Ordinary Time 30, Year C
- But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? (Lk. 18:8)
In Ps. 44, God’s people acknowledge that in the past he brought victory to them and shame to their enemies. God’s people, therefore, have boasted in him all the day long and have pledged to praise his name forever.
But such remembrance and proclamation of God’s past favors apparently only serve to make the people lament more bitterly: “But now you have rejected and disgraced us; you do not march out with our armies.” And they declare, moreover, after describing their rejection and disgrace in poetic and persuasive terms, “All this has come upon us, though we have not forgotten you, nor been disloyal to your covenant.” In the end, though, the people pray: “Rise up, help us! Redeem us as your love demands.”
Where there is prayer and acknowledgment of God amidst his seeming absence and silence, there is faith.
Surely, therefore, the Son of Man found faith in Vincent de Paul who, terribly assailed by doubts and suffering the blackest dereliction, showed nonetheless great and creative determination to keep the faith.
There was faith to be found too, of course, in Mother Teresa during those last 50 years of her life when, though apparently tormented by nagging doubts and experiencing intense spiritual emptiness and darkness, she just kept on longing for God anyway. Mother Teresa once said that she even stopped praying. But even if she did, she still persevered in her ministry to the poorest of the poor, which was indicative, it seems to me, of her openness at least to a spiritual counselor’s suggestion that her emptiness and darkness might be one way she was being invited by God to identify with the abandoned Christ on the cross and with the abandoned poor. And let me also point out, even if this may be too much of a stretch, that setting prayer aside, according to St. Vincent, does not necessarily mean leaving God.
Faith, in other words, is present in one who, doubting a great deal, is prompted to pray—I mean, in one like the tax collector of this Sunday’s gospel reading, who is without the least conviction of himself being justified and, much less, of himself being more righteous than everyone else. Unsure of himself with respect to salvation, the tax collector stands off at a distance and does not even dare raise his eyes to heaven; beating his breast and plainly declaring himself a sinner, he begs for mercy. Only someone, it seems to me, who does not entertain the slightest thought of certainty can admit, without reservation, that he is a sinner and is able to beg for mercy. Or at least I know from experience that each time a bit of certainty leaves me some room to maneuver, I end up saying, “Have mercy for I may be a sinner,” rather than, “Have mercy on me for I am a sinner.” And the sad thing about my so speaking in subjunctive mood, rather than in indicative mood, is that I cannot look forward to getting a declaration of sure justification from the one whose teaching is, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Certainty, then, leads to uncertainty; and uncertainty makes for certainty. Consequently, it seems to me better that I look up to the likes of St. Vincent, Bl. Teresa and the tax collector in the Church. If, like them, I humbly recognize my utter poverty—in every sense of the word—before God and cry out to him for mercy and help, I will surely be heard. For the Lord hears the cry of the poor, he responds to the prayer of the lowly, and he alone awards the crown of righteousness to those who keep longing for his appearance.
And should I feel disappointed and disheartened that in the Church there seems to be leaders playing the role of the Pharisee, I ought to let Father Robert P. Maloney, C.M., remind me (“Ten Helpful Distinctions,” in the October 14, 1995 issue of America):
- The life of the Church throbs in the hearts of all believers, especially in the most humble,
- the most abandoned, the poor. Saint Vincent de Paul used to say: “The poor have the true religion.”
There throbs the true religion, the true faith, yes, in the hearts of those who experience abandonment. These are the same ones who, discerning the body while gathering to eat the bread and drink the cup, in remembrance of Jesus and his saving deeds, proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes (1 Cor. 11:23-29)—until their longing for the appearance of the seemingly absent and silent Lord is fully satisfied.