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Where faith becomes real

Why We Wrote This

When Tom Catena came to the Monitor’s newsroom in Boston, I had no idea who he was. Now, I am convinced that every member of the Monitor family worldwide would be grateful for who he is and what he does.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
The Rev. Steve Blackmer calls parishioners back to the barn during a service at Church of the Woods in Canterbury, N.H.

At the end of January, Tom Catena came to the Monitor’s newsroom in Boston. To be honest, I had no idea who Dr. Catena was. Now, I am convinced that every member of the Monitor family worldwide would be grateful for who he is and what he does.

Catena is a surgeon and a Roman Catholic missionary who heads the Mother of Mercy Hospital in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. He has been there for 11 years now. His hospital has been bombed by government forces. Its annual budget is $750,000. Until last year, it didn’t have an X-ray machine. Yet he has stayed. Yet he has worked. And Sudanese will walk for days for his care.

During his time at the Monitor, he was asked if, in such a place, his faith has evolved. Here is his answer from the Feb. 19 edition of the Monitor Daily. (We’ll publish his story in a future issue of the Weekly.) 

“Yes. You know faith always does better in areas of high stress. You don’t even know day to day if you’re going to survive. The faith becomes much more real, where you ­really have to depend on God for everything, for survival. I would say it’s grown tremendously. It’s much more difficult to maintain your faith in this [American] society. I think the stress and anxiety in this society is unbelievable, but it’s not that physical threat you feel all the time [in Sudan].”

This is what you might call the progress paradox. The more prosperous a nation becomes, the more pronounced the struggle to hold onto its faith. As Jesus preached in the parable of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus, material comfort can lull the unwatchful into spiritual dullness.

There is another way of making Catena’s point – one that is applicable to all places, not just those where imminent violence seems to make the need for spiritual comfort more urgent. Faith becomes much more real when it is truly lived.

The trajectory of organized religion in the West suggests that mere church attendance or adherence to doctrinal decrees is not sufficient. Faith kindles only with surrender to a good that makes a wreck of personal will or self-
interest. It is sacrifice, grace, and gratitude, lived as a moment-by-moment inner fire, that makes faith real.

That commitment can make a specific worship time in a church, temple, or mosque especially meaningful. In his cover story this week, G. Jeffrey MacDonald also offers a glimpse at how some in the West are seeking that sense of faith outside the walls of traditional churches. As he recounts, that faith can be sought in a chicken coop, on a walk in the woods, or in a laundromat. Or in a hospital in remotest Africa.

In this light, the decline of organized religion takes on different hues. It points to a search for faith everywhere, beyond the narrow bounds that have traditionally defined religion. And according to one Episcopal priest in Jeffrey’s story, that’s not all bad. When people gather anywhere to seek that deeper fire of faith, “church happens,” she says. “God shows up.” 

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