Last month I had the privilege of traveling with priests from around the country who had been part of my ordination class some 50 years earlier. We gathered in the city of Rome where we had received that sacramental commission and shared our experiences from all those decades of ministry. Steeped in a healthy nostalgia and mellowed by so much pastoral experience, we laughed about days gone by and sifted out what had been perennially valuable for the work to which we had each been assigned over these five decades.
At the end of our formation back in 1960, each of our names had been inscribed in the registers of that seminary, followed by the traditional phrase: Reversus est ad patriam ad evangelium praedicandum (“He returned to his native country to preach the Gospel”).
Without proof, it has always been my assumption that the words were borrowed from the practice of the older British seminary also in that city and from a tumultuous age long ago when indeed their graduates had indeed returned to England as priests who were often destined to martyrdom. Our meager sufferings were certainly miniscule in comparison!
During our reunion last month which coincided with the sesquicentennial celebration of the seminary itself, there were theological conferences on the nature and exercise of priestly ministry.
Naturally, given the context of Rome, we heard a strong emphasis on the importance of the apostolic tradition and the role played by that tradition in guiding and shaping our faith. Ministry in union with Peter and his current successor was a theme which permeated all the talks, and an audience with Pope Benedict XVI was a highlight of our time together.
We are in fact a church marked by that quality of “apostolic” and duly proud of our being rooted in the teaching of the apostles as lived and taught by that same church.
One afternoon, however, we happened to visit a church which had been seasonally decorated with an elaborate Christmas crèche at the very moment when a father had brought his young son to the display. The panoply was done in the classic Italian style, namely, expanded with figures of any number of villagers, each doing his or her traditional occupation: pizza makers, waiters, women washing clothes, men riding donkeys to market and a host of other activities. The man carefully picked up each image and explained the Christmas story to the wide-eyed child. The scene was a magnificent example of another part of the way the faith is passed on, not simply through formal preaching or catechetical classes, but through the words and example of countless generations of faith-filled parents.
On another occasion some years ago, while visiting the historic shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, I watched a man and his young son, slowly and carefully making their prayerful way on their knees across the Plaza to the Basilica.
Again and again I am graced to witness the work of parents passing on the faith to their daughters and sons. It often begins with simply showing how to make the sign of the cross. This is a testimony to the fact that parents are the first and most important teachers of faith for our children!
Vatican II’s “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation” addressed the triple manner in which our Catholic faith has developed over the centuries, not adding new elements but deepening our understanding of the mysteries we teach: 1) the contemplation and study of believers, 2) the intimate understanding experienced by believers of spiritual realities, and 3) the “preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth” (§8). It was the then-Fr. Josef Ratzinger who pointed out some 40 years ago that the faith of believers comes first, and only subsequently does the formal teaching of the church’s pastors confirm that deepening conviction.
This reality is precisely the challenge of our church today when so many parents themselves don’t grasp or understand their Catholic Christian faith. The problem is intensified when parents drop children off for Sunday Mass without attending themselves. Behold the lament of every parish trying to support its educational mission!
Passing on the faith from one generation to another is a full family enterprise. Grandparents alone can’t do the job, no matter how often younger people look up to them and desire to imitate them … as so many letters from confirmation candidates continue to attest.
Our faith is truly apostolic, formally and officially, but also familially. That young father with his son at the crib in Rome remains a living testimony to the way faith is and must be passed from one generation to the next.