In today's Gospel our Lord praises the great faith of this Roman centurion -- an officer over a hundred soldiers, who wasn't a member of the Jewish people, but who was given the gift of faith anyway, and who came to recognize God working in the Person of Jesus Christ. We encounter this word "faith" regularly in our readings of the sacred scriptures, so it is one we should fully understand.
When we use the word in the religious sense, we are not talking about the faith or trust that we might put in another human being. And, equally we are not talking about our expectations, or what we would like to have happen to us in our lives. The centurion's faith, for example was not in his expectation that Christ would cure his servant -- he knew that not all prayers are granted. The faith that our Lord praised him for was his belief that Jesus could cure, and indeed could cure in spite of distance or any other obstacle -- the centurion's faith was in recognizing that Jesus worked with divine authority.
Religious faith is directed solely towards God, and it means believing the things that God has revealed to us about Himself, and which are set down in the scriptures and in the traditions that come to us from the time of the Apostles.
We can speak of an "implicit faith" in the sense that we are ready to accept whatever God has told us about Himself, even if we have not yet heard about it. A person with implicit faith is one who can say to himself, "I believe whatever God says, because He is God -- who am I to argue?"
But, for the most part, we think of the faith as something more explicit -- that is to say we think of the faith as believing specific things; like, for example, the Trinity of Persons in God, or the Real Presence of God in the Blessed Sacrament.
Now, some people may know more about God than others. That doesn't necessarily make one holier than the other (although interest in knowing God is often a sign of holiness). And it is important to note that there is no contradiction between the faith of the humble person and that of the well educated. No matter how much you study the Faith you will never come to a point where what you are learning contradicts what you learned at the beginning of your education. Faith is never illogical; Faith never contradicts reality.
Some things that we know about God defy human understanding -- for example, we may never be able to understand precisely how one God could exist in a Trinity of Persons -- that may always be a "mystery" -- but we will never find anything about God that is contradictory. If you read the great theologians -- Thomas Aquinas, for example -- you will find that everything we knoww links together, and proceeds logically from one idea to another. You are never asked to believe something just because some private person says that it is true.
Now, if faith is what we believe about God, you might be inclined to think that it is something that goes on only in our minds; that it is internal and that it need not be manifested to others. That's only partially true, for sometimes circumstances require us to openly profess our faith. For example, in time of persecution one may not hide the faith by practicing another religion or none at all. History is filled with accounts of martyrs who professed their faith with their blood, rather than deny the Faith of Jesus Christ. And sometimes the spiritual welfare of those around us requires that we make an open profession of our faith, so that they may also be brought to believe through good example.
We can also see that for faith to be worth very much, it is going to have to have some practical effects on our lives: The 1st is in motivating us to receive Baptism, for our Lord tells us that "He who believes and is baptized will be saved."1 (Very often at Baptism we recite one of the specific professions of the Faith; the Apostles' or Nicene Creed). 2nd, if I believe in God, my faith will move me to give of my time and my resources to worship Him in prayer and at Mass. 3rd, I will try to keep His commandments in order to please Him; try to make His will my will. 4th, I will have genuine motives for charity; spiritual and corporal works, as well as a true love of souls. 5th, if I have faith in God I will want to know Him better and better, seeking Him in prayer and study and meditation.
Without this practical dimension, our faith will be cold and lifeless. St. James reminds us that "the devils believe and [yet] they tremble."2 The devil knows God's truth very well indeed, but it does him no good because he refuses to shape his existence around that truth.
Finally, let me close by reminding you that we ought to think of faith as possibly our most prized possession; something to be guarded with extreme vigilance; handed on to succeeding generations, so they say, "as jewels wrapped in silk"; very precious. St. Paul tells us that if "anyone, even an angel from heaven, should try to change our Faith, let him be anathema" -- literally, let him "go to hell."3 Faith is a gift absolutely necessary to salvation, for, as the Apostle tells us, "without faith it is impossible to please God."4
Faith is a supernatural virtue that we receive only from God; through prayer and through the Mass and Sacraments. But that means that we have the opportunity to enrich ourselves with this most valuable possession. Now on the negative side, that is to say that we are capable of turning our backs on faith, or casting ourselves "out into the exterior darkness, amid weeping and gnashing of teeth. But it is also to say something positive: that we can have faith like this centurion if we want it; that through the gift of faith we can sit down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.