Sunday, June 17, 2007

Justified by Faith (Sunday homily)

St. Paul uses a word we don’t often hear.
A moment ago, we heard it four times: justification.

We often use that word to mean "excuse" or explanation:
At school, the principal might ask you,
"So, what’s your justification for being late?"

What St. Paul means is something different:
how you and I are made just or righteous.

Notice what else he said:
None of us is "justified"—made just—
"by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ."

As Catholics, we are strong on "works"—
mercy and charity, like the Bethany Center;
social activism, like the prolife movement.

And, we have lots of religious "works"—
that is, rituals and requirements:
Mass every Sunday and holy day;
frequent confession;
daily prayer and acts of penance;
a season of penance every Lent.

Yet St. Paul says: we are not justified by our works,
but by faith in Jesus Christ.

I know what you are thinking.
"Wait a minute. Doesn’t Scripture also say,
‘faith without works is dead’"?

And, yes it does.
So, what do we make of this?

It is Faith that saves us, but not faith alone;
because how can genuine Faith in Jesus
fail to result in action? In a changed life?

And, in terms of our practices as Catholics:
our rules and practices have meaning,
because they show us how to live our faith;
they give it shape.

Still, as St. Paul said: the starting-point is faith;
the heart of the matter is faith.

Many of us like to go to Home Depot,
so we can "do it yourself."
But that’s not how it works.

The starting-point is faith—faith in Jesus Christ!

So, now, you might ask,
"all right, just what do you mean by faith?"
And, may I say? You ask really good questions!

To answer, let me say two things.
First: faith is an act of self-gift, of trust, of surrender.

Faith is a whole lot more than a mere belief,
such as: "I believe Jesus exists";
Faith is a choice, a radical choice:
I turn myself over to Jesus.
That is what the woman in the Gospel did,
and that is what Paul described:
"I have been crucified with Christ."

So, faith is surrender…
and second, faith is a gift.

Don’t think that first, you have faith,
and then, God responds with his grace.
It’s the other way round:
first, God gives you grace,
so that you realize how much you need him;
then, you choose; you say: "Jesus, I trust in you!"
or you say, "No, Jesus, I think I’m doing okay on my own."

Do you think you simply chose to come here today.
It’s not that simple.
God was acting to make it happen,
so that you would receive this invitation:

Will you put your faith in Jesus Christ?
Will you surrender your will to his?
Will you ask for the gift of faith,
allow the Holy Spirit to lead,
go wherever he says, do what he prompts,
and give up whatever must be given up?

You are here because
God wanted you to receive that invitation,
and I have just given it!
So when I said, God acts first, with his grace—
this is how it works!

You and I received the gift of his justification in baptism;
but we came to a point where we chose to make it our own;
and we need to renew it, constantly:
that is why we go to confession,
and that is why we need the Eucharist.

This is our moment to do a check—where do we stand?
Can we truly say, with Paul:
"It is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives in me"?


Anonymous said...

Thanks you, thank you, thank you! Please don't take this post down. I'm bookmarking it so I can refer to it when I need to explain (defend?)the Catholic point of view to my Protestant friends and relatives.

Anonymous said...

A Presbyterian friend, when asked to explain exactly how the dynamic of faith and good works are understood in the Protestant concept of justification, gave me the same explanation as you give, Father.

To anonymous, please don't be so hasty to feel more theologically astute than your Protestant friends and relatives. It seems that all too often there are semantics which mislead folks into thinking they need to defend or explain "the Catholic position". This often leads in turn to bad feelings when those who are receiving the lecture, oops, I mean the explanations, are baffled as to what the discrepancy is all about, because they imagine all of us Christians believe the same way.

Let me give an example:
When asked zbout this very issue on this very day, a Methodist pal told me, "We believe that Christ is the redeemer, so to have faith in Christ is to be justified or redeemed. But Scripture teaches us that right works invariably follow upon true faith. So if there are no works,there wasn't real faith to start with, just empty words."

I was present in a Catholic class where the parish DRE made the sweeping statement that although Protestants blithely proclaimed to have faith, they never did any good works to back it up. If anyone has Protestant friends and acquaintances they know this isn't even almost true! Protestants are so strong on missions, evangelisation, compassion, social services, church volunteering, shepherding of youth, and caring for the sick and elderly of their own congregations. In a great many ways, our Catholic parishes would benefit if we acted upon the inspiration to be found within some non-Catholic congregations!

Let's listen and learn, not create division.


Martin O'Shea said...

Dear Fr. Martin,

A graphic novel which explores the response of the Church to suffering within its scope is available from:

There's also a preview at:

Whilst the book challenges certain attitudes and dogma it remains a Catholic (if underground) comic.

All the best,


Mrs Jackie Parkes MJ said...

great explanation

Mephibosheth said...

Fr. Martin, you rock!

Anonymous #2, I can't speak for Anonymous #1, but I can relate to being in a situation where Catholics are on the defensive, given that many Protestants around me (including close friends and family, since I am a recent revert to Catholicism) are absolutely convinced that the Church teaches a works-based salvation, absent faith. So I don't know that it's about feeling more theologically astute, as it is defending a position which is unequivocally under attack.

Anonymous said...

Mephiboseth, thanks for the reply. I cannot agree that Protestants "attack" Catholics. . .in my entire life I have never been attacked in the theology by any Protestant whatsoever, and I am old! Some have asked polite questions, some have expressed a differing conviction, but none have been disrespectful toward my Catholic heritage. I mean never,ever! However I have been attacked by Catholics for being too liberal - or too conservative - and I have seen many other Caths under attack by their own kind in similar ways if there is a differing opinion or practice. Let's rethink "attack". Is it an attack when someone of another persuasion questions an idea or misunderstands the way in which an idea is couched in language? Is it an attack when fellow Caths flail away on each other verbally when the Blue Army meets Call to Action?
If at all times we can be loving people respectful of others' ideas or allegiances, it would help alot. Remember, we all evolve into higher and higher modes of understanding. Maybe Blue Army Cath at age 30 will morph into CtoA Cath at 50 - or, of course, vice versa. Let's just give each other plenty of breathing room; we are not here to mindcontrol our fellow Christians. Annie

Anonymous said...

Mephibosheth said it far better than I. It is our host whom I consider to be astute.

I have no desire to enter into theological debates, but when what my faith teaches is misrepresented, I'd like to have a ready reply as silence may be perceived as agreement.

Catholics are definitely in the minority where I live and some have even stranger ideas about our beliefs than the one Fr. addressed this time.

Anonymous #1

Mephibosheth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mephibosheth said...

[Reposted, edited]


I don't know where you live, and I'm glad your theology has never been attacked by a Protestant, but please don't assume your experience is universal. Here in the Deep South, I have been told numerous times that I am not a Christian, that I am not "saved," simply because I am a Catholic. And the horror multiplies when I tell them I left Evangelicalism to join the "whore of Babylon."

I have not experienced attack from fellow Catholics for any reason (and I have never encountered members of the Blue Army or Call to Action); I have, on the other hand, been attacked by Protestants simply for being Catholic, simply for not being like them. I have no desire to "mindcontrol" anyone. I freely call my Protestant friends "brothers"; many of them do not extend the same courtesy to me.