This post is part of the series on the Faith of Theologians. Read the introduction to the series here.
To talk about one’s faith is more difficult than one would think. Faith, though deeply personal, is not at all private. I find that I cannot talk about my faith without speaking of the faith of my parents, and even of their parents. But my faith is not theirs; my faith has been reshaped and refined through encounters with great theologians who were my teachers and with even greater ones whose timeless books were assigned reading as I pursued three very different degrees in theology. It has been shaped in friendships, through love and service and loss. And my faith has been tested, challenged, and shaped by the young people who were in youth groups, RCIA classes, and high school and college theology classes that I have led or taught throughout my adult life.
I grew up in a home where every Sunday was spent at Church, and everyone went either to a Catholic school or to religious education classes. But there were also family rosaries and monthly family trips to confession. There was prayer at meals and prayers at the start of trips. There were conversations and readings about popes and saints. And, of course, every bit of family life was shot through with conversations about how faith (and Jesus, the Church, and the saints) showed us how to live a good and holy life. My three brothers and I fought and picked on one another plenty, but the call to be more loving, to ask for and to offer forgiveness, was always there.
As I entered my teenage and young adult years, I encountered youth and campus ministry that felt deeply nourishing to me. A parish youth minister encouraged me to meditate on scripture, and I found that much more satisfying than the rote recitation of Hail Marys in the rosary. That felt in many ways like my first real encounter with God. It made me hungry for spiritual knowledge and probably, more immediately than anything else, pushed me to study theology. It took me a long time to understand that years of Mass and rosaries had paved the way for the richness of that experience. Over time, I came to realize that Christ present in the Eucharist and present in the least of these laid the groundwork for Christ present in my life of “private” prayer and meditation. (And, lest I seem too dismissive of the rosary: years later I rediscovered something my parents had told me my whole life: the point of the rosary is not so much to recite the prayers as to meditate on the mysteries. The beads and the prayers they represent are just a piece of the rosary; the real work is attending to the mysteries; the real fruit comes from the interior, invisible work.)
My father made sure that we went to Mass and confession and prayed together as a family, including at least three rosaries per week. But my mom was the one who taught us how to love. She made sure people who were lonely or excluded were welcome in our home. We gave rides to people who needed rides to church. She worked in a shelter for women and children, most of whom were victims of domestic violence. She was a constant advocate for those with mental illness, an issue that has long affected our family directly. She was tirelessly pro-life. She embodied for me the preferential option for the poor long before I ever learned the term.
When I went to college at Notre Dame and became a theology major, I also got involved both in the Center for Social Concerns and in campus ministry. I was focused on social justice, on relationality, on spirituality. I think that if you had asked me at that moment, I might have told you that I was moving toward choosing the faith of my mom over the faith of my dad; I might have said that I was letting go of rituals, rules, and piety in the name of love and justice. For now, though, I think that I have managed to hold on to all of it, though my sense of the proper balance shifts from time to time.
Two of my early jobs had a big impact on me and how I see both my own faith and my role as someone responsible to pass on the faith to others. I worked for 3 years as a Director of Faith Formation in a small parish in the Archdiocsese of Seattle. Later, I taught high school theology in a small town in Texas. In both of these situations, I realized that, for these young people, I was the Magisterium. I was the one who represented to them what the Church taught. I remember talking with the pastor I worked with about my struggles with this, and he said to me: “To be fair to them, you have to give them the very best the tradition has to offer, and let them struggle with that on their own terms. If they struggle with your doubts and questions instead, they won’t have the same chance to grow in faith that you have had.” That has been important to me ever since, both personally and professionally. When I have doubts, questions, or resistance to magisterial teachings, I try to read “the best the tradition has to offer” in defense of those ways of thinking. As a teacher, I try to offer those sources to my students (especially lower-level students in basic courses), and lead with the wisdom of the tradition, rather than my own questions and doubts.
There was a moment in my life when I wondered if my differences with the magisterium might mean that I should leave the Roman Catholic Church. But as I thought about all the people who had taught me the Catholic faith and had lived it with me, I realized that the Catholic Church is my home no matter what. These are the people who have formed my thinking, even my questions and doubts. And not long after that, my mother died, after a long battle with lung cancer. Friends and family surrounded me who gently reminded me of that basic but crucial piece of our faith: love is stronger than death. Though that loss rocked my soul, the church (in the broadest sense of the word) held me close and professed “love is stronger than death” again and again until I was able to believe it on my own, and even to proclaim it to others. There were dark nights of the soul, nights of deep despair. When I didn’t know what to pray for, I reached for a rosary. One gift of the rosary is that when you do not know how or what to pray, you can go through the motions and pray anyway. But somehow, I emerged on the other side with deeper faith, stronger hope, a greater ability to love. And it was much easier for me to worry less about the smaller arguments about church teaching and focus more on the more basic, more important, faith that we share.
I try to live (as Daniel Berrigan once said of Dorothy Day) as though the Truth is true. I’m blessed to be able to live and study that truth and to share it with others. That is my vocation and task as a person of faith and as a theologian.