At Christmas a few years ago I received an e-mail from a priest who assumed, by virtue of my surname, that I was Maltese and, hence, Roman Catholic.
Almost all Maltese are.
Father Julian Cassar of St. Stanislaus Church in Pleasant Valley, N.Y., was conducting a study for the Maltese government on the religious experiences of immigrants and/or their descendants. “What difficulties do you find in practicing the Catholic faith here in the U.S.?” he asked.
His question revived painful memories. I had long since left the Roman Catholic Church, which I had embraced, studying at St. Peter’s College, a Jesuit institution in Jersey City, N.J., in the hope one day of joining the order.
Like Martin Luther, ordained an Augustinian monk, I had been passionate about my faith. Also like Luther, I would harbor doubts over a theological question that preceded the 95 Theses and would define our Reformation heritage.
Did God sit in judgment over sinners lacking adequate faith, as the first chapter of Romans might indicate?
“As it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith. For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:17-18).
Like Luther, I had struggled with the writings of Paul, author of Romans and a patron saint of Malta, shipwrecked there (Acts 28:1-10).
Did one have to “fight for faith” to earn salvation? If so, can one lose the fight? Can faith founder like a ship?
I lost my “fight” upon witnessing an incident involving my mother outside our Roman Catholic parish. The memory is still vivid. My mother and I approached the monsignor outside the rectory, where we were headed, his black-and-purple raiment reflecting in the evening sun. My mother, in tears, called to him and asked for absolution—the remission of sin or punishment due to sin. The word “remission” was symbolic. We were looking for a priest that day because my mother had just learned my father had cancer and would die soon.
Monsignor told her to return Friday, when he regularly heard confession, whereupon she fell to her knees and begged for absolution.
I described the effect on me in my e-mail to Father Julian, informing him that “I am now a Lutheran, a faith that … better understands the concept of grace.”
However, I didn’t immediately join the ELCA. For a decade, I had no official church affiliation—which suited me well enough in my work as a journalist and later as a journalism professor at a state university.
Inwardly, however, I was empty.
One day I was preparing a lecture on the importance of the printing press and remembered Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. Had he been born a century earlier, Luther, I theorized, would not have had access to books to challenge the authority of the church. Moreover, because of movable type, his theses could be posted on a thousand doors. The authorities could still silence the messenger, by excommunication or worse, but not the message.
In my research I came across this 1545 autobiographical fragment:
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