Statistically speaking “while there is not solid national research on the exact number of neophytes who abandon the practice of the faith within the first year” pastoral experience suggest that 40% of converts to Catholicism fall away from the Catholic faith/practice within their first few years. This exhortation is intended to review the basic teachings of their year of formation, encourage reliance on the grace of God, enlighten them to the gravity and consequences of falling away, to reassure them of our trust in their commitment.
I burn with a desire for you to be fully alive in Christ. Brothers and sisters, for 8 months now you have been regularly engaging in formation to enter fully into the Catholic Church. 8 days are left, friends! 8 more days and you will receive the sacramental outpouring of the Holy Spirit. And as we come to the close of this retreat I recall the words Jesus himself spoke, “I have come to set fire to the earth and how I wish it were already blazing.” This is my desire for you: to be set on fire for faith. In 8 days we will hear the words, “Receive the light of Christ… (and handing you a candle I will say) this candle will be given to you to be kept burning brightly.” As I have often said throughout class: you must protect the faith that you are accepting because it is possible for you to fall away. It is possible for your light to be put out. You must protect the flame that has been lit in you in Jesus Christ.
As we approach Holy Saturday and your entry into the Church I want to reflect with you on Hebrews Chapter 6:1-12. Hebrews is one of the most important books in the Bible for me. Its purpose is to teach the truth that Jesus, as God and man, is the perfect priest who saves us from our sins so that we can “persevere in running the race the lies before us” (12:1). And so Hebrews 6 starts exactly where we closing as RCIA students.
The first verse says, Therefore, let us leave behind the basic teaching about Christ and advance to maturity. These are my words for you too. Friends, we must strive to achieve full maturity or what St. Paul says, “the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4:13). And this is nothing different than what Jesus Christ says, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” And again St. Paul says, “Forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:13-14). Our life is a journey and if you are not moving toward Christ then you are moving away – there is no stagnation. Here, as we near the end of RCIA, we are reminded that we are only at the beginning of our Christian calling: advancing to full maturity as a disciple.
But the author to Hebrews tells us we must advance to this maturity without laying the foundation all over again (cf. CCC 699 and 1288). So what were the foundations that were laid for you in RCIA? Hebrews tells us they were:
1. repentance from dead works and faith in God, - in other words, conversion or metanoia
2. instruction about baptisms and laying on of hands, - that is the sacraments of the Church
3. resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment – or the four last things that Thomas Skinner shared with you.
We covered all of these over the past 8 months. This foundation is the kergyma that John’s tell us about: “For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son so that all who believe in him might have eternal life” (John 3:16). There are five things in this kerygma: God’s love, Repentence from Sin, the Advent of Christ, the Confession of our faith and Eternal Life: G.R.A.C.E. We too told you about forgiveness, baptisms, anointings and eternal life. Starting with my talk on the Sign of the Cross in August we spoke of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Father’s love, the sacraments and most of all communion as the Body of Christ. But all of this is only the foundation. You must grow and mature from here. If you are not growing you are drifting away. What you have received is not enough for you to stay faithful. As G.R.A.C.E. is not merely an acronym of the kerygma but much more importantly it is the means of how we build on this foundation that has been laid for us. As Hebrews says, And we shall do this, that is grow to full maturity, if only God permits¸ that is, grace! Saved by grace, we are led by grace, to live in grace and to spread that G.R.A.C.E. to others!
But as St. Paul warns us, “We urge you brothers, not to receive the grace of God in vain,” (2 Cor 6:1). So too the book of Hebrews explicitly reminds us of the dire consequences of falling away from the faith (apostasy).
For it is impossible in the case of those who have once been enlightened and tasted the heavenly gift and shared in the holy Spirit and tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to bring them to repentance again, since they are recrucifying the Son of God for themselves* and holding him up to contempt.
How frightful these words are! In a few days, you too will be among those who will be enlightened by the sacraments, tasted the heavenly gift in the Eucharist and shared in the holy Spirit in Confirmation, tasted the good word of God in the ‘Breaking Open the Word’, and powers of the age to come in the miracles of Christ and the saints. But why is he being so explicit about the “impossibility of repentance” for those who have fallen away? Should this fill us with fear? Absolutely not. His teaching here on the ‘impossibility of repentance’ is to be understood in the same way as I taught you about the ‘unforgiveable sin.’ Remember, the unforgiveable sin (or blasphemy against the Spirit) is precisely unforgiveable because it is the refusal to allow oneself to be forgiven (or the denial that God forgives sins, or the despair that one’s sin is too great to be forgiven). So the unforgiveable sin ceases once one returns to the Lord and accepts forgiveness. In the same way, Hebrews says that when one falls away from the practice of the faith that it is impossible to receive repentance. This is precisely because repentance is an act of faith that is communicated through the very Church one fell away from. Remember, both Judas and Peter denied Jesus but Judas stayed away from Christ but Peter returned to the Lord and overcame his separation. In other words, repentance is always possible within the Church, but is impossible outside the Church. So the encouragement is this: remain faithful to the Church through whom the grace of repentance is dispensed.
In order to drive this point home the author to Hebrews uses an analogy: Ground that has absorbed the rain falling upon it repeatedly and brings forth crops useful to those for whom it is cultivated receives a blessing from God. In other words, you who have been in class for these past 8 months have been like ground that has been absorbing rain. The ground is your heart, mind and soul. The rain is grace, the Holy Spirit , teaching, conversation, understanding, rituals and the like. Like fertile ground, the past 8 months have set you up to produce fruit. And producing fruit is exactly how you will know if your reception of the sacraments next week is effective! Jesus himself said this very thing, “By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples” (John 15:8).
But Hebrews returns again to the warning: But if it produces thorns and thistles, it is rejected; it will soon be cursed and finally burned. The author to Hebrews, like me, desires you to know that there is such a thing as Holy Fear: the fear of proving unfaithful. Holy Fear is like St. Paul’s teaching on godly sorrow, “For godly sorrow produces a salutary repentance without regret, but worldly sorrow produces death” (2 Cor 8:10). So the author of Hebrews is speaking so strongly, not to scare you or to produce in you a sense of despair – this is like worldly sorrow that produces death. No, rather, he is trying to inspire you into Holy Fear, a fear that helps you avoid stagnation – this is like godly sorrow that produces repentance without regret. A Christian’s life is always one of repentance without regret.
Inspiration is the very reason why he ends this section in a tone of “loving encouragement” : But we are sure in your regard, beloved, of better things related to salvation, even though we speak in this way. You see, the author knows that his words are challenging, even disturbing, but he speaks in this way so that you can, “keep your eyes fixed on Jesus the leader and perfecter of our faith” (12:2).
God desires our faithfulness and he is rewarding the efforts you have undergone over the past 8 months. As Hebrews continues: For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love you have demonstrated for his name by having served and continuing to serve the holy ones. God knows your faith, he sees your effort, he responds to your desires and he will not ignore you – he will not overlook you. Why? Because I myself can testify on your behalf that you have done what as been asked of you. I have seen your conversion, I have witnessed your participation, I have watched you grow and I have prayed for you to experience the Holy Spirit in the depths of your being. Our God is not so unjust as to ignore this.
But we must not grow weary! We must persevere. As I have said, this is the constant theme of Hebrews. You see the book of Hebrews was written to a people who seriously struggling with remaining faithful. Having converted some time earlier they experienced severe persecution, even to the point of having their possessions taken from them (10:34) and they were in danger of more persecution. The author saw this and wrote this entire book to encourage them to fight, to return to regular worship, and to not give into despair or intimidation. And he is tells us the same thing: “we must attend all the more to what we have heard, so that we may not be carried away” (2:1).
Do you remember me telling you that a major reason why Catholics stop practicing is not because of any scandal, nor because of any problem in a community but simply because they drifted away? This is one of our most serious dangers! Hebrews constantly echoes this: We earnestly desire each of you to demonstrate the same eagerness for the fulfillment of hope until the end, so that you may not become sluggish. What Hebrews earnestly desires I too burn with a desire for you not to become sluggish but to remain eager. Or as elsewhere Hebrews says, and take care not to “fall away” (3:12), or to “throw away your confidence”(10:35) or to be “led away” (13:9).
In other words, don’t lose the fervor of your first love! You must constantly stoke the flames of your love and be on guard against dangers to your faith!
An article I found online says that there are 5 such dangers:
1. Discounting spiritual attacks
2. Thinking that Catholics are perfect
3. Not developing a relationship with Christ
4. Not seeking answers to tough questions
5. Not rooting yourself in community.
And what that modern article listed was already anticipated by our author. For he ends this section with these words: be imitators of those who, through faith and patience, are inheriting the promises. In other words, do not watch those Catholics who are mediocre in faith, that is, who don’t have a relationship with Christ. Don’t be scandalized by Catholics who are less than faithful. Rather, watch those who demonstrate withstanding the spiritual attack. Hebrews also encourages us to imitate such faithful when is says in 12:4, “In your struggle against sin you have not resisted to the point of shedding blood.” The sin we must resist is falling away. And we must imitate the ones who have ‘shed their blood’ for the sake of the faith, namely the saints and martyrs as well as faithful Catholics. The have stayed faithful by constantly stoking their faith in Christ and by seeking the answers to questions that still challenge us to conversion. And they also stay faithful by rooting themselves in the community and this primarily by never missing a Sunday Mass. Remember what I have said several times: The God who Himself is a community of persons desires to be worshiped in a community of persons! This too Hebrews teaches us when it says, “We should not stay away from the assembly, as is the custom of some, but encourage one another, and this all the more as you see the day draw near” (10:25). What is the assembly? Sunday Mass. What is the day? The day of Salvation. What are the promises we are inheriting? The promise of eternal life. Who is it we are ultimately imitating? Jesus Christ, “who is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Heb 13:8).
Friends I burn with a desire for you to fully alive in this Jesus Christ. You for your part must keep the flames of faith alive in your heart. A faith that comes to us a G.R.A.C.E: God’s love, Repentance from Sin, the Advent of Christ, the Confession of our faith and Eternal Life. And in 8 days you will hear me triumphantly say: “This is our faith. This is the faith of the Church. And we are proud to profess it in Christ Jesus our Lord.”