Many Catholics struggle in their faith even after baptism. What is the reason? It is because they are alone in their faith. Fresh after baptism or a retreat, they are filled with the Spirit, but very soon their enthusiasm dies down. This is because they do not have Catholic friends to share their faith with and they do not belong to a faith-sharing community. Of course some do belong to a Catholic community, such as a church organization, but most of these organizations are functional in nature. They offer a service to the community, which in itself is noble. But being active in church does not necessarily translate to growth in spiritual life, whether in terms of prayer or doctrinal growth.
Indeed, the lesson we can learn as we celebrate the Feast of St Thomas is that, cut off from the community, our faith is weak. This was what happened to Thomas. When the Lord appeared to the disciples, he was not around. When the disciples told him, “’We have seen the Lord’, he answered, ‘Unless I see the holes that the nails made in his hands and can put my finger into the holes they made, and unless I can put my hand into his side, I refuse to believe.’” But when the Lord appeared to them the second time, Thomas was with the disciples. The Lord said to him, “Put your finger here; look, here are my hands. Give me your hand; put it into my side. Doubt no longer but believe.”
Thomas was able to make a confession of faith this time, not simply because Jesus appeared to him but because he was with the Twelve. Thomas had seen the wounds of Jesus, but in His humanity, not as God. Thomas did not believe that Jesus was Lord because he saw the wounds, but he saw the signs and arrived at the conclusion. Thomas replied, “My Lord and my God!” So Thomas was not exempted from making an act of faith. The wounds of Jesus in themselves were not an indication that He is Lord and God. Confessing it requires an act of faith. After all, He could be just a resuscitated Jesus, like Lazarus.
Consequently, if we are to grow in faith, we need to belong to a community of faith. For this reason, St Paul wrote, “You are no longer aliens or foreign visitors: you are citizens like all the saints, and part of God’s household. You are part of a building that has the apostles and prophets for its foundations, and Christ Jesus himself for its main cornerstone.” We are called to be members of the family of God. As members of God’s household, we are called to support each other in our faith journey, like members of a family supporting each other in daily life, in good times and in bad. It is the love of the family and their support that keeps us going each day in the hurly burly of life. We cannot be alone.
To belong to the family of God is the way in which we align ourselves with the Lord in the way we look at life. “As every structure is aligned on him, all grow into one holy temple in the Lord; and you too, in him, are being built into a house where God lives, in the Spirit.” When all of us work and walk together in faith, this is how we can withstand the secularistic climate. Indeed, this is more urgent today as our Catholic Schools no longer have such a dominant Catholic ambience as before, when most of our students were Catholic. Even in Catholic schools, Catholic students are a minority now. All the more, it is important that we create cell groups or faith-sharing groups among our Catholics at school, at work, and in the neighbourhood, so that we will always have our fellow Catholics to lean on, to grow and to feel supported.
Why is belonging to a community of faith is so crucial to our faith? This is because they provide us the signs of Christ’s presence. When Jesus said to Thomas, “You believe because you can see me. Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe”, He was not discounting the need for signs for credibility. Faith in Jesus is not asking us to take a blind leap. We have signs for believing. Indeed, there must be a basis for making an act of faith or else it would be unreasonable. Faith is not without reason, or worse still, irrational. So there must be signs for faith. St Thomas saw the signs of faith when he saw the wounds of Christ. But he did not see the Lord. He only saw the humanity of Christ. Yet, from that sign, he made the leap of faith to confess that Jesus is Lord.
So what are these signs that invite us to faith? These signs come from the testimony of the Church. Indeed, the Church as the Sacrament of Christ’s presence gives us the signs for faith. The Church is the presence of Jesus, especially in the sacraments. In the gospel, Jesus, breathing into them the Holy Spirit, told the apostles, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (Jn 20:21) After the resurrection, the Risen Lord, who transcends space and time, now lives in the disciples who, having been baptized in the Holy Spirit, are now also anointed to proclaim the Good News to all creation. (Mk 16:15) And He further guaranteed how He would act in and through them. “And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (Mk 16:17f)
Firstly, we have the teaching of the apostles and the prophets of the early Church. These teachings of the apostles are put into the written form in the Bible. So by listening to the Word of God as proclaimed by the apostles, we hear the Lord speaking to us and confirming His word by signs and wonders. Indeed by hearing the Word of God we are brought to faith. St Paul wrote, “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” (Rom 10:14f)
Secondly, the teaching of the apostles continues through the successors of the apostles, the college of bishops and through them, the priests proclaim the Word of God. From the magisterium, we hear the official teachings of the Church on Christ and His Words. Through the preaching of the appointed ministers, the Word of God that is proclaimed continues to give life, faith and hope to those who hear them. Consequently, it is indispensable that preachers prepare the Word of God and those who listen are called to listen in faith.
Thirdly, we have the witnessing of the gospel in daily life among the Catholics in the last 2000 years. Millions had died for Christ. Thousands were martyred for their faith. Many lived heroic lives, giving themselves for the service of God and their fellowmen. When we think of the beautiful churches and basilicas in Europe, we can see how much Catholics had given of themselves for the greater glory of Christ. How could Catholics today continue to give themselves so generously to the service of the Church, country and humanity, if not for the fact that Christ means much to them; and through their experience of His love through divine assistance, healing and miracles, the faith of the Church continues to testify to the living God.
Fourthly, we have our own personal encounters with the Lord. Many of us have encountered the Lord Jesus in different degrees and in different ways. We have encountered His love through the love of the Christian community. It is always the concrete acts of love that we experience from the Church, the pastors and the people of God that convict us of His presence and that His love is real. Many have encountered Him through intimacy in prayer, contemplation and worship. The experience of God’s love has changed many lives and empowered them to live a life of freedom and joy. These are the signs that He is alive and present in our midst.
Consequently, it is important that we make possible a faith community that enables us to encounter the Lord within and through each other in the community. Parents must begin by making their family a miniature faith community. They should gather the family, not just to pray but to share the Word of God together and to testify how God works in their daily life. Parents must cultivate this habit of making the family members share their experience of how God is at work in their daily lives. Unless we testify to each other how God is working in our lives, we would soon forget that He is alive in our midst, or remain unaware of the love He has shown to us each day. From the establishment of a faith-sharing group in the family, it will then be easier to share the Word of God with the larger community of Catholics in the Church, in the neigbhbourhood or in our organizations. The reason why there is a lack of sharing of the Word of God in cell groups or neighborhood groups is because the culture of giving testimony to the power of God at work in our lives has never been cultivated from young, beginning with the family.
It is critical that more of such faith-sharing communities be formed in our parishes. When faith is not shared, it will remain individualistic and weak. We need to hear that God is working in our lives so that those who are going through difficult times could be strengthened in their faith and be given hope. Indeed, St Thomas teaches us that we need to stay within the Christian community if we are to see the Risen Lord. Most of us would not have the time to attend formal lectures on the doctrinal and intellectual aspect of our faith. But if we come together to share the Word of God, we will learn about Jesus personally and that will help to see us through the daily struggles of life. Even if our intellectual faith does not grow as much, our personal conviction of Jesus would have grown. And that is all that is needed to ground us in our faith till we can formally study scriptures and theology at an opportune time.