By Father Michal Markiewicz
Special to The Texas Catholic
As we prepare ourselves for the opening of our diocesan synod, it is worth remembering that the Holy Father has described the synodal process as both “an exercise in mutual listening” and “a matter of listening to the Holy Spirit”. Now, it is possible for us to hear the Holy Spirit speaking through others because, together with the gift of faith, we have received the gift of the sensus fidei, the sense of faith.
The sensus fidei is the supernatural instinct of faith, which allows us to recognize and receive authentically Christian doctrine and practice (International Theological Commission, Sensus fidei in the Life of the Church, 2014, n. 2). As a theological concept, the sensus fidei can refer to one of two subjects, either the Church as a community, or “I” as an individual believer (ITC, Sensus fidei, n. 3); these two subjects can never be opposed, since I can be a believer only in and with the Church. However, as an individual believer within the Church, I am endowed with a personal capacity that allows me to discern what agrees with the faith of the Church (this is what theologians call sensus fidei fidelis). This sensus fidei operates in my personal life much in the same way as my love for a friend, which allows me to discern spontaneously what best suits our friendship, or my love for a piece of music which makes me react instantly to misplayed notes (ITC, Sensus fidei, nn. 51, 62). The sensus fidei is a God-given “sixth sense” attuned to the truth of our faith; consequently, it allows me to listen to the Holy Spirit whenever he speaks, including when he speaks through other people.
Is this ‘“sixth sense’” perfect if it is supernatural? Even though my “sixth sense” cannot err in discerning the true faith, it may nevertheless get mixed up with my purely human responses (ITC, Sensus fidei, n. 55). Not all my thoughts spring up from faith. And this is true also for the others who share the same faith with me. It would therefore be a mistake, for example, to presume that public opinion, whether inside or outside the Church, is the same thing as the unerring sensus fidei (ITC, Sensus fidei, n. 47). Furthermore, it should be quite evident that even a widely held opinion which is contrary to definitive pronouncements of the Church’s magisterium has nothing to do with the sensus fidei. The Holy Spirit does not contradict himself.
But can the sensus fidei help me to recognize the Holy Spirit outside the Catholic Church? Can I learn something about the faith from those who are not Catholic? In order to listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit, I must first humbly recognize that I do not yet hear it completely. In fact, since faith is a journey, and at any given moment I do not necessarily have an explicit knowledge of the whole truth, I might come to realize that the sensus fidei is also operating in other Christians who have not yet embraced the whole of the Catholic faith (ITC, Sensus fidei, n. 56). It is not impossible that they have already experienced an aspect of the truth revealed by God, which I can come to understand more deeply by listening to the Holy Spirit speaking through them.
One of the principal manifestations of the sensus fidei is that it determines the concrete witness to Jesus Christ (ITC, Sensus fidei, n. 65). It is especially worthwhile, therefore, to listen to those who have endeavored to put their faith into practice. By living my faith in the concrete existential situations of my life, I can see more clearly the nature and scope of a given doctrine, and, thus, I may have a better intuition of what it takes to bear witness to it (ITC, Sensus fidei, n. 59). The martyrs for our faith are our best teachers, and for that same reason, we do well to listen to those who, following the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, have put their faith into practice.
All the same, it is not always easy to discern whether we hear the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking through others or just their private opinions. Even though there is no mathematical equation that could help us, there are signs that could indicate an authentic manifestation of the sensus fidei. Among these are active participation in the life of the local Church, acceptance of the Church’s teaching on matters of faith and morals, profound reverence for the word of God, acceptance of the proper role of reason, and personal holiness grounded in humility (ITC, Sensus fidei, nn. 88-105).
Humility is perhaps the most striking mark of the authentic sensus fidei. The Holy Spirit speaks only through those who are humble, and we can hear his voice in them only insofar as we ourselves are humble. It is ultimately humility that opens us up to something new, to the action of the Holy Spirit who guides us into the whole truth revealed in Jesus Christ. That truth always remains a gift. A deeper look into the mysteries of our faith always begins with the recognition of that gift, which we so often receive through others.
Father Michal Markiewicz serves as a spiritual director at Redemptoris Mater Seminary and is a member of the synod preparatory commission.