8 St. Joseph, Model of Faith – Opening Conference, Fall 2012

Brothers and sisters, welcome to a new formation year. What a great honor, what a privilege it is to be here among you, trusting in God that the days ahead are going to be filled with blessings and opportunities. What brought you here? I warrant that it is the same thing that will sustain you in the coming weeks and months, and that is a conviction that God has called you here, at this time, for a deep consideration of your vocation.

How can it not be so? Brothers and sisters, we hope to create for you here an environment that will enable you to seriously consider who you are called to be, as God’s own son, as his own daughter. As we begin this new formation year, I am very conscious of the fact that this is the year our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, has established as the Year of Faith. In the spring semester, I offered some general reflections on the life of faith and the place of faith in the Church.

As we begin this new formation year, I would like to turn more specifically to some of the subject matter the Holy Father would like to see addressed during these months of blessing and opportunity. In a rather particular way, my future conferences this semester will focus on the anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. The Church will recognize this year the 50th anniversary of this great council, convoked by Blessed John XXIII. In the coming months, I would like to look at the four major documents of Vatican II.

Today, however, as we are launching this new formation year, I would like to spend some time meditating on St. Joseph, a figure who can truly show us the meaning of faith. So, I return today to a central question raised in this year: what is faith?

While we could examine this question from the standpoint of the great theological minds of our tradition, I would like to take an even more fundamental approach and ask the core question, the question that settles at the very heart of our work here: What is faith to us? How central is the life of faith to our lives? How can the figure of St. Joseph guide us in our journey of faith?

I want to begin today by proposing a bit of a dilemma. It is simply this: Faith is not simple. Regardless of the tenets of our more evangelical brethren, faith is not something either easily attained or maintained. Faith is complex and, as such, it incorporates actions proper to the entire person. It is not merely an act of the mind, or the spirit, or the will, or the body. It is a simultaneous action of all of these components.

That is to say, faith is a synthetic movement in the human person; it brings the person, often separated not only by modern categorizations, but also by modern conventions, into a unity, a completeness and a wholeness. It is easier to think of ourselves as mere machines or mere spirits or mere minds, but the human person cannot be reduced because the human person is, ultimately, unfathomable mystery.

Blessed John Paul II says this about St. Joseph: From the time of the Annunciation, both Joseph and Mary found themselves, in a certain sense, at the heart of the mystery hidden for ages in the mind of God, a mystery which had taken on flesh: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). Faith, as an action of the human person, is therefore a complex action, just as the human person is complex. Its life is also unfathomable mystery, not in the sense of being incapable of understanding, but in the sense of being infinitely understandable.

How was it for St. Joseph? A simple man, God nevertheless gave to St. Joseph a tremendous call, a tremendous gift to be sure, but also a tremendous call. How could St. Joseph, receiving God’s word in a dream, have comprehended the outcome of what the Lord, through an angel, proposed?

In a word, he could not. He had to step out in faith and in trust of God’s plan, How can it not be so with us? Do you know completely why you are here? I would wager not. God is not calling us to a complete understanding, at least not yet. As with St. Joseph, He is calling us to step out in faith. Accepting this premise, I will begin today by examining faith from three perspectives. Again, they are not exclusive or exhaustive; they are merely three angles for looking at the complex whole.

First: Faith is an action of the mind. In many places in his voluminous writings, the Canadian theologian Bernard Lonergan speaks of the types of conversion. For Longeran, there are three types of conversion. The highest, or most complete, of these types is religious conversion, a conversion that seizes the entirety of the human person.

Prior to this culmination, however, the individual experiences other types of conversion. For example, he or she experiences a moral conversion, an experience that touches upon the action of the human person. Lonergan also speaks of intellectual conversion. This is an action of the mind, an action that apprehends the Truth of faith claims even if that Truth is not yet fully manifested in religious or moral conversion.

Lonergan’s point is that there is a necessary intellectual component of faith, a need to know and have a convincing experience of Truth when wrestling theological ideas. Much of what you will do here will be focused on this type of conversion, of learning the Truth of our faith and making that Truth an integral part of your person, your personality.

Here we must wrestle with the intellectual tradition of our Church. Here we must learn to learn well not only for the sake of getting a grade, but more for the sake of improving our understanding, of learning to express ourselves in the Church’s teaching. Here we must learn to be authentic men of study so as to become living witnesses of our study.

In the Rite of Ordination, the bishop says these words to the newly ordained deacon: Believe what you read, teach what you believe and practice what you teach. Reading and studying the message of Christ expressed in the heart of the Church’s intellectual life is essential to the task you someday hope to take up in the priesthood.

Here we might do well to contemplate the situation of St. Joseph. Of course, when we examine the evidence of the Gospel, we find next to nothing by way of background about St. Joseph. We must conjecture that he was a man of his time, nothing more, nothing less. He was a man with certain ideas and dreams about not only the life of faith, but about his personal life as well.

His intellectual world was circumscribed by his cultural situation, and yet, when offered in a dream, through the invitation of the angel, a daring, unprecedented opportunity, Joseph, the conventional man, did not hesitate to accept it. He was able to find within himself the resolve of intellectual conversion. He was able to overthrow his preconceived expectations.

It seems to me that is the project for us in this Year of Faith, to see in St. Joseph’s ready assent to the audacious invitation of God a model for how we, in our skeptical environment, can learn to trust, even in our minds. Unlike the case of St. Joseph, intellectual conversion, according to Fr. Lonergan, is gradual; it comes in small doses over time and has a cumulative effect.

In this sense, Lonergan echoes the thought of Blessed John Henry Newman that the threads of conversion can seldom be delineated, that we come to faith and its complete acceptance as one would come to the intertwining of a rope, gradual, incremental, but solid. Again, when we consider the importance of intellectual conversion, we find a great deal of significance for the work we do here.

We cannot have faith, finally have faith, completely have faith, without some desire to engage the intellectual life of the Church. This is not to say that only the super-intelligent, only the high-minded, only those who study theology, can have true faith. Such an assertion would belie the experience of anyone who has engaged a true life of faith among many of the folks we find in our parishes.

Our understanding of the interface of faith and intellect is something like this: It is not how much you know, but how much you desire to know. Many of our faithful are lacking in catechetical accomplishment, often through no fault of their own. Yet, in real faith, they desire to know more. So often catechesis is simply giving the faithful the tools they need to achieve a higher engagement with the intellectual aspects of faith.

Certainly St. Joseph, certainly Our Lady, teach us that. The very models of faith knew God and they knew Him at the level that incorporates but transcends the mind. One thing is clear from the Gospel evidence, however; their intellectual assent to faith had consequences, the consequences of a deeper knowledge.

What is crucially important here is the sanctification of daily life, a sanctification that each person must acquire according to his or her own state, and one which can be promoted according to a model accessible to all people: “St. Joseph is the model of those humble ones that Christianity raises up to great destinies; … he is the proof that in order to be a good and genuine follower of Christ, there is no need of great things – it is enough to have the common, simple and human virtues, but they need to be true and authentic.”

Why does the desire to know more about faith come to the seeker after faith? It comes because the intellect is a part of the human person. When faith truly arrives in the life of the individual, it attracts all of the aspects of that person. There is no gainsaying the importance of learning in life. We learn day-by-day or we perish.

What is true of the natural man is also true of the spiritual man. We learn or we die. Is it not therefore imperative on the ministers of the Church not only to be learned, but to aid their parishioners, their brothers and sisters in faith, into a deeper understanding of the Truth exemplified in the Gospel of Christ?

In other words, people want to learn and we have the obligation to teach them. In order to teach them, we must know ourselves and thus we come to the impetus placed on intellectual formation in this seminary. Aside from the question of why our intellectual formation is essential, we must also ask how we learn.

Learning, again as a complex component of the whole person, takes place in many ways. It is incumbent upon the quality educator to realize that all of those placed under his tutelage do not learn in the same way. Some learn in the classroom, others in the field of experience. Some learn through the mediation of literature and books, others through engaging processes with others.

There are two important aspects of this for our work here. The first is to be aware of how we learn and to provide opportunities for learning based upon this insight. In other words, we teachers have the responsibility to vary our teaching to meet the needs of those whose intellectual formation has been entrusted to us. Second, we need to challenge our students to learn in new ways. If you are an experiential learner, you need to gain greater comfort in the world of books. If you are a literary learner, you need to get out into the field more.

What is the outcome of our learning? There is only one outcome. It is Christ. In his important work, The Idea of a University, Cardinal Newman broaches the question as to why Christians should study all branches of learning. His conclusion is that everything, ultimately, leads us back to the source of not only learning, but life, God.

When we consider the significance of a work such as Newman’s in our setting, we must conclude that theological education includes, of course, a familiarity with theology, systematic and pastoral, the history of the Church, sacred Scripture, canon law and the host of other particular disciplines that circumscribe our days here.

It also includes a more radical acquaintance with other forms of education, other branches of knowledge. Here I would especially mention literature, the arts, sciences, branches of “secular” history, as well as practical skills in various disciplines. We cannot expect, if we truly know our Creator, that He is to be found merely between the covers of theological tomes. His revelation is not so limited.

Learning to “read” God outside of the confines of specific Church genres is not only possible, as Newman has told us, it is necessary. We must learn to find God in the quotidian aspects of our existence. We must realize that God is as much in the engineering project, or the fiscal budget, as he is in Christology or Trinity or any other discipline. Learning to read the presence of God outside of theological specificity, and finding Him in places where we might least expect, becomes the mark of the truly skilled theologian.

Anyone can find God in the writings of St. Thomas. Can we find God in culture, even popular culture? As real theologians, we must learn to do both. Because while we may lament that the folks to whom we will minister in the future may not read St. Thomas, they will be getting their images of God and their ideas about the Church from somewhere.

Can we teach them to read correctly the “signs of the times” as well as the eternal theology of the Holy Church? Can we see in the life of St. Joseph a clear example of this? Can we learn to do so ourselves? To me, this is the real challenge of intellectual faith today. It is a challenge for our work here and for you in your future ministry.

Second: Faith is an act of the spirit. The St. Joseph we encounter in the Gospel of St. Luke is very much a man of action. He takes his wife to Bethlehem. He finds a place for them in the crowded town. In the Gospel of St. Matthew, he takes his young family to Egypt to protect them from the maw of Herod.

As was the case with Joseph, faith for us is an act of the spirit. As Catholics, we may have more difficulty with this position. Faith as a spiritual movement within the person is not alien to the Catholic faith any more than an authentic spirituality is not alien to individual Catholics. It is true that we have often in our tradition been at a loss as to how to understand and incorporate this act of faith.

One reason for this is that a distinctive “charismatic” faith is often associated with the movement of faith in the individual. Catholicism, rightly, has given little consideration to personal acts of faith in favor of public and communal actions. We can see how the example of St. Joseph is followed here. He placed the needs of the others before his own selfish interests.

Nevertheless, the action of the Spirit has always been alive in the Church. When we consider faith as an act of the spirit, we might also consider how these various actions engage one another. I grow and I learn more about my faith and I respond to this intellectual action by a movement within me, a recognition of the Truth active in my life. Faith as an act of the Spirit is also a kind of knowledge, but often a more esoteric, we might say synthetic, knowledge.

I know what I know, but I do not necessarily know how I know it. If we return to Cardinal Newman’s analogy of the rope, faith as an act of the Spirit is more the use of the rope than its creation. Within this perspective, we see how the sense of charism is very much alive in the Church. The movement of the faith of the Spirit is the movement from what we know to a way of life.

This is a great challenge for our times, because we often believe culturally that there is a split between knowledge and action. We know something to be true, but we do not act on it. How can this be? If we do not act on it, then in a theological sense we do not accept the truth of the premise.

In a context such as ours, we might offer this analogy. If we accept the Truth about our vocations, then we will act accordingly. The faith of the mind will engage the faith of the Spirit. Our spiritual lives will come into alignment with the Truth we have acknowledged intellectually. When we truly understand what the Church teaches, we will stand under it.

This is not necessarily the product of greater education, unless we mean by education its basic meaning of “leading through.” Some people learn by being led through the complexities of Aristotle, others through the complexities of life. What we learn, no matter how we learn it, is manifested in our character and in our actions.

The Gospels clearly describe the fatherly responsibility of Joseph toward Jesus. “For salvation – which comes through the humanity of Jesus – is realized in actions which are an everyday part of family life, in keeping with that ‘condescension’ which is inherent in the economy of the Incarnation. The gospel writers carefully show how in the life of Jesus nothing was left to chance, but how everything took place according to God’s predetermined plan.” Is it not so with us? Of course it is, and in that St. Joseph can be our sure guide, our principal example.

Finally: Faith is an act of the body. We are accustomed to thinking of St. Joseph as a man of action. Faith is an act of the body is a principle readily at his disposal, not only in the coarse sense, but even in the more refined sense of his realization, his corporeal realization of what the service of God in the life of Jesus was to cost him in terms of the body.

It cost him the natural expectations of marriage and family. In his celibacy, Joseph shows us how the principle of corporeality functions at the very inception, the very conception of the life of the Church. The principle of bodiliness in our faith is something that comes to us rather late, but also rather forcefully in our Tradition.

In the history of the Church, bodiliness is a quality often viewed with suspicion. The early philosophical traditions upon which the foundations of our theological edifice were built were basically Platonic, thereby relegating the body to an arena of sinfulness, even danger. And yet, an authentic understanding of the Truth of our faith, the basic Truth of our faith, the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ, prohibits any problematic aspect of corporeality. As the Incarnate Word shared the particular natures of human and divine, so, too, his inheritance.

The principle of the bodiliness of our faith can be seen everywhere in a sacramental Church, most significantly in the physicality of the abiding presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. The Blessed Sacrament is not a symbol; it is the bodily, physical presence of the Savior of Humanity, a corporeality that must spill over into our situation as well.

The question of the bodiliness of faith is, therefore, not a theological question. If anything, it is a moral question. It touches upon what we, in sin, do with our bodies, not whether our bodies are holy. And if we follow this premise, do we not see other tenets as well? The mind is not bad or corrupt; it is what we do with our minds. Sin is not in the body. It is not in the mind. It is in the free will of the person.

Furthermore, in Joseph, the apparent tension between the active and the contemplative life finds an ideal harmony that is only possible for those who possess the perfection of charity. Following St. Augustine’s well-known distinction between the love of the truth (caritas veritatis) and the practical demands of love (necessitas caritatis), [41] we can say that Joseph experienced both love of the truth – that pure contemplative love of the Divine Truth that radiated from the humanity of Christ – and the demands of love – that equally pure and selfless love required for his vocation to safeguard and develop the humanity of Jesus, which was inseparably linked to His Divinity.

In looking at the situation we encounter here, I want to reiterate that I estimate, more importantly the Church estimates, that “everything is formation.” Formation is not what you do in spiritual direction. It is not what you do in the classroom, in the reconciliation room or in the chapel only. Formation is what you do every moment of your lives. The act of faith is an act of the body as much as it is an act of the Spirit, an act of the mind.

Sometimes seminarians can become entrapped in the vision that these things are separate. My mind is good. I hold orthodox and right opinions. My spirit is pretty good. I say my prayers and do what I am supposed to do, even when no one is looking. My body is wretched. I struggle with various issues of health, impurity, a lack of discipline.

Chances are that there is more to this picture than often meets the eye. In his Theology of the Body, Blessed John Paul II noted that the discipline of the body is often tied to the discipline of the mind and the spirit. We only find completeness in ourselves when all of these aspects of faith are working together. We also note that this is seldom the case. It was true in the life of Joseph. It is seldom the case with us; we struggle.

We need formation, here and throughout our lives, not because we know everything but because we do not. What does that imply for us? Be open. Listen and learn. If you think you know everything, you are already lost. You do not. We need spiritual formation because we are not complete; none of us are.

We cannot be complete this side of the beatific vision. Your spiritual director does not need for you to come to him time and again and rehearse your virtues. Neither does he need to hear what a wretch you are. What your spiritual director needs to hear is that you are a man who is struggling in the vortex of virtue and challenge. The vortex is a place where you can move and even journey. The stasis of inauthentic holiness or inauthentic wretchedness is not.

We need bodily formation. One thing I have tried to instill here, among others, is the importance of our environment. How many of you do not know that if your surround yourself with beauty, with holy images and with culture, you may learn, even by osmosis, to become a man in love with holiness?

If you surround yourself with that which is not holy but ephemerally stimulating, then you may never learn that connection between the sacred and secular that Newman spoke of so eloquently. You may never become a man of discernment. What you may become is a dichotomized man, a split man who operates on two different planes, the false plane of God and the true plane of his baseness. If you want to be a two-faced man, then leave today. We have no need to form you into what the Church already has too many of.

But if you want to be a true man of faith, then welcome here, struggle here. We will accept your struggles as long as you are honest. We will be with you in your doubts and your trials because all of us have doubts and trials. We will help you effectively discern your call, whatever that call may be, because of this we are fully convinced: God wants you. He wants you completely. He wants you today, especially since you are not yet perfect.

What does the Church expect in this year? I would say primarily, our Holy Father has called this Year of Faith for: enlivening, a new sense of sincerity, a New Evangelization.

The Second Vatican Council made all of us sensitive once again to the “great things which God has done,” and to that “economy of salvation” of which St. Joseph was a special minister. Commending ourselves, then, to the protection of him to whose custody God “entrusted his greatest and most precious treasures,” [50] let us at the same time learn from him how to be servants of the “economy of salvation.”

May St. Joseph become for all of us an exceptional teacher in the service of Christ’s saving mission, a mission that is the responsibility of each and every member of the Church: husbands and wives, parents, those who live by the work of their hands or by any other kind of work, those called to the contemplative life and those called to the apostolate.

What does the Year of Faith mean for us? It is the renewal of the fundamental principles to which we are called. What are those principles? What governs our life here? I would say what governs our life is what governed the life of St. Joseph.

Honesty. Integrity. Holiness. Authentic humanity. Service. In a word, a Greek word. Arête. Arête, or excellence, was a central principle for our ancestors in faith. It is our premise of life as well in this seminary. We strive for excellence in what we do.

St. Joseph is an example of faith for us and an example of discipleship in a way highly productive for the priestly vocation. St. Joseph is a man whose aspirations and dreams were turned completely to the love of God and his nascent Church. In that, he offers us a path to follow, a way of achieving our goal of being completely at the disposal of God’s designs, God’s wishes.

In connection with this, to honor the Year of Faith, I have commissioned an image of St. Joseph to hang here, in our chapel.

What does this image show us?

The love of Joseph was an unquestioning love, a love that could have come only from a complete embrace of the grace of God.

The love of Joseph was so profound and intimate it offered to the child Jesus the basic needs of bodily and spiritual care.

The love of Joseph was a selfless love, a love that put the needs of the body of Christ before his own needs, and in that as well he offers us an important example.

We see that love of Joseph in this image, powerful and intimate as it is.

Joseph is strong.

Joseph is tender.

Joseph is nurturing.

The infant is accepting.

The infant is in need.

The infant depends upon the foster father.

The infant is Christ and Christ is the Church and we are Joseph.

Brothers and sisters, if we can accomplish these realities, if we can make these principles living practices rather than dead precepts, then this Year of Faith will be a time of renewal for all of us, for our parishes, our dioceses, our religious communities, and for this seminary and school of theology.

What do we expect this year? We expect to change. We anticipate growth in life and the spirit. We look forward, always forward, with new vigor, new energy, new vitality, new friendship, new love. We plan for it and God gives the growth. He truly gives the growth.

We cannot accomplish these lofty goals alone. We do not need to. We have each other. We have our families and those who love and support us. We have our communities of faith and our dioceses. We have the saints, in particular, St. Joseph. What I find most interesting about St. Joseph is that, in the entire course of the Gospel accounts, in our complete understanding of him, he never speaks a word.

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