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The Catholic Moment: There are only witnesses

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

By Sister Carol Gaeke, O.P.

At our first Communion retreat Bobby sat rapt, his arms crossed over his heart, as I dramatically told the Emmaus story. He couldn’t contain his excitement and blurted out, “I can feel my heart getting warm all over waiting to receive Jesus.”

Bobby was experiencing the same emotions that those early disciples felt on encountering the risen Jesus. I was humbled at his excitement as I exercised my role as catechist. Bobby was on a journey with God of which I was privileged to be a part.

The words from Sunday’s first reading are a challenge to all of us who would share faith with children and adults. “Let us see whether his words be true” (Wisdom 2:17). What a powerful statement to pass on to catechists in our parish programs and schools. What truth do we proclaim when we speak? When all is said and done, ultimate proclamation is to be witnesses to God.

Years ago my supervisor asked me to define for him formation as opposed to teaching religion. He wasn’t sure he liked the idea of formation. I explained that religious formation is more comprehensive than just teaching, as it is about helping to develop a child’s relationship with God through prayer. It is about celebrating this relationship by leading them through the “doors to the sacred,” the sacraments and, through these experiences of God in prayer, they are invited to see how to live with God as their guide. 

They are to live in such a way that that through them their personal lives are morally grounded in charity and justice. They are called to build a world where all people are able to claim their dignity as children of God. All these components of prayer, sacraments, morality and peace and justice are understood, developed and enhanced through learning the teachings of our religion. It is more than learning the right answers. It is growing in relationship with God through Jesus.

We can teach religion. We can’t teach faith. Faith is a gift, an encounter, a relationship with God. Rabbi Abraham Heschel said, “There are no final proofs for the existence of God. There are only witnesses.”

All believers are called to be witnesses, or how else can others come to faith in God? There is no other proof. Even Thomas Aquinas said there are no final proofs for the existence of God. We can only prove that it is not unreasonable for intelligent people to believe in God. Catechists are those who witness to God, to faith. By their own faith and encounter with God they let their students know there is a God who loves them completely and calls them into relationship. They plow the ground for God to plant the seeds of faith developed by their parents.

Catechists open this teaching up by being witnesses, but only if their words are true, based on their own encounter with God. Bobby offers us a challenge. What child or adult will each of us excite by our lives of witness?

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