Sunday Scriptures

We Receive the Gift of Faith When God Wills It

by Father Robert M. Powers

IN THE SANCTUARY of St. Paul’s Church, Cobble Hill, there is a small, gilded wooden statue of Our Lady of Pilar, mounted on a wooden pillar and covered by a red velvet skirt. The image is from the former Chapel of Our Lady of Pilar that was constructed on Fulton St. in Downtown Brooklyn in 1916 to minister to immigrants from Spain. The chapel was closed in 1964.

Our Lady of Pilar is an inspiring story for our Church in difficult times.

Aflame with the Holy Spirit he had received on Pentecost in Jerusalem, the apostle St. James the Greater arrived in what is now northeastern Spain. But he was stunned at the reaction he received. Not many were interested in the Gospel he was anointed to proclaim. Very few people wanted baptism. Discouraged and forlorn, St. James sat in the Roman forum near present-day Saragossa wondering why the Holy Spirit did not seem to be behind his ministry.

As he sat in the forum, the Virgin Mary appeared to him on a pillar (pilar in Spanish). She spoke words of consolation and encouragement to him, telling him that yes, indeed, few were receiving the Word of God and baptism in the area. She assured him, however, that this would not always be the case.

“This will be a great Christian nation one day,” she said to him, “but only if you continue to preach the Word and to offer baptism.” Mary’s words, of course, ultimately came to be fulfilled.

St. James encountered people in that region who were like St. Thomas the Apostle in today’s Gospel: unable to take in God’s Word. While the risen Jesus appeared to some in His glorified body, others experienced the resurrection simply through hearing the anointed words, “Alleluia” and “Jesus has risen.” But St. Thomas could not, or would not, accept that simple message. To others, that Word of God was as powerful in its proclamation as the Word uttered by Jesus of Nazareth for the three years before His death.

Perhaps the devastating death of Jesus on the cross was too much for him to bear. Perhaps the guilt of abandoning Jesus on Holy Thursday night weighed heavily on his conscience. Perhaps he temporarily lost his faith.

As a child, “Doubting Thomas” struck me as an oddball with his arrogant demands for objective proof of the resurrection that was so obvious to others. I did not think then, growing up in what still appeared to be the quite vibrant postconciliar Church of the mid-1960s, that St. Thomas’ skepticism would be the norm for so many, if not most Catholics in the coming decades.

Why have so many formally left or detached themselves from the Church? We know too well the long list of reasons that they state: The Church is out of touch with the times; archaic teachings on sexuality and marriage; the hypocrisy of the hierarchy and clergy with the sexual abuse scandals are offered as prime examples; and personal experiences of Church as being unwelcoming and judgmental. I believe the real reason that most have departed is a loss of faith in the mysteries that they or their families once professed.

A daily communicant I knew years ago used to say to me, “You either got the Holy Spirit, or you don’t got the Holy Spirit. You either got faith, or you don’t got faith.”

Her statements were a bit obtuse, I admit, but there is truth in them. Many lack a sense of God’s presence in their daily lives and that God enters into our history to save us, the basic portrait of God that runs throughout the Old and New Testaments. They are much like St. Thomas before his conversion on that second Sunday of Easter.

St. Thomas accepts the invitation to remain with the other apostles on that second Sunday. If only we could convince those whose faith is weak to remain at Mass and that better days are ahead for them. When Jesus appears and invites St. Thomas to probe His wounds, he does not bother with the physical examination that he had demanded. He believes in the mystery of the risen Jesus Christ as he declares: “My Lord and my God.” His faith was restored.

We should follow Our Lady of Pilar’s advice: Keep proclaiming the Word of God; keep celebrating the sacraments. As God tells us through the prophet Isaiah, His word does not return to Him void, but does His will, achieving the end for which He sent it. When God wills it, many more people will receive His precious gift of faith.

Readings for the Second Sunday of Easter or Sunday of Divine Mercy

Acts 5: 12-16

Psalm 118: 2-4, 13-15, 22-24

Revelation 1: 9-11a, 12-13, 17-19

John 20:19-31

Father Robert M. Powers is the administrator of St. Paul and St. Agnes parish, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill, Gowanus and the Columbia Street Waterfront District.