Sunday, February 6, 2011

Theology and Sanctity

"Cooperatores Veritatis"

The Holy Father’s homily from yesterday’s ordination of five bishops: three for the service of the Roman Curia and two as Apostolic Nuncios is a treasure trove of points for reflection. So far the text is available in Italian and German. No doubt ZENIT will have an English translation of the homily posted and emailed by tomorrow. I recommend it highly for your consideration, but with just a touch of impatience I’d like to jump the gun and use my Sunday leisure to ponder it a bit.

The Episcopal motto of Pope Benedict XVI and his vision of the office of bishop (Cooperatores Veritatis) shines through every word of his preaching. The last two paragraphs, inviting the new bishops to mission, to set out into the rough seas and darkness all around for the sake of bringing men up from the briny deep and leading them to the fullness of life in communion with Christ, is indeed a worthy image. Bishops, today as always, share, through prayerful openness to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, in a work willed and brought to perfection by the Most Holy Trinity. That is the simple but oh so glorious truth!

I hope nobody minds if I take a cue from Hans Urs von Balthasar and address a mild criticism at one of those unofficial “magisteria” (university professors), who here and there in the world seem to be ruffling their feathers again for some reason. The upper echelon of Catholic academia could well back off a bit and take its cue for doing so from St. Hilary of Poitiers (as quoted by the Holy Father in his homily) who prayed that the Lord might fill the unfurled sails of our faith and our professing it with the breath of His Spirit and carry us on in “the sea crossing” (traversata) of our proclamation. “Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain… Unless the Lord guard the city, in vain does the watchman…” My point is that Catholic theologians owe us simple folk better than their impatience. It might be a delusion of grandeur on their part if they presume that most of us fall silent before the learning of the great ones whose names are suffixed with Ph.D. or S.T.D. (doctor of Sacred Theology). Calling oneself a serious theologian does not make one so. If somebody is suffixed and published besides, all things being equal, they bear responsibility and might expect to command our ear and even a slight, respectful, inclination of the head, especially if they speak with tenure from some place where they speak German (the latest “manifesto” from 143 men and women of that language is what I have on my mind). But learning and tenure are not enough.

Way back in 1989, Ignatius Press published in four paperback volumes a new English edition of a work by Hans Urs von Balthasar from 1960, entitled “Explorations in Theology”. I just finished volume “I: The Word Made Flesh”. Von Balthasar describes it as more of a “sketchbook” than a theological treatise. Hence, with very little foreword, I can dive into a chapter titled “Theology and Sanctity” and quote a couple of phrases worthy of note. It was his introduction to the topic that caught me off-guard:
“In the whole history of Catholic theology there is hardly anything that is less noticed, yet more deserving of notice, than the fact that, since the great period of Scholasticism, there have been few theologians who were saints. We mean here by “theologian” one whose office and vocation is to expound revelation in its fullness, and therefore whose work centers on dogmatic theology. If we consider the history of theology up to the time of the great Scholastics, we are struck by the fact that the great saints, those who not only achieved an exemplary purity of life, but who also had received from God a definite mission in the Church, were, mostly, great theologians. They were “pillars of the Church”, by vocation channels of her life: their own lives reproduced the fullness of the Church’s teaching, and their teaching the fullness of the Church’s life.” (p. 181)
In the article, which is less than 30 pages long, von Balthasar makes a proposal for yoking the two, theology and sanctity, back together again. His is not a plea for turning back the clock but for learning from the example of the Fathers and applying it to our circumstances. Apart of St. Augustine, he focuses with enthusiasm on the contribution made by Denis the Areopagite, whom he lauds as both an intellectual giant and a saint. His list is much longer than those two and he sums up the contribution of the Fathers in these words:
“In short, these pillars of the Church were complete personalities: what they taught they lived with such directness, so naively, we might say, that the subsequent separation of theology and spirituality was quite unknown to them.” (p. 182)
“True theology, the theology of the saints, with the central doctrines of revelation always in view, inquires, in a spirit of obedience and reverence, what processes of human thought, what modes of approach are best fitted to bring out the meaning of what has been revealed.” (p. 196)
Word had it that early on in his pontificate, soon-to-be-Blessed Pope John Paul II did most of his writing at his kneeler in the chapel before the Blessed Sacrament. While I must concede that my arthritic knees would not permit such a feat, the lesson is evident. Evident and urgent is also the need for all of us to borrow the prayer of St. Hilary of Poitiers and pray it for our bishops, young and not so young, that the Lord might fill the unfurled sails of our faith and our professing it with the breath of His Spirit and carry us on in “the sea crossing” (traversata) of our proclamation. It could be, too, that we need but open our hearts and eyes and give thanks for the number of “Fathers” amongst the bishops today, teaching the fullness of faith and by their holiness of life.

To close let me simply re-propose, for perspective’s sake, a passage from another approved author, who helps me keep things on an even keel:
“Those who really believe do not attribute too much importance to the struggle for the reform of ecclesiastical structures. They live on what the Church always is: and if one wants to know what the Church really is one must go to them. For the Church is most present, not where organizing, reforming, and governing are going on, but in those who simply believe and receive from her the gift of faith that is life to them. Only someone who has experienced how, regardless of changes in her ministers and forms, the Church raises men up, gives them a home and a hope, a home that is hope – the path to eternal life – only someone who has experienced this knows what the Church is, both in days gone by and now.” Introduction to Christianity, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Ignatius Press, 2004, pp. 343-4.

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