro, Kentucky. As an adoptive mother of four and an adoptee herself, Kristi is an avid supporter of pro-life ministries. She is active in her local parish and has served as Eucharistic minister and in various children's ministries.