Pope Benedict XVI picked up his audience catechesis on the Profession of Faith Wednesday morning with a reflection on how Abraham, as the father of believers, teaches Christians to “go against the grain” in societies where God has become the “great absentee” and “possession” the idol to be worshiped.
Speaking to a packed Paul VI hall, despite the storm that swept Rome all morning, Pope Benedict said : “Faith makes us pilgrims on earth, inserted into the world and history, but on the way to the heavenly homeland. Believing in God makes us carries of values which often do not coincide with the prevailing fashion and opinion, it requires us to adopt criteria and a conduct which do not belong to the common way of thinking. The Christian should not be afraid to go "against the grain" to live his or her faith, resisting the temptation to "conform". In many societies God has become the "great absentee" and there are many and diverse idols now in His place, above all possession. And also the significant and positive progress in science and technology have produced in humans an illusion of omnipotence and self-sufficiency, and a growing self-centeredness, which has created many imbalances within relationships and social behaviours”.
Below is a translation of the Holy Father’s catechesis:
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
in this Year of the faith, I would like to start today to reflect with you on the Creed, the solemn profession of faith which accompanies our lives as believers. The Creed begins, "I believe in God." It is a fundamental affirmation, deceptively simple in its essence, but which opens the infinite world of our relationship with the Lord and with His mystery. Believing in God implies attachment to him, welcoming his Word and joyful obedience to His revelation. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us, "Faith is a personal act - the free response of the human person to the initiative of God who reveals himself" (n. 166). Being able to say that we believe in God is therefore both a gift and a commitment, it is divine grace and human responsibility, in an experience of dialogue with God who, out of love, "speaks to men as friends" (Dei Verbum, 2), speaks to us so that, in faith and with faith, we enter into communion with Him.
Where can we hear God speaking to us? Holy Scripture is fundamental, in which the Word of God becomes audible for us and nourishes our life as "friends" of God. The entire Bible recounts God’s revelation to humanity, the entire Bible speaks of faith and teaches us faith by telling a story in which God carries out His plan of redemption and makes Himself close to man, through many luminous figures of people who believe in Him and trust Him, to the fullness of the revelation of the Lord Jesus.
In this regard, chapter 11 of the Letter to the Hebrews is most beautiful, which speaks of faith and highlights the great biblical figures who lived and became a model for all believers: "Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen"(11.1). The eyes of faith are thus able to see the unseen and the heart of the believer can hope beyond all hope, just as Abraham, who Paul says in Romans "believed, hoping against hope" (4.18 ).
In fact I would like to focus my attention on Abraham, because he is the first major reference point when speaking about faith in God, the great patriarch Abraham, role model, father of all believers (cf. Rom 4.11 to 12 ). The Letter to the Hebrews presents him as follows: "By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; he went out, not knowing where he was to go. By faith he sojourned in the promised land as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs of the same promise; for he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and maker is God"(11.8 to 10).
The author of Hebrews refers here to the call of Abraham, narrated in the Book of Genesis. What does God ask of this great patriarch? He asks him to leave, abandoning his country and to go to the country that He will show him, "Go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you" (Gen 12:1). How would we respond to an invitation like that? It is, in fact, a departure in the dark, not knowing where God will lead him, it is a journey that calls for obedience and radical trust, which only faith can access. But the darkness of the unknown is illuminated by the light of a promise: God adds a reassuring word to His command that opens a future of life in its fullness to Abraham: "I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great; ... All the families of the earth will find blessing in you"(Gen 12,2.3).
The blessing in Holy Scripture, is related primarily to the gift of life that comes from God, and manifests itself primarily in fertility, in a life that is multiplied, passing from generation to generation. And the blessing is also connected to the experience of owning a land, a stable place to live and grow in freedom and security, fearing God and building a society of men loyal to the Alliance, "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (cf. Ex 19:6).
So Abraham, in the divine plan, is destined to become the "father of a multitude of nations" (Gen 17.5; cf. Rom 4:17-18) and to enter into a new land to live. But Sara, his wife, is sterile, unable to have children, and the country to which God leads him far from his native land, is already inhabited by other peoples, and will never really belong to them. The biblical narrator emphasizes this, although very discreetly: When Abraham arrived in the place of God's promise: "the Canaanites were then in the land" (Gen 12:6). The land that God gives to Abraham does not belong to him, he is a stranger and will remain so forever, with all that this entails: having no intentions of possession, always averting their poverty, seeing everything as a gift. This is also the spiritual condition of those who agree to follow the Lord, who decide to leave, accepting His call, under the sign of His invisible but powerful blessing. And Abraham, the "father of believers," accepted this call, in the faith. St. Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans: "He believed, hoping against hope, that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “Thus shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body as [already] dead (for he was almost a hundred years old) and the dead womb of Sarah. 20He did not doubt God’s promise in unbelief; rather, he was empowered by faith and gave glory to God 21and was fully convinced that what he had promised he was also able to do"(Rom 4.18 to 21).
Faith leads Abraham to on a paradoxical journey. He will be blessed, but without the visible signs of blessing: he is promised he will become a great nation, but with a life marked by the barrenness of Sarah his wife; he is brought to a new home but will have to live there as a foreigner, and the only possession of the land that he will be allowed will be that of a piece of land in which to bury Sarah (cf. Gen 23.1 to 20). Abraham was blessed because, in faith, he was able to discern the divine blessing going beyond appearances, trusting in God's presence even when His ways appear mysterious to him.
What does this mean for us? When we say, "I believe in God," we say, like Abraham: "I trust you, I entrust myself to You, Lord," but not as Someone to run to only in times of difficulty or to whom to dedicate a few moments of the day or of the week. Saying "I believe in God" means grounding my life in Him, letting His Word guide each day, in the concrete choices without fear of losing something of myself. When, in the Rite of Baptism, we are asked three times: "Do you believe?" In God, in Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church and the other truths of faith, the triple response is in the singular: "I believe," because it is my personal existence that reaches a turning point with the gift of faith, it is my life that must change, convert. Each time we participate in a Baptism we should ask ourselves how we live the great gift of faith every day.
Abraham, the believer, teaches us faith, and, as a stranger on earth, shows us the true homeland. Faith makes us pilgrims on earth, inserted into the world and history, but on the way to the heavenly homeland. Believing in God makes us carries of values which often do not coincide with the prevailing fashion and opinion, it requires us to adopt criteria and a conduct which do not belong to the common way of thinking. The Christian should not be afraid to go "against the grain" to live his or her faith, resisting the temptation to "conform". In many societies God has become the "great absentee" and there are many and diverse idols now in His place, above all possesion. And also the significant and positive progress in science and technology have created in humans an illusion of omnipotence and self-sufficiency, and a growing self-centeredness, which has created many imbalances within relationships and social behaviours.
And yet, the thirst for God (cf. Ps 63.2) has not been extinguished and the Gospel message continues to resonate through the words and deeds of many men and women of faith. Abraham, the father of believers, continues to be the father of many children who are willing to walk in his footsteps and set out in obedience to the divine call, trusting in the benevolent presence of the Lord and accepting His blessing to be a blessing for all. It is the blessed world of faith to which we are all called, to walk without fear following the Lord Jesus Christ. And sometimes it is difficult journey, one that even knows trial and death, but one that is open to life, in a radical transformation of reality that only the eyes of faith can see and enjoy in abundance.
Saying "I believe in God" leads us, then, to set out, to continually go beyond ourselves, just as Abraham, to bring the certainty that comes from faith: the certainty into our daily reality, that is, the presence of God in history, even today, a presence that brings life and salvation, and opens us to a future with Him for a fullness of life without sunset.
Summary in English:
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In our catechesis for this Year of Faith, we now turn to the Creed, the solemn profession of our faith as Christians. At the beginning of the Creed, we say “I believe in God”. Faith is our response to the God who first speaks to us, makes himself known and calls us to enter into communion with him. We hear God speaking to us in the Scriptures, which recount the history of his revelation, culminating in the coming of his Son, Jesus Christ. A central figure in this history of revelation is Abraham, the father and model of all believers (cf. Rom 4:11-12). Sustained by God’s blessing and trusting in his promises, Abraham set off into the unknown. Like Abraham, we too are called to let faith shape our thoughts and actions in accordance with God’s saving word, even when this runs contrary to the thinking and ways of this world. With the eyes of faith, we discern God’s presence and his promise of eternal life beyond the realities of this present existence. In opening ourselves to God’s blessing, we become in turn a blessing for others.
Greeting to English speaking pilgrims:
During this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I offer a warm welcome to the faculty and students of the Bossey Graduate School of Ecumenical Studies, with cordial good wishes for their studies. I also greet the military chaplains from the United Kingdom recently returned from Afghanistan. Upon all the English-speaking visitors present at today’s Audience, including the pilgrim and student groups from the United States, I invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace.