On one wall of my office, above shelves crammed with books on various theological topics, there are several framed diplomas and certificates like you would find in a doctor or lawyer’s office. I rarely look at that wall for any length of time, but, the other day, I did. At various times in my life as I was working on degrees and certificates to gain needed credentials or accomplish my work more effectively, attaining them was very important to me. Now, as I look at the wall, I am not very much impressed by the framed paper that is there. Of course, the degrees and such do permit me to teach and provide credibility for some when I present or write. But people matter more. Much of my time today is spent less with books and papers and more with people. In many ways, I am living out what my father challenged me to do when I was in my twenties.
One Sunday night many years ago (I called each week on Sunday at 7 p.m.), I was talking with my father and whining that I might not get the final grade that I hoped in a course that semester. It was very important to me to have good grades, as if my worth depended on it. He listened very patiently and then said, “Frank, when someone knocks on the rectory door looking to talk with a priest, they will not care what grade you got. They will care only that you are willing to listen to them and be there for them.”
Of course, he was very right. My father, who was a successful business person without any degrees, taught me what is at the heart of faith and living faith – God and people. The divine aspects of faith are always mediated through people as individuals and as groups – their needs, their struggles, their concerns, their pain, their suffering, their joy, their love, their sorrow.
Faith is about people and their lives, their interaction with God, and their ultimate destiny. The teachings and customs of faith are not ends in themselves. Instead, they should lead to greater freedom and harmony among human beings. Yes, the twisting of teachings and customs of faith into something else has always happened over the millennia and continues to be a challenging reality. But that is simply using them for self-centered reasons, especially when used to justify hate and oppression. Faith ultimately is about freedom – the freedom to be fully human in union with God. It is a freedom given by God’s grace. Faith rooted in freedom moves outward to people and their needs. It is not focused on self, but on God and other people. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches in number 1742:
“The grace of Christ is not in the slightest way a rival of our freedom when this freedom accords with the sense of the true and the good that God has put in the human heart. On the contrary, as Christian experience attests especially in prayer, the more docile we are to the promptings of grace, the more we grow in inner freedom and confidence during trials, such as those we face in the pressures and constraints of the outer world. By the working of grace the Holy Spirit educates us in spiritual freedom in order to make us free collaborators in his work in the Church and in the world:
Almighty and merciful God,
in your goodness take away from us all that is harmful,
so that, made ready both in mind and body,
we may freely accomplish your will.”
After 26 years of living out my vocation to the priesthood as a Pallottine, I can say with confidence again how right my father was. My prayer is that I have accompanied those who needed a listening ear and walked alongside them on their journey of faith, and that I will always continue to do so. May we as Christians remember to put people over paper and strive to live out our faith in true freedom.