What is knowledge? More specifically, what is knowledge in relation to our Catholic faith?
Several years ago, I came upon St. Bonaventure’s “Prayer for the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit.” A 13th-century cardinal and follower of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Bonaventure is also a patron saint of our parish, Mission San Buenaventura in Ventura, California, where my wife directs music and liturgy and I play piano.
Reading this prayer inspired me to set St. Bonaventure’s prayer to music, in which I combined two gifts to make part of a verse: “Grant us courage, grant us knowledge, so we may know and protect what is good.”
The actual words of St. Bonaventure’s prayer suggest I was, hopefully, on the right track: “May he impart to us the gift of knowledge, which will enable us to discern your teaching and distinguish good from evil.”
Knowledge can be a tricky quality (or gift, if you will) to assess. Many of us have heard that it doesn’t take an active Catholic to “know” what the Catholic Church teaches. Inactive Catholics, non-Catholics and even atheists can be just as “knowledgeable” about Catholic teaching as those who practice their faith — in some cases, more so.
The key, of course, is taking to heart what we know and acting on it. Or, as bishops instruct diaconate candidates during the rite of ordination: “Believe what you read, teach what you believe and practice what you teach.”
That, in the context of our Catholic faith, should give us a clue as to what “knowledge” actually means. Knowledge simply for knowledge’s sake, St. James suggested rather pointedly, means nothing without action inspired by that knowledge: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?” (Jas 2:14).
As an adult, I attended confirmation preparation “classes” at another parish (it was a pre-RCIA preparation process), designed to teach us “facts” about the faith I would profess at the Easter Vigil. We even took a midterm to test our “knowledge.”
Fortunately, I was already of the mind to become Catholic, not because of its teaching but because I was seeking a community of faith that sought to know and follow Jesus Christ. The words I once heard during a parish retreat, “We are the body of Christ, we are a community of believers,” and the ministries that serve church and community in Jesus’ name, are why I became and remain a Catholic.
This was long before I knew anything about St. Bonaventure or any of the saints, or anything about the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or very much about Scripture. But I learned very quickly about the person of Jesus, and how he was more interested in how people lived their lives than in how much they knew.
The Pharisees knew all too well how Jesus felt about “learned” people. When he healed the man born blind, the Pharisees were outraged that Jesus had performed his healing work on the Sabbath, in violation of “the law.”
And, believing that blindness was a result of sin, they were outraged further when Jesus suggested that blindness was more than a physical affliction.
“If you were blind,” Jesus told the Pharisees, “you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains” (Jn 9:41).
The blind man, now healed, understood as well as anyone that knowledge of Jesus, and his message to heal and serve those most in need, leads to hope for all, and calls us into action to meet those needs.
For if knowledge impacts only the mind and not the heart, what is its purpose? As St. Paul told the people of Ephesus, “May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened, that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call” (Eph 1:18).
St. Thomas Aquinas — a doctor of the church like his contemporary, St. Bonaventure — suggested in “Summa Theologica” that all gifts of the Holy Spirit are very much connected to the cardinal virtues rooted in ancient Greece and later proclaimed by church leaders in the Middle Ages.
The gift of knowledge, St. Aquinas said, corresponds to the virtue of hope, which better helps us to understand the meaning of God.
“God ‘desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’: that is, of Christ Jesus,” declares the catechism (No. 74). “Christ must be proclaimed to all nations and individuals, so that this revelation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
It is important, too, to realize that, as St. Bonaventure (inspired by Isaiah, St. Paul and others) proclaimed, there is a relationship between knowledge and the other gifts of the Holy Spirit.
“If you receive my words and treasure my commands, turning your ear to wisdom, inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you call for intelligence, and to understanding raise your voice; if you seek her like silver, and like hidden treasures search her out, then will you understand the fear of the Lord; the knowledge of God you will find. For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Prv 2:1-6).
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(Catholic journalist Mike Nelson writes from Southern California.)