On this day we memorialize the death of John the Baptist, the man who introduced Jesus’s ministry to the world and whom Jesus said was the greatest man born among women (Matt 11:11). Yet, despite this accolade from the Son of Man himself, the Gospels tell us that John the Baptist also seems to have wrestled with something that many of us are still wrestling with today: doubt. Yes, even the Baptist, the camel-shirt-wearing, desert dwelling, locust-crunching prophet who calls the crowds that come to him a “brood of vipers,” sat in prison and wondered about whether the “nobody” carpenter from Nazareth was who he said he was.
The Gospels suggest that part of John’s doubt seems to have come from his expectations for Jesus. When John is called by God out of the desert, he announces the coming of the Messiah with metaphors of destruction:
“Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matt 3:10-12)
John’s expectation for the Messiah is that he will cleanse through destruction; that he will rid the world of sin, but in a grandiose, violent way. His metaphors and proclamations are laced with references to fire and culling, suggesting that John envisions Jesus the way we tend to envision John—full of passion, intensity, even a little frightening. When Christ comes to John for baptism, Christ does not condemn John’s vision, but rather Jesus’ ministry adds to the story. Rather than cutting the root from the tree, Jesus invites sinners to dine with him. Rather than shaking his fists from the river, Jesus sits on the mountain top and declares the poor blessed.
Later, when John is imprisoned for publicly condemning the unlawful marriage of Herod, he receives word of Jesus’ latest miracles: the healing of a Centurion’s slave and raising of a widow’s dead son. The Gospels paint an interesting portrait of John’s response.
When John heard in prison of the works of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to him
with this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Matt 11:2-3)
I can imagine John sitting in the corner of his cell, hearing of these miracles and wondering whether everything he thought about the Carpenter had been wrong. In the darkness of his cell, alone, surely knowing he would soon die, John doubts whether this man who heals is actually the ax he had been expecting.
There are two things that stand out about John’s moment of doubt:
First, John’s response to his doubt is to go to the source himself. John does not sit frustrated and angry, allowing his doubt to grow into resentment or apathy like so many of us do today. He sends his disciples to Jesus directly. John’s response should serve as a model for our own inquiries. Prayer, direct communication with Christ, is necessary to knowing the truth about his identity. Imagine it in terms of a marriage. What if a husband and wife never communicated with one another when they were concerned with the actions of the other? Not only does a potentially problematic action go unaddressed, but the spouse who desires to know the mind of her lover cannot. She risks constructing a faulty image in her head, one that further drives a wedge between herself and her husband. So too do we drive a wedge between ourselves and the Lord when we doubt and leave those doubts untethered by prayer. When we question Christ, when we question our faith, when we question what is right or how to respond to injustice with charity, we should take those questions to prayer and ask for understanding. We should ask to see God as he truly is, not as we want him to be.
The second important thing to note about John’s moment of doubt is Jesus’ response. Matthew reports it this way:
Jesus said to them in reply, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”
As they were going off, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces. Then why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written:
‘Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you;
he will prepare your way before you.’
Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Matt 11:7-10).
In his response to John and the crowds, Jesus first reaffirms his own actions, for these are the actions foretold in Scripture of the coming of the Messiah. He does not answer with words, but with deeds, highlighting the truth that “by their fruit will you know them.” Jesus then also seems to chastise the crowd for their judgment of John. “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind?” Jesus says that John’s vision of Christ is admirable, as it comes from place of virtue and strength. Although John initially sees Jesus only through his own eyes, Jesus recognizes that those eyes earnestly desire the truth and have been well formed. Jesus rewards John for his faith, even if it is imperfect. He does not allow John to remain misguided, but he recognizes John’s effort to know Christ as well as he can and rewards him with the accolade “no greater than.”
On the memorial of his death, let us try to be a little more like John the Baptist. Let us yearn for the Lord. Let us know him in prayer and the sacraments. Let us have the humility to open ourselves and our expectations to revision. Let us place our doubts before the Cross and allow John’s words to guide our prayers:
“He must increase; I must decrease.”
Questions for Reflection: How can moments of doubt make your faith stronger? Is Jesus inviting you to “go to the source” – to come to him in prayer?
When I was at a recent Bible study with friends, we prayed about and discussed the passage from Matthew 14:22-33 – the story of Jesus calling Peter out of the boat to walk to him on water. As Peter sees the wind and waves around him, his trust in Jesus begins to falter and he starts to sink. When he cries out for help, Jesus immediately catches Peter, saying, “Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?” In many ways, we, too, are like Peter: cautiously trusting the Lord, but when tested in the chaos, we learn our trust isn’t as strong as it should be. This is where we can look to St. Bartholomew for guidance.
St. Bartholomew (also known as Nathanael), whose feast day is August 24th, was one of the 12 Apostles mentioned in the Synoptic Gospels. While little is known of St. Bartholomew, we see his true personality in John 1:43-51. The apostle Philip was a friend of Bartholomew, an Israelite. As Philip tells Bartholomew that he, Andrew, and Peter found the Son of God, St. Bartholomew responds, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Later, Jesus says of him, “Here is a true Israelite. There is no duplicity in him.” Jesus also says he saw Bartholomew under a fig tree before Philip called him, leading us to understand Bartholomew was in prayer with the Lord. St. Bartholomew immediately answers, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”
This passage reveals St. Bartholomew’s blunt honesty. He is open about his doubts of any good coming from Nazareth, but does not hesitate in his belief when Jesus reveals himself. This is why Jesus calls St. Bartholomew an Israelite with no deceit. Through St. Bartholomew, we see qualities that Jesus praises: honesty, truth seeking, sincerity and thoughtfulness. These good attributes allow Jesus to come into St. Bartholomew’s life and build trust with him. Likewise, St. Bartholomew is able to open up to new perspectives and ruminations on spiritual matters.
In Matthew 5:8, we learn from the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.” St. Bartholomew is a model to us of this purity of heart. When we seek truth, we can more clearly see God and respond to his call. Living apart from the truth dims our relationship with God and our ability to hear his call. Dishonesty makes life more difficult for us to know the truth, which is built on trust. The Catechism of the Catholic faith says that “placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit” enables us to become heirs in hope of eternal life. Ultimately, God is truth itself.
We learn from St. Bartholomew’s example that we can come to know God better in reflection through prayer. To know God through prayer is to know truth and therefore trust. This open line of communication with God unlocks our minds to explore different perspectives and gives us the ability and willingness to overcome critiques, which is necessary for evangelization. Even in the above passage from Matthew 14:22-33, where Peter walks out onto the water, we learn at the very beginning of the story that Jesus found time to pray and reflect in solitude with his Father before meeting with the Apostles in the boat.
St. Bartholomew’s prayer led him to truth. He trusted in God and then shared that truth with others in order to convert them to Christianity. After Jesus’ ascension, St. Bartholomew traveled farther than most of the other Apostles. He visited Syria, Ethiopia, India, and Armenia, preaching the Gospel and God’s word. It is believed St. Bartholomew was martyred in Armenia. May we learn to trust God through St. Bartholomew’s example!
Today, August 8th, is the feast day of St. Dominic de Guzman, founder of the Order of Preachers—the Dominicans.
St. Dominic was born around the year 1170, and he came from a noble and devout family. After studying at the University of Palencia for ten years and becoming a priest, Dominic eventually went to southern France to fight the Albigensian heresy. While there, he determined that a return to the preaching style of the Apostles in the time of Christ—to engage with individuals, to go where the Spirit led them, and to live simply—would most effectively preach the Gospel message and bring heretics and converts back to the faith.
After spending several years evangelizing and preaching, Dominic had acquired a small band of followers. With them, he founded a religious order, basing it on the Rule of St. Augustine and giving it the mission of “preaching and the salvation of souls,” with an emphasis on the importance of spiritual and intellectual formation. The Order of Preachers was officially recognized by Pope Honorius III in late 1216.
In a time when opposing sides often resorted to violence, St. Dominic chose to combat the Albigensian heresy through open dialogue rather than bloodshed. By having a deep understanding of Scripture, tradition, and philosophy, and by engaging with individuals on an intellectual and moral level, he was able to bring back into the faith many of those who had fallen into error. The Order of Preachers that he founded continues to embrace these principles by preparing preachers who are “intellectually informed and pastorally competent.”
St. Dominic chose to settle the first members of his order in university cities so that they could gain the intellectual training they would need to become engaging and morally compelling preachers of God’s word. The Order of Preachers, to this day, still heavily emphasizes the importance of spiritual and intellectual formation in preparation for their pastoral work. The Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. continues in the Dominican tradition of establishing communities of Dominicans near universities. Dominicans residing at the House of Studies teach at nearby at The Catholic University of America, assist with Masses at parishes in the Archdiocese of Washington, and produce a journal.
Reading about the origins of the Dominicans and their continued success reminds me of the important place that religious study ought to hold in even the layman’s spiritual life. While we cannot all get degrees in theology, feeding the intellectual curiosity about our faith can lead us deeper into our relationship with God and to a better understanding of his truth.
Reading more about our faith, or about the lives of the saints we wish to emulate, can also better equip us to evangelize when the opportunity arises. While we may not be reading the Summa Theologica or the Catechism cover to cover, there is a plethora of material—from papal encyclicals and the core documents of Vatican II, to letters and diaries of the saints—available for us to deepen our own understanding of the faith and to be able to share it with others.
I myself have been inspired by reading about the life of St. Dominic de Guzman and the work of the Order of Preachers. As a result, I have decided to further engage my faith through more rigorous spiritual reading. I think a good place to start is with a course of study on one’s vocation—for me, that means marriage and parenthood, and thus my “to read” list includes Three to Get Married by Fulton Sheen and the papal encyclicals Castii Conubii and Humanae Vitae.
What will you read to engage more deeply with your faith?
Question for Reflection: How can the life of St. Dominic and his emphasis on intellectual formation help you deepen your spiritual life?
This past week, 48 members of the Society of the Catholic Apostolate (Pallottine Fathers and Brothers) serving in North America gathered for a biennial week of reflection and study. We considered our response to God, Infinite Love and Mercy, through our social-charitable work in light of the charism of St. Vincent Pallotti. We were also inspired by and reflected on the call of Pope Francis, in his teaching and action, to care for those on the peripheries. Pallotti believed that we Pallottines together with all those who follow his charism as part of his association, the Union of Catholic Apostolate , are called to revive faith, rekindle charity, and form apostles. The connection between faith and charity in response to our experience of the love of Christ was a central one in the teachings of St. Vincent Pallotti.
This same connection between faith and charity (inclusive of the care, protection, and advocacy for the life and dignity of the human person) is summarized by Pope Francis in his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). This connection was a central focus of the unprecedented USCCB Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America. It is also found in a new document of the U.S. Bishops on evangelization, Living as Missionary Disciples: A Resource for Evangelization. As missionary disciples (apostles), we are sent out into the world to accompany others and help them encounter Jesus Christ in and through his Church. We do this through our witness in word and in deed, not simply in the Church, but especially in the world. There is much work to be done as Pope Francis reminds us:
"Even if many are now involved in lay ministries, this involvement is not reflected in a greater penetration of Christian values in the social, political and economic sectors. It often remains tied to tasks within the Church, without a real commitment to applying the Gospel to the transformation of society. The formation of the laity and the evangelization of professional and intellectual life represent a significant pastoral challenge" ( Evangelii Gaudium, 102).
Let us take up this challenge even more fully! The Catholic Apostolate Center offers all many resources to help us live as missionary disciples.
May the charity of Christ urge us on!