Goodbye, Papa Benedict

BenedictXVI-OliverBonjoch-WikiCommonsIt’s hard to put into words just what Pope Benedict XVI has meant for me, particularly as a catechetical leader. More than anyone else Benedict has pushed for an understanding of faith that is rooted, above all else, in the person of Jesus Christ. In all of his teaching his constantly points to Jesus and invites us to enter into a deeper relationship with him.

I believe Benedict will be remembered as the pope that energized and put into practice the New Evangelization, for at its heart the New Evangelization is about the person of Christ. I was especially heartened at his decision to place the ministry of catechesis under the auspices of the new Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization. This piece of administrative business may seem uneventful, but it has important implications for how we are to understand the work of catechesis.

In aligning the work of education and faith formation with the call to a New Evangelization the Holy Father reminds us that catechesis can only be effective and faith only take root once we have proclaimed Christ‘s life, death and resurrection to those in our care. Catholic schools and parish religious education programs are a particularly important way in which faith is transmitted – not as an academic subject to be studied and quizzed on, but as a living experience of the love of God through prayer, service, and the Eucharist.

As we continue to journey through the Year of Faith, we would do well to keep before us Pope Benedict’s the call to evangelize our students as well as catechize and educate them. We must proclaim Christ‘s love and witness to its power in our lives if we hope to make disciples of our students. Or, as Pope Benedict stated:

It is a particular responsibility of the whole Church to keep the message of Christ ever fresh and effective, also through clear teaching which must nourish faith in the mystery of the incarnation of the Son of God who for our sake became man, died and rose again for our salvation. She must do so tirelessly by appropriate ways and means, so that all those who accept the Gospel message and believe, may be born to new life through baptism.

The Third Possibility

Presented with a strong challenge to one’s deepest convictions, three basic psychological possibilities present themselves: rejecting the challenge through a tenacious defense of those convictions; recognizing the merits of the challenge, and adjusting one’s ideas and behavior as a result; recognizing the merits of the challenge, and rearticulating one’s convictions in an effort to demonstrate that they satisfy the aspirations of the challenger better than the proposed alternatives.

Applied to the collision between Catholicism and modernity, one could say in extremely broad strokes that the first possibility dominated most of the 19th and early 20th centuries, with the Syllabus of Errors and the anti-modernist campaigns. It was a largely defensive reaction against secularism that still has echoes in influential circles of Catholic thought. The second possibility carried the day at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and has defined the project of Catholic liberalism ever since: the drive to reform the church to better reflect some of the core values of modernity, such as tolerance, pluralism, and democracy.

Much of church politics in the post-Vatican II era, again painting with a very broad brush, can be understood as a clash between these two impulses. To some extent, the third possibility has remained a path not taken, which is what makes the emerging outlines of Benedict’s magisterium especially intriguing.

– John L. Allen, “2007’s neglected story: Benedict XVI and ‘Affirmative Orthodoxy'” (January 3, 2008)

Book Review: Holy Days

In Holy Days: Meditations on the Feasts, Fasts, and Other Solemnities of the Church, editor Jean-Michel Coulet has compiled a useful selection of excerpts from the homilies of Pope Benedict XVI related to various holy days throughout the Church’s liturgical year.

The book is divided by liturgical season, beginning with Advent and progressing through the entire Church year. Each selection is related to a holy day that falls in that season. Readers should be aware that depending on the dates of certain feasts the holy days may appear out of order. For instance, the book places the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter the Apostle (February 22) after the Second Sunday of Lent; in 2013, the feast will precede the Sunday. This is a minor inconvenience, however.

The text of the book comes directly from the homilies and addresses of Benedict XVI and reflects his pastoral and catechetical concerns. While the content of the book may be available online, this collection makes it easy to journey through the Church year with the Holy Father. Holy Days would make a worthy addition to any spiritual library.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book through LibraryThing‘s Early Reviewer program.

Renewal in the Year of Faith

The renewal of the Church is also achieved through the witness offered by the lives of believers: by their very existence in the world, Christians are called to radiate the word of truth that the Lord Jesus has left us. The Council itself, in the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, said this: While œChrist, ˜holy, innocent and undefiled’ (Heb 7:26) knew nothing of sin (cf. 2 Cor 5:21), but came only to expiate the sins of the people (cf. Heb 2:17)… the Church … clasping sinners to its bosom, at once holy and always in need of purification, follows constantly the path of penance and renewal. The Church, ˜like a stranger in a foreign land, presses forward amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God’, announcing the cross and death of the Lord until he comes (cf. 1 Cor 11:26). But by the power of the risen Lord it is given strength to overcome, in patience and in love, its sorrow and its difficulties, both those that are from within and those that are from without, so that it may reveal in the world, faithfully, although with shadows, the mystery of its Lord until, in the end, it shall be manifested in full light. 

– Pope Benedict XVI, Porta Fidei (no. 6)

50 Year of Faith Activities: #1-3

Beginning this October the Church will be celebrating a Year of Faith. The beginning of the Year of Faith coincides with both the 50th  anniversary  of the opening of the Second Vatican Council as well as the 20th anniversary of the promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The Holy Father has expressed his wishes for the Year of Faith in these terms:

We want this Year to arouse in every believer the aspiration to  profess  the faith in fullness and with renewed conviction, with confidence and hope. It will also be a good opportunity to intensify the  celebration  of the faith in the liturgy, especially in the Eucharist, which is   œthe summit towards which the activity of the Church is directed; … and also the source from which all its power flows.  At the same time, we make it our prayer that believers’  witness  of life may grow in credibility. To rediscover the content of the faith that is professed, celebrated, lived and prayed, and to reflect on the act of faith, is a task that every believer must make his own, especially in the course of this Year.

To that end, every Friday from today until the Year of Faith begins, I will be posting ideas for how dioceses and parishes can engage the faithful in the Year of Faith. I hope that these ideas will inspire you and your community to participate more fully in this special year.

  1. Live stream the opening of the Year of Faith.  The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in its “Note with pastoral recommendations for the Year of Faith”, recommends that dioceses hold special events to open  the Year of Faith. Using web cams and a service such as UStream, a parish or diocese could very easily broadcast these events live for those people who cannot attend in person. Most of these services can also record and archive so that  people  can watch at a later time as well.
  2. Invite testimonies.  Over the course of the year (maybe once per month) invite select members of your parish to give their testimony — their story of conversion, re-version, or just why they stay in the Church. These could be presented after Mass or at a special gathering during the week. Be sure to invite parishioners who are well-spoken or who have a particularly compelling story.  Bonus:  Record these testimonies and post them on your parish’s web site.
  3. Have a potluck for Mary!  This one can be done by families: invite friends and fellow parishioners over to your house for a communal praying of the Rosary and potluck! These events are a great way to meet new people through food and prayer. Be sure to have a few extra plastic rosaries on hand for those who forget theirs.

Photo by ashley rose/flickrCC

The Redditio Symboli

Not without reason, Christians in the early centuries were required to learn the creed from memory. It served them as a daily prayer not to forget the commitment they had undertaken in baptism. With words rich in meaning, Saint Augustine speaks of this in a homily on the redditio symboli, the handing over of the creed: “the symbol of the holy mystery that you have all received together and that today you have recited one by one, are the words on which the faith of Mother Church is firmly built above the stable foundation that is Christ the Lord. You have received it and recited it, but in your minds and hearts you must keep it ever present, you must repeat it in your beds, recall it in the public squares and not forget it during meals: even when your body is asleep, you must watch over it with your hearts.”

– Pope Benedict XVI, Porta fidei  (no. 9)

Photo by KOREphotos/flickrCC

‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’

We cannot accept that salt should become tasteless or the light be kept hidden (cf. Mt 5:13-16). The people of today can still experience the need to go to the well, like the Samaritan woman, in order to hear Jesus, who invites us to believe in him and to draw upon the source of living water welling up within him (cf. Jn 4:14). We must rediscover a taste for feeding ourselves on the word of God, faithfully handed down by the Church, and on the bread of life, offered as sustenance for his disciples (cf. Jn 6:51). Indeed, the teaching of Jesus still resounds in our day with the same power: ‘Do not labour for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life’ (Jn 6:27). The question posed by his listeners is the same that we ask today: ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ (Jn 6:28). We know Jesus’ reply: ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent’ (Jn 6:29). Belief in Jesus Christ, then, is the way to arrive definitively at salvation.

– Pope Benedict XVI, Porta Fidei

The Church: Our Safeguard Against Self-Destruction

For the past four weeks I’ve been facilitating a formation course for Catholic school teachers in Springfield on Catholic Social Doctrine. This past week we explored chapter four of Pope Benedict XVI’s social encyclical, Cartias in Veritate (Charity in Truth).

One quote from our reading stuck out at me in particular:

The Church has a responsibility towards creation and she must assert this responsibility in the public sphere. In so doing, she must defend not only earth, water and air as gifts of creation that belong to everyone. She must above all protect mankind from self-destruction. [my emphasis]

image by Zahorí/FlickrCCThe pope is speaking plainly here about the impact of unjust consumption and hoarding of resources by industrial nations without regard to the impact on underdeveloped nations or future generations. However, I think we can also read a spiritual truth into this statement; namely, that without the Church, the Body of Christ, we cannot avoid the self-destruction of our souls. It is the Church’s duty to safeguard the faithful and preach the Gospel unto their salvation. Without that preaching, preserved through the teaching of the Apostles and their successors, we are doomed to annihilation.

Benedict’s statement also points to a greater reality: that, while mankind is perfectly capable of destroying itself, we cannot save ourselves. It is only in community that we will avoid self-destruction. And not just any community will do — it must be a community rightly ordered, with Christ at the head. Without the Church we would not have the Sacred Scriptures, the sacraments, the teachings of Christ; in other words, we would not have the means of grace necessary to avoid our destruction.

Pope Benedict alludes to these realities again in the closing words of this chapter:

Truth, and the love which it reveals, cannot be produced: they can only be received as a gift. Their ultimate source is not, and cannot be, mankind, but only God, who is himself Truth and Love. This principle is extremely important for society and for development, since neither can be a purely human product; the vocation to development on the part of individuals and peoples is not based simply on human choice, but is an intrinsic part of a plan that is prior to us and constitutes for all of us a duty to be freely accepted. That which is prior to us and constitutes us ” subsistent Love and Truth ” shows us what goodness is, and in what our true happiness consists. It shows us the road to true development.

On Changing My Mind (and my theology)

A couple weeks ago I received a note from a friend from college, asking about my current pursuits and whether I had “changed” since college. It’s helps to know that, in college, I fell to the left of where I would currently plot myself on the proverbial spectrum. In fact, I’ve taken to calling myself a “recovering liberal,” in so far as I’ve stepped back from some of my unexamined assumptions but not quite gotten to where I would describe myself as conservative.

Back then I was still “fresh” to theology and, like a lot of people my age, found myself poorly catechized to the teachings of the Church. As I’ve deepened my studies I’ve been exposed to a wider variety of thought (both Catholic and otherwise) that I’ve had to wrestle with and account for. I’m unsatisfied with the stock answers of both the right and the left and, for myself, prefer to steer a middle path (which is making decisions of a political nature increasingly difficult).

In the last few years I have been (quite by surprise!) energized by Benedict XVI’s papacy. Maybe it’s my own academic inclinations, but I’m drawn to his clarity of thought and “back to basics” approach. Jesus of Nazareth was a sort of watershed read for me, because it skilfully navigates both rigorous study and fidelity to the Tradition. This was one of my main struggles in college — how to reconcile the head with the heart without losing the strengths of both. (In fact, it’s still one of the main sticking points in my spiritual journey.)

As I reflect on my own developing approach to theology I find that it is informed by the four characteristics that form the basis for this blog:

  • Openness to insights from a variety of sources;
  • A fierce loyalty to the faith of the Church;
  • Approaching the faith as an answer to Christ’s call in hope and love;
  • An “evangelical” faith that is technologically savvy.

To summarize this approach I’ve appropriated John Allen’s term “affirmative orthodoxy,” which he defines as “a tenacious defense of the core elements of classic Catholic doctrine, but presented in a relentlessly positive key.” I find this approach extremely attractive and vital to the Church at this particular moment in time, especially as someone working in the catechetical ministry.

In grad school I heard a story (most likely apocryphal), that when brought before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to defend some of his writings, Edward Schillebeeckx just shrugged his shoulders and said something to the effect of: “That’s what I wrote then, it’s not how I would write it now, and who knows what I’ll write tomorrow?” Schillebeeckx was never censored, and it’s that spirit of inquiry and humility that I’m trying to cultivate in myself.

What is “affirmative orthodoxy”?

The phrase was originally coined by John Allen to describe the particular theological trajectory of Pope Benedict XVI:

By “affirmative orthodoxy,” I mean a tenacious defense of the core elements of classic Catholic doctrine, but presented in a relentlessly positive key. Benedict appears convinced that the gap between the faith and contemporary secular culture, which Paul VI called “the drama of our time,” has its roots in Europe dating from the Reformation, the Wars of Religion, and the Enlightenment, with a resulting tendency to see Christianity as a largely negative system of prohibitions and controls. In effect, Benedict’s project is to reintroduce Christianity from the ground up, in terms of what it’s for rather than what it’s against.

This spirit of “affirmative orthodoxy” was clear in Benedict’s first encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est, in which the pope laid out a philosophical and spiritual basis for the church’s teaching on human love. His encouragement for the International Theological Commission to set aside the hypothesis of limbo offers another example. Without softening the traditional teaching that Christ’s grace, normally mediated through baptism, remains essential for salvation, Benedict nevertheless put the accent on hope.

In the Holy Father’s own words:

Christianity, Catholicism, isn’t a collection of prohibitions: it’s a positive option. It’s very important that we look at it again because this idea has almost completely disappeared today. We’ve heard so much about what is not allowed that now it’s time to say: we have a positive idea to offer, that man and woman are made for each other, that the scale of sexuality, eros, agape, indicates the level of love and it’s in this way that marriage develops, first of all, as a joyful and blessing-filled encounter between a man and a woman, and then the family, that guarantees continuity among generations and through which generations are reconciled to each other and even cultures can meet. So, firstly it’s important to stress what we want. Secondly, we can also see why we don’t want something. I believe we need to see and reflect on the fact that it’s not a Catholic invention that man and woman are made for each other, so that humanity can go on living: all cultures know this. As far as abortion is concerned, it’s part of the fifth, not the sixth, commandment: “Thou shalt not kill!” We have to presume this is obvious and always stress that the human person begins in the mother’s womb and remains a human person until his or her last breath. The human person must always be respected as a human person. But all this is clearer if you say it first in a positive way.

Affirmative orthodoxy, then, is a particular way of approaching the Christian faith. Rather than being defensive or defining itself by what it isn’t, AO proposes that which is true and invites others to follow that truth in their lives. This starts with a recognition that this invitation is open to all — including (especially!) those who already follow Christ — in order that they may be made perfect, “just as [our] heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). In this way AO is connected to the New Evangelism preached by Pope John Paul II, which called for a renewed emphasis on transforming both individuals and cultures through the preaching of the Gospel.