What is truly essential? This has become a pressing question in our country, especially as churches have faced many government restrictions, even as pot shops and casinos have operated more freely. When John Paul II returned home to Communist Poland after his papal election, the enormous crowd gathered in Warsaw, formed of people who had faced over 30 years of restrictions on worship, chanted continuously, “We want God! We want God!” They were telling their totalitarian leadership that God was essential.
The key crisis facing the West, according to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (Josef Ratzinger), is a crisis of faith. If we were already struggling to keep Catholics engaged in the Church, it’s now become even more difficult. Some have speculated openly that the ongoing secular trajectory of our culture has been sped up by at least ten years due to our current crisis. Things will never simply return to the way that they were before, but, on the other hand, would we even want that? Above all, the “return” that we need is a return to a deeper faith in Christ, one that profoundly shapes our everyday life.
Father Daniel Cardó, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Sheridan, has pointed us to what matters most in his new book What Does It Mean to Believe? Faith in the Thought of Joseph Ratzinger (Emmaus, 2020, with a foreword by Gerhard Cardinal Müller). It’s a short book that packs a punch, navigating important theological issues in an accessible and compelling way. He recognizes the increasing challenge of communicating faith in modern culture: “Undoubtably to speak of faith is something more and more foreign to ordinary people; it would seem that it’s lost its pertinence and importance. At best, it is limited to being [brought] up every now and then; at worst, one might try to avoid it all costs” (20). In fact, a void has moved into the soul even of Christians, as Ratzinger speaks of a practical atheism that entails living as if God does not exist.
In the face of the prevailing agnosticism and relativism, faith can still arise, received as a gift of the Holy Spirit moving our minds and hearts. We have a “God-given thirst for the infinite” that leaves us unsatisfied by alternatives (37). Fr. Cardó quotes Ratzinger on the great need for faith: “Belief signifies the decision that at the very core of human existence there is a point that cannot be nourished and supported on the visible and tangible, that encounters and comes into contact with what cannot be seen and finds that it is a necessity for its own existence” (41). Without faith, there is a great emptiness and flatness that cries out, sometimes desperately and even violently, pointing to the need for God.
Faith opens up a new path, one of light and joy. “Having looked at faith as a free gift from God and as our concrete response to that gift, we arrive at an understanding of the change that the act of believing entails: to see life in a different way, to be open to conversion, to take on a new attitude toward reality, and to stand firm in the meaning that sustains our life” (50-51). This gift is not vague or abstract but is focused on a person: “The meaning that we grasp and in which we remain is a real and living person: Jesus Christ. He is the basis for the personal character of faith; He is the person who has chosen us and called us friends (see John 15:15-16), and in whom faith is experienced as a relationship of friendship. He is the person that goes to meet us and invites us to respond to His call with all of our being, in openness to an experience of personal communion” (54). Jesus truly leads us on the path of genuine freedom that comes from living the truth in love.
The devil tempted Christ to rely on himself and to turn stone into bread. He replied that “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). It can be tempting to focus on physical security above all else, but it is faith that makes life truly meaningful. We cannot live a full and complete life on our own. Faith gives us the courage and strength to face every difficulty because it opens us to God’s own life. It is truly the most essential thing, the one thing necessary (Luke 10:42), as it leads us into the true purpose of life: to live in communion with God and others. We need more faith; we need God to enter more deeply into our life; we need the nourishment of the Eucharist more than ever. We truly cannot live without them. We have to be willing to stand up and even suffer to show that faith is the most essential thing in our lives.