(The Nationalist, 5 January 2001)
What does it mean to “practise the faith”? I think that many people see it as a matter of going to Mass on Sunday and receiving the sacraments from time to time. They have a point, because those are important: they keep us in contact with God and with the community of faith. In a statistical survey of religious practice they are obvious indicators to look at.
One of the drawbacks to making a close link between, or identifying, the idea of religious practice and the presence of a living faith is that, if a person, for any reason, stops going to Mass, then he or she may conclude that they have given up the practice of the faith, and that may lead them to go further and let a whole lot more go besides. But there’s more to being a Christian than going to a church on Sunday.
Let me tell you a true story to illustrate what I mean. Some months ago in a town in Ireland a quarrel developed between two young men who lived on the same street. I don’t know what it was about, perhaps a girl-friend, or, given the times we are in, about drugs. One evening one of them became angry with the other and stabbed him. Fortunately, the injuries were not serious and the wounded man was discharged from hospital shortly afterwards. Then, believe it or not, the first man came back to his house later on and stabbed him again, this time killing him.
You can imagine what a shock that was to the two families. It must have sent them reeling with a sense of disbelief and unreality. Then a quiet miracle of grace took place. The mother of the murdered man went to see the mother of the murderer and told her that she forgave the other woman’s son his crime. She said to the mother that they had both lost a son, one who was dead and the other who would spend years in jail and emerge a different man. She went on to say that, although she didn’t go to Mass very often, she believed that one day she would have to stand before God in judgment and she could not ask for forgiveness if she were not prepared to give it. Each family had suffered a loss and they had to stand together and help each other.
For me, that was one of the best examples I have heard of reconciliation. Would anyone say that the mother who forgave was not practising the faith because, on her own admission, she didn’t go to Mass very often? I wouldn’t. On the contrary, she was a person who had taken the faith to heart in a way that few could match.
Saint Augustine wrote, ‘There are many whom God has and the church does not have. And there are many whom the church has, and God does not have them.’