Pope Benedict XVI, having heard of the difficulties your humble correspondent has been facing in recent weeks, has come to the defence of his loyal son by offering a few thoughts of his own on the motto “Sentire Cum Ecclesia” (“to think with the Church”), which has been deemed “obsequious” and “idolatrous” by Catholica Australia editor, Brian Coyne. In fact, the Holy Father was so prophetic, that he was able give his views even before this little antipodean squall developed.
Only in these past few days have I gotten around to reading the transcripts of the Holy Father’s homilies, addresses and audiences which he gave during his Apostolic Pilgrimage to Austria. On no fewer than three occasions, he made remarks relevant to the current discussion.
He set the tone right from the very beginning in an answer he gave to journalists on the Papal Plane to Austria, 7 Sept 2007 (transcript from John L. Allen, Jr.). It is worth remembering that the sort of “reforms” that Bishop Geoffrey Robinson and Mr Brian Coyne and the “Petitioners” are suggesting have already been suggested by the Austrian group “Wir Sind Kirche” long ago in reaction to the turmoil in their own local churches. The Holy Father said:
I know that the church in Austria has lived through difficult times, and I’m grateful to everyone – laity, religious, priests – who, during all these difficulties, remained faithful to the church, to its witness to Jesus, and who in this church of sinners nevertheless recognized the face of Jesus.…I also see today that there’s a new joy in the faith, a new momentum in the church. As much as I can, I want to encourage this willingness to go forward with the Lord, to have faith that the Lord remains present in his church, and thus, that with the faith of the church, we too can arrive at the goal of our lives and contribute to a better world.
Then, during his homily the next day in the square in front of the Basilica of Mariazell, (8 Sept, 2007), Papa Benny expounded further:
So if we Christians call him [Jesus] the one universal Mediator of salvation, valid for everyone and, ultimately, needed by everyone, this does not mean that we despise other religions, nor are we arrogantly absolutizing our own ideas; on the contrary, it means that we are gripped by him who has touched our hearts and lavished gifts upon us, so that we, in turn, can offer gifts to others. In fact, our faith is decisively opposed to the attitude of resignation that considers man incapable of truth – as if this were more than he could cope with.
This comment appears to address directly those (such as Bishop Robinson) who presume that there is any necessary or real tension between being “certain of truth” and being “a seeker of truth”:
This attitude of resignation with regard to truth, I am convinced, lies at the heart of the crisis of the West, the crisis of Europe [and Australian Catholicism?]. If truth does not exist for man, then neither can he ultimately distinguish between good and evil. [Good point, Your Holiness.]
Does that mean that the Holy Father is unaware of the sinful way in which the “certainty of truth” has been employed Catholics in the past? Not at all! Read on:
Yet admittedly, in the light of our history we are fearful that faith in the truth might entail intolerance. If we are gripped by this fear, which is historically well grounded [see! he admits it! he knows it as well as we do, Brian/+Geoffrey! Yet he goes on to say:] then it is time to look towards Jesus…as the child in his Mother’s arms…[and] as the Crucified. These two images…tell us this: truth prevails not through external force, but it is humble and it yields itself to man only via the inner force of its veracity. Truth proves itself in love. It is never our property, never our product, just as love can never be produced, but only received and handed on as a gift. We need this inner force of truth. As Christians we trust this force of truth. We are its witnesses. We must hand it on as a gift in the same way as we have received it, as it has given itself to us.
Truth–the certainty of truth–is about God’s “power” being “made perfect in the weakness”–the weakness of love. Perhaps what Brian and Bishop Robinson et al have misunderstood–perhaps what we all have too often misunderstood–is that Truth and Love are two sides of the same coin of the Gospel. When one is sacrificed to the other, or when we try to have one without the other, we fail to be true witnesses to the face of Jesus, the face of God.
But the Holy Father is not finished yet. At a special Vespers for priests and men and women of the consecrated life on 8 September, he addressed the virtue of true obedience (which was decidely not obsequious), by holding up Jesus as our model:
Jesus lived his entire life, from the hidden years in Nazareth to the very moment of his death on the Cross in listening to the Father, in obedience to the Father… Christians have always known from experience that, in abandoning themselves to the will of the Father, they lose nothing, but instead discover in this way their deepest identity and interior freedom.
I can identify with that. That completely describes my own experience when I, through no power of my own but trembling with fear, stepped out on the journey in obedience to the truth that led me to the Catholic Church. I have often thought that Abraham must have felt the same when he was told to set out for a place he did not know, but which God assured him he would be shown (Gen 12:1).
The Pope went on to show how this trustful obedience is at the heart of the search for truth:
In Jesus they have discovered that…those who bind themselves in an obedience grounded in God and inspired by the search for God, become free. Listening to God and obeying him has nothing to do with external constraint and the loss of oneself. Only by entering into God’s will do we attain our true identity. Our world today needs the testimony of this experience precisely because of its desire for “self-realization” and “self-determination”.
Not having had the time to read the whole of my conversion journal (cf. Year of Grace), Papa Benny chose to use as his example of someone more familiar to him, the “conversion” of Romano Guardini, who learnt to “lose himself” in order to “find himself”. Then comes a series of excellently argued answers to common protests against this attitude of obedience, with a surprising conclusion:
But then the question arose: to what extent it is proper to lose myself? To whom can I give myself? It became clear to him [Guardini] that we can surrender ourselves completely only if by doing so we fall into the hands of God. Only in him, in the end, can we lose ourselves and only in him can we find ourselves.
But then the question arose: Who is God? Where is God? Then he came to understand that the God to whom we can surrender ourselves is alone the God who became tangible and close to us in Jesus Christ.
But once more the question arose: Where do I find Jesus Christ? How can I truly give myself to him? The answer Guardini found after much searching was this: Jesus is concretely present to us only
in his Body, the Church.
As a result, obedience to God’s will, obedience to Jesus Christ, must be, really and practically, humble obedience to the Church.
Yes, dear friends, he ends by suggesting that the only way we can find God, we who are all seekers after truth, is to adopt the attitude “Sentire Cum Ecclesia”. And in case you don’t think this is what Papa Benny had in mind, he immediately goes on to cite the example of the author of that very phrase:
It is all summed up in the prayer of Saint Ignatius of Loyola – a prayer which always seems to me so overwhelming that I am almost afraid to say it, yet one which, for all its difficulty, we should always repeat: “Take O Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding and my entire will. All that I have and all that I possess you have given me: I surrender it all to you; it is all yours, dispose of it according to your will. Give me only your love and your grace; with these I will be rich enough and will desire nothing more”.
The church’s claim to exclusive truth, often experienced by world-weary Europeans [/Australians] as a smokescreen for intolerance and power, is in reality an invitation to love.
Thank you, thank you, thank you, Papa Benny, for your help. If I can do anything in return, just ask. (Or is that being too “obsequious”?)