It is a common observation that Catholics don’t understand their faith well. Most Catholics know what to do in church, but most don’t know why they do what they do. This lack of religious literacy is not unique to our time or our religion.
In today’s first reading, we have an abbreviated version of the vocational call of Samuel the prophet. Our reading says about Samuel, “Samuel did not yet recognize the Lord, since the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.” (1 Sam. 3:7)
Samuel’s lack of familiarity with God’s Word was the result of a general lack of faith at the time. The beginning of this chapter of the First Book of Samuel says, “During the time young Samuel was minister to the Lord under Eli, the word of the Lord was scarce and vision infrequent.” (1 Sam. 3:1) This was a polite way of saying that both the religious leaders and the People had grown lukewarm in their faith.
Samuel marked the beginning of a new age of faithfulness in Israel. He did so by learning first to listen to God’s voice, and then to speak God’s Word. I would like to propose Samuel as an example for Catholics to follow today. Samuel’s devout service to God provides a pattern to follow in order to renew the faith of the Church.
The first thing that separated Samuel from the faithlessness of his generation was his desire to listen to God’s voice. Evidently, listening was as unpopular then as it is now. Samuel had to be instructed about how to listen to God’s voice. Eli said to him, “Go to sleep, and if you are called, reply, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’.” (1 Sam. 3:9)
Listening to God’s voice can be a bit of a challenge. How does one distinguish God’s voice from among all the requests, questions, statements, and commands one hears daily? It’s worth taking great care with this effort; it’s too easy to confuse God’s voice with the many other voices that speak to us daily.
The simple rule given to us by Jesus is crucial here. All of Jesus’ preaching, and all of his miracles, proclaimed the same message, namely, that righteousness is a matter of putting God and neighbor first in one’s life. Today’s Gospel reading provides us with two examples of this. First, John the Baptist, and then Andrew set aside their personal concerns, and directed someone else to encounter Jesus.
In our efforts to discern God’s voice, a reliable indicator of the presence of God is the impact that our words and actions have on others. If our efforts to live according to our faith lead us to be more forgiving, compassionate, and trustworthy toward others, those efforts are actions that lead to God. The converse is also true; if our choices are driven primarily by our personal concerns, they lead away from God.
The second thing that Samuel did that distinguished him from his lukewarm contemporaries is that he spoke God’s Word fearlessly. When he had grown to adulthood, Samuel called the entire nation of Israel to repentance. (1 Sam. 7:3-6) He continued to guide the People. Eventually, he anointed, in succession, Saul and David as kings.
Samuel spoke God’s Word in the same way that he listened to God’s Word: selflessly. Our speaking of God’s Word is authentic to the degree that we, too, speak words that convey God’s justice, fidelity, and compassion toward all people.
Literacy is the capacity to read, write, and use words intelligibly; religious literacy is a similar concept. Religious literacy is the ability to hear and speak God’s Word. One acquires religious literacy in exactly the same way that one acquires the capacity to read and write, namely, by imitating the example of someone who is literate.
The path to religious literacy for each individual, and for the whole Church, is to imitate people such as Samuel and John the Baptizer. These were people who encountered God by pointing others in the direction of holiness.
It doesn’t matter whether one’s imitation of the saints takes the form of teaching in the parish religious education program for children, participating in RCIA or ReMembering Church, being a volunteer liturgical minister, tending to the needs of the poor, or making a daily effort to be the presence of God to others. What makes all the difference in the world is that one imitates the examples of the holy women and men in the Scriptures who valued the salvation of others more than their personal concerns.