Singer Paul Simon has a line in one of his songs
that goes, "Faith, faith is an island in the setting
sun./But proof, proof is the bottom line for everyone."
It's my personal opinion that Simon is on to something about
religion in this song. I've sat looking out over a lake at
dusk, tracing the dim outlines of what I thought was an island.
The darker it got, the less certain I was.
Faith is surely like Paul Simon's poetic image.
We believe in God. We believe God is at work in our world.
As a Catholic Christian, I believe God changed human history
in a dramatic way through Jesus Christ, and that our Church
is the pathway through which I am brought to God's love. That's
Some days, my faith provides me a clear, distinct
vision. But other days, when the eyes of faith cloud over,
I want Paul Simon's "bottom line"proof.
When the shadows gather in my faith life, I
admit to some unsettling and perhaps scary feelings. Is God
really "there"? Is Jesus real? What happens if I
have questions about Church traditions or teachings? My personal
life depends a lot on how I live my faith. It guides many
of my decisions (including my vocational choice as a priest).
When I experience times of trouble, faith gives
me a comfortable, secure feelinglike going home and
sitting down to one of my mom's home-cooked meals.
So, when faith questions arise in my life, it's
normal that I may feel strange, uncomfortable, even lost.
Perhaps you've had that experience. This Youth Update
won't answer all your faith questions. Why not? Well, because
of the nature of faith.
We'd all like proof for every situation, but
we know that some things in life must be accepted without
proof. How many times have you eaten food at a restaurant?
You put faith in those who prepare the food, trusting that
you won't get sick. To have proof, you'd have to be right
there for every step in food preparationfrom the farm
where the food was grown to the kitchen where it was cooked.
If you accept that being human means living
in faith, and if religious beliefs are important to you, then
you take seriously questions about matters of religious faith.
Since you're reading this Update, I presume you may
want to explore what to do when questions come. I hope you'll
allow me to share some of my own experience of faith questions.
One experience I had with a religious question
came early in my seminary training. One of my first courses
in Bible studies examined some of the familiar stories in
Scripture. Now, your high school religion courses cover how
the biblical storytellers used dramatic, even poetic language
to enhancefor examplethe story of the passage
of Moses and the Israelites through the waters of the Red
Sea. You know that the purpose of the story is to show God's
saving power, and not to give strict history.
But I was a kid who grew up watching movies
like Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments. Now I
was learning that the Scriptures were much more complicated
than the Bible stories I had read as a child. The simple faith
I had brought from my childhood to the seminary couldn't handle
this challenge at first. Just what was true?
Questions can shake us up, especially when they
concern things that are important to us. Is God real? Does
God care about me? If God does care, then why do bad things
happen to people I love?
The questions that spring up in the area of
religion remind me of questions that occur in relationships.
Have you had a disagreement with your best friend that made
you wonder if the friendship would survive? Have you experienced
jealousy or misunderstandings of others' actions?
The first time doubts arise in an otherwise
good relationship, your whole world can collapse. The same
thing can happen when our faith is called into question.
For most of us, challenges to faith occur when
we become more independent of our parents and family, where
faith is usually nurtured. Outside that circle lurk lots of
We might hear our cherished beliefs challenged
at school or in other social situations by people who don't
share our faith or upbringing. We might wonder how to explain
our beliefs to friends who don't understand us. We can be
as disturbed by a serious intellectual challenge from a teacher
or fellow student as by a tasteless joke about Catholic belief
or practice. Eventually we're faced with a decision: What
do I believe?
Recently, I began interviewing people for a
television project on adult faith. Most of the people I spoke
with had a variety of faith questions as they grew up and
experienced life. Some left organized religion for a time.
Others tried a variety of religions. Some had to face serious
crises, such as their own illness or the death of a loved
From my own life, and from these stories, I
can assure you: You're normal if you're asking questions about
what you believe. Questions are a necessary part of one's
journey of faith. Faith development requires us to take responsibility
for what we believe. That may bring us into confrontation,
at times, with what our parents and teachers have taught us.
Children are vulnerable to lots of things that
can hurt them. Parents have to exercise their authority in
ways that don't leave much room for questions, in order to
protect their children. (Would you stop to explain electricity
if your little brother was about to stick his finger in a
socket? Do your parents explain how sleep is necessary for
good health to your little sister who wants to stay up all
As children grow up, however, they experience
more of life on their own. Where Mom and Dad's authority left
little room for questioning, now there are all sorts of "gray
areas" to life. Good and bad are tougher to sort out,
and simple, direct answers don't always work.
Perhaps you've had older brothers or sisters
come home from college more "grown up" than when
they left home. They might feel free to challenge your parents'
authority. You might be surprised to know the same thing happened
in the Catholic Church back in the late 1960's.
You've heard how Pope John XXIII called the
Second Vatican Council to help the Church adjust to modern
challenges. Did you know that when that meeting started, there
was a gentlebut definiterevolt among the Church
leaders gathered for the Council?
When Pope John proposed the idea of the Council,
some of his advisers, who felt there should be little or no
change in the Church, prepared the Council's agenda. At that
time, the relationship between most Catholics and authority
in the Church was closer to that of parent and child. Those
in charge of the Council's agendalike protective parentshadn't
left much room for discussion or debate.
But when bishops from around the world arrived
in Rome, many of them believed, as Pope John did, that new
ways of talking about and practicing faith were possible.
They protested the set agenda. In some ways, their protest
was like a college-age son or daughter who comes home with
questions and challenges for Mom and Dad.
The bishops who pushed for a change in the agenda
won the day. The Council was opened for greater discussion,
and many changes came about, like adapting the liturgy to
more contemporary forms of celebration.
I like to remember that story when I have questions
that confront situations and organizations that seem rigid
or unyielding in the face of my questions. I feel that I'm
in good company with the bishops at the Council. They were
able to have their challenging questions heard.
You're also in good company when your religious
questions are more personal. The story of Nicodemus, told
in the Gospel of John, is a good case in point. He was a Pharisee,
with a strict set of beliefs. But he went to Jesus to ask
questions, and was challenged to a richer faith. Nicodemus,
in many ways, had a childlike faith. Jesus taught him about
being "born again" in the life of the Spirit. So
you're in good company: Nicodemus is just one religious character
with questions. Lots of very holy people have had them.
In the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures, Moses
had questions for God in the process of leading Israel from
slavery. The prophets, like Jeremiah, often brought their
challenging questions to God. The Book of Job (rhymes with
robe) is the story of a man with lots of questions.
Job was a basically good guybut a lot of bad things
happened to him: the death of his family, the loss of his
property, bodily sufferings. He wanted to know why a good
God would allow a good person like him to suffer. The whole
book is full of Job's discussion on the subject with his friends
who come to console him. The longer you live, the more likely
you'll have questions like his.
When Life Hurts
Once I was helping a young couple whose tiny,
premature baby was dying. Intensive care had been discontinued,
since there was no further hope of survival, and the doctor
and nurses allowed the parents to hold the child as she was
As the baby was breathing her last, the father
invited me to take the little one in my hands for a few moments,
which I did reluctantly, since the emotions I was feeling
were pretty overwhelming.
Later, when death had come peacefully for the
child, there was silence. Usually, the priest is expected
to say somethinga prayer perhapsthat calls on
God for help. But I didn't know what to say. My comfortable
theology and my familiar prayers seemed no help at all.
I don't remember what anyone said at that point.
I guess somehow love got us through. And perhaps faith did,
too, but it was a faith that had to be stretched painfully
to fit this new experience.
Some wise teachers have helped me see that being
left with questions I can't answer leads me to a deeper faith
and trust. I learn to depend on others and on God. Allowing
God to love and support me through other people in times of
questioning has helped me to grow in faith.
Wrestling With the Questions
If you are beginning to see how questions can
be important, then let me suggest five ways to wrestle with
the faith questions you may have:
1. Admit you have questions. Facing up
to what bothers us is the first step in understanding. If
a friend was showing some odd behavior, for example, and you
wondered if he or she was still your friend, you could either
sit at home and worry about it, or you could act. You might
do some checking around and perhaps even ask your friend directly.
Do the same with your faith questions.
2. Be honest. Some people make a game
out of life's questions. They get so caught up in the act
of challenging cherished beliefs that they don't stick around
for the chance to dialogue and discover if there are answers.
Find out honestly where your questions are coming from. If,
for example, you question going to Mass as a waste of time,
is it just because you like sleeping in on Sunday morning?
Or are you serious about what God, Church and Sunday Mass
are all about?
3. Be flexible and open to change. Change
is often a source of many faith questions. Over the last 30
years, as the Church changed, lots of folks found their faith
shaken. A young Catholic told me recently how the decision
to allow girls to serve at Mass affected her: She heard that
some of her fellow parishioners were upset when she served
at Mass. She benefited from the change, but now had to deal
with others' questions! My experience is that if we are patient
and flexible in such situations, new ideas or practices in
religion or changes in our parish will be more manageable.
4. Be faithful to the family. My independence
from my parents, my questioning of some of their ways of doing
things and even some of their values, doesn't mean I want
to be cut off from them. The same ought to be true between
us and our "faith family"the Church. Sometimes
people's consciences may lead them outside the Churchoften
a painful separation. I believe that our Church family is
big enough to accommodate a lot of diversity and that it's
understanding enough to tolerate my faith questions. My quest
for deeper faith, or to understand Church practice and tradition,
as well as my wrestling with the fact of suffering, have all
been enriched when I've shared them with others in the family
of faith which is the Church.
5. Be open with God. In the end, faith
is about my relationship with God. If I can't take my questions
to God in prayer, then I may be avoiding the one experience
of dialogue that can be the most fruitful. True, finding God
in prayer may seem like Paul Simon's experience of trying
to find "an island in the setting sun." But the
effort is worth it. God is there and wants to find us.
Don't let the fact that your questions may arise
from anger or hurt or confusion stop you. A wise friend once
assured me that she took all her questions to God,
even the angry ones, because she believed that "God is
big enough to deal with my questions." As far as I know,
she and God are still good friends!
Acts of Faith
I promised you at the beginning of this Youth
Update that I wouldn't try to answer your faith questions.
Many of mine remain unanswered after 25 years in religious
life and almost as many in the priesthood. But I don't hold
the record for faith questions, by any means. When I was about
to be ordained, an elderly priest, a man we all respected
as a man of real faith, shared his struggle with us.
"Each time I hold up the host at Mass,"
he told me and my fellow seminarians, "I have to make
an act of faith." The fact that faith did not come easy
for this good and holy priest has been a constant comfort
to me when wrestling with my own faith questions. May you
findif not an occasional answerat least the power
to make that same act of faith in a loving, understanding
Dave Weller, youth minister at St. Benedict's
in Covington, Kentucky, invited Pat McEntee, 20, to join Matthew
Deavy, 14; Mike Norris, 15; and Laura Martin, 17, for a reading
and critique of this Youth Update. They really appreciated
much of of what's here. What they didn't appreciate isn't