Returning to Jesus Christ: How the Gospel Addresses a Culture that has Forgotten How to Love
ABC RELIGION AND ETHICSÂ 23Â OCTÂ 2014
The d’Aquino family had long known that their seventh son was unsuited to government or fighting. For Neapolitan nobility, the only other live option was for him to enter the Church and hopefully rise to great heights, even to Abbot of Monte Cassino. It was, therefore, a shock to the system when he declared he wanted to join one of the brand new orders of beggar-friars. So appalled were they by this “waste” that Chesterton records the family kidnapped him for an extended period and even introduced a temptress to his cell!
Eventually they relented; young Thomas took the white habit of the Dominicans, vowed a life of obedience (with poverty and chastity) and was quickly packed off to the University of Paris, far from his family’s tentacles. Having chased the courtesan out of his room and his heart, he was free to embrace a life of philosophy, theology and ethics, on the “secret throne of contemplation, from which he never rose again.”
In this vignette, we glimpse something of what drove the man who came to be considered the greatest of Catholic theologians: a deep and abiding concern with the question of God, of what we can know (or not know) and say about God, about God’s existence, essence, action and inner life.
The founder of this “Order of Preachers,” St. Dominic de Guzman was said to have “spoken only of God or about God” and this second generation Dominican was equally theocentric. For him sacra doctrina (sacred science, contemplation or teaching) was the noblest endeavour of the human being. God was the object of that endeavour and in that task, as St. Thomas puts it, “all things are treated under the aspect of God; either because they are God Himself; or because they refer to God as their beginning and end.”
Joseph Ratzinger argued that this orientation is what frees theology from a “historico-anthropological circle,” allowing its devotees to reach beyond such boundaries and approach the very mystery of God as Being.
Chesterton argued that the distinctive contribution of the friars was to recapture for the Christian imagination the splendour of the Incarnation. Advocates of a dark dualism had convinced many people of that day that the body, sex, fertility and the whole material order were evil, and that they should repudiate anything so “material” as the Incarnation, the Resurrection or the Sacraments. The Dominicans were founded specifically to combat that heresy, and the Franciscans to correct for the damage it had done to popular piety.
So the friars offered a bright or joyful veritas in contrast to the pessimism of many of their contemporaries; they reaffirmed that in Christ the spiritual is mediated by the material; “by bringing God back to earth,” as Chesterton writes, they emphasised “the holy familiarity of the Word made flesh.” In Aquinas’s “Christian materialism” the material creation is affirmed as being created by a good God and therefore good in itself; as being redeemed by the coming of that God in the flesh; and as being destined to return to that God in the Resurrection. Christ, then, anchors our feet on the ground even as our hearts soar in the clouds.
In a few weeks’ time, the Church will celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the promulgation of Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. Among its rich ecclesiology, the Council famously taught that “the Church is in the nature of sacrament, i.e. a sign and instrument of communion with God and of unity among all people.” However spiritual in its effects, a sacrament is always a physical sign. As Christ had spoken of the Church as a vine growing out of His trunk (John 15:5) and Paul had written of the Church as the limbs and organs of a body with Christ as the head (1 Corinthians 12), so the Council now suggested that the Church extends Christ’s Incarnation across space and time, becoming the primordial sacrament after Christ Himself. Though in different orders (laity, religious, clergy) all the Baptised are called to holiness and, through word and sacraments, into communion with God and each other.
Speaking the truth lovingly in Sydney
My episcopal motto is “Speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). So it was that St. Paul described the lived words of those who attain “the unity of the faith and knowledge of the Son of God,” those who grow up to be as fully human and close to divine as it is possible for mere mortals to be. Others, he warned, are spiritually stunted, “like children tossed to and fro,” carried about by the latest ideas, the spin of popular opinion-makers. So that we might be aided to maturity, God graces “some to be apostles, prophets or evangelists, some to be pastors or teachers,” together building up the Church (Ephesians 4:10-16).
As one of those Paul says are charged to build people up to maturity and unity, I recognize that I have a serious responsibility. Without reliable teachers, Paul continues, people may be dim-witted, hard-hearted, alienated from God or each other, callous, licentious or greedy. Charity requires, therefore, not only that apostle-pastor-preachers speak the truth lovingly, but that “everyone speak the truth with his neighbour,” that they might be converted from their old ways into the very image and likeness of God (Ephesians 4:17-25).
Though they are heirs to the revelation of Jesus Christ transmitted by Scripture and Tradition, Christian pastors have no monopoly on wisdom. Today, as in Paul’s day, the Church operates in a pluralist environment and cannot expect that everyone will agree with, let alone live, all her teachings. As Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and now Francis so often said, the Church proposes rather than imposes her ideas: people are free in practice to accept or reject them. Which is why St. Peter thought Christians must be ready to give their reasons – rational, authentic, persuasive reasons – for the hope that is in them (see 1 Peter 3:15), trusting that they will be given a fair hearing even in a world where many ears are deaf to the spiritual, many minds indifferent and hearts hostile, yet where souls still hunger for more and better.
I am a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ, with that great crowd of witnesses from Peter and Paul through to our three popes. I am a Dominican friar, too, heir to the inspiration of Dominic and Aquinas and many others. Now I am called to preach the truth in charity to the people of Sydney.
In Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis suggested that that task is a joyful if sometimes arduous one: joyful, because Christians know that what they offer is inexhaustibly fresh, exciting and life-giving; arduous, because we preach against a backdrop of a world economy that is far from financially or morally healthy, a spiritual economy marred by increasing attacks on religious freedom and minorities, private lives marked by relativism, materialism and individualism, and public lives corrupted by secularisation and attendant rejection of transcendence and absolutes. The Church herself is far from immune from all these influences.
I think Aquinas’s idea of exitus-reditus – the going-out-from God and returning-to God schema of the Summa Theologiae – is still a great touchstone for the tasks of interpretation, contemplation and teaching. God created the world with a “gratuitous love that desires to share its own good.” St. Augustine said that “the fullness of our happiness, beyond which there is none else, is this: to enjoy God the Trinity, in whose image we were made.” In Christ we have the Way to the Father, the Truth about ourselves, and the Life for applying that truth along the way (see John 14:6); by participating in Christ’s continuing life in the Church, the human person comes to know that the meaning of his or her existence is to participate in the eternal “exchange of love between the divine Persons.”
Whatever the failures of some leaders and members of the Church and whatever the challenges thrown up by the contemporary world, I am convinced that what people most need is to encounter God in the face of Jesus Christ and through Him enter into communion with the Blessed Trinity. Only here will they find all the goodness and beauty of this city of Sydney, all the noble aspirations, relationships and projects of its people, purified and perfected.
Let me give three examples of the exitus-reditus idea applied to Sydney today: in the new evangelisation; in marriage and the family; and in young people.
New Evangelisation: Reconnecting with Sydney today
Now more than thirty years old, the term “new evangelization” has, after some initial resistance, become common parlance in the Church. In his 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio, St. John Paul II said, “The moment has come to commit all of the Church’s energies to a new evangelization … No believer in Christ, no institution of the Church, can avoid this supreme duty: to proclaim Christ to all peoples.” A decade later, he charged Christians with being “Servants of the Word in the work of evangelization.” He observed bluntly that the Church could no longer presume to be carried by cultures and communities evangelized long ago but now in the grip of diverse forces and ideologies. It was John Paul II who named me an auxiliary bishop for Sydney and under his influence that so many of my generation took up the challenge of a more evangelical sort of Catholicism for today.
Benedict XVI continued his predecessor’s focus on the new evangelisation and noted that some secularisms would confine faithfirst to the private sphere and then to a shrinking part of that sphere – an hour of weekly or even annual worship, leaving people “estranged” from Christ, His Church, their own faith and identity. He proposed that through experiencing the beauty of the Christian liturgy and the Christian life people might recover that image and likeness of God’s glory. It was Benedict who named me bishop for Parramatta and under his influence that so many of my generation took up the challenge of a more intelligent engagement with Christian tradition and with modernity.
Following his predecessors, Pope Francis last year published his widely acclaimed Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. In it, he recalls Christians to that joy they first experienced on encountering Jesus Christ and exhorts them to share this with others in another chapter of that ever-new evangelisation. “Missionary activity still represents the greatest challenge for the Church,” he says, and the mission field is not “deepest darkest Africa” but our own hearts, families, workplaces and communities in places like Sydney. He has called repeatedly on all members of the Church to be “missionary disciples.” It was Francis who named me archbishop for Sydney and under his influence that so many of my generation are taking up the challenge of greater outreach to the disconnected, hurting and marginalised.
Evangelisation, after the pattern of these three great modern popes, is that parabolic movement from heaven to earth and back again of Aquinas’s exitus-reditus. Christ is God’s Word descending for heaven to inspire and inform and direct our lives, drawing us to speak of Him to our neighbours from the depth of our souls and then to being consumed by the eternal conversation and song of heaven.
Religious faith and practice are said to be declining in the West, if unevenly so. In Catholic Sydney regular Sunday Mass attendance is around one in six. While higher than normal for church-attendance in Australia, this reflects what seems to have been an inexorable decline in the mainstream churches over the past few decades. Of course, many people still regard themselves as Catholic or Christian even though they do not go regularly to church. They still pray sometimes, maybe even often. They live lives inspired by Christian teachings, sometimes better than some church-goers. They are not hostile to the Christian thing, and may well still go to church from time to time (big feasts, family occasions and so on).
Many also connect to the Church in other ways – like through its schools, hospitals, welfare agencies, aged care. But without regularly hearing the Word proclaimed and preached, without regularly receiving the Sacraments of mercy and communion, without the support of a community of fellow sinners aspiring to be saints, that connection with God in Christ risks fading away.
A recent study commissioned by the Diocese of Springfield into why Catholics no longer attend identified four main reasons: issues with Church doctrine, lack of connection to the Church, Church scandals and a perceived lack of Christian values in the Church, parish or priest.
This is the context of the new or re-evangelization. Its aim, like all evangelization, is an exuberant proclamation of the happiness that comes with encountering the Incarnate Word in His Church, the portal to eternal life with the Blessed Trinity. But its target is those who should know this already: individuals, institutions and cultures that were formerly or are still formally Christian. AsPope Francis asks, “What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the Beloved, to point Him out, to make Him known?”
Regaining people’s trust and openness to the Gospel; reconnecting with those who have been away or who are only barely still connected; addressing their deepest needs and longings; and drawing them up to that something greater for which they were made – this is the fundamental task for a Bishop in Sydney today.
Marriage and family: Learning to love again
One arena in which this proclamation is of vital importance in today’s culture is in marriage and the family. The Son of God, Christians believe, descended from the heavenly family to join a particular human family, that He might raise us all up to the divine family. So the exitus-reditus is not just of an inspiring Word but of a redeeming Love. Documents such as the golden conciliar Gaudium et Spes, Blessed Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, St. John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio and Theology of the Bodyand the recent Synod on the Family (with another projected for next year) have all reflected the importance the Church places on family.
Cardinal Marc Ouellet has stated that the family is in a “precarious” position today and has traced its shrinkage and fragmentation in modernity to urbanisation, industrialisation and a re-conceptualisation of the institution as being founded solely on the affections of the couple for each other. Although a development carrying with it positives, such as greater respect for freedom and the equality of the sexes, basing marriage on romantic love alone introduces a “high coefficient of instability” into what was hitherto a locus of stability. When concepts of love and sexuality are unmoored from religious values and mores, as they have been in secular modernity, major stress points become evident: disconnection of domestic relations from marriage; disconnection of sexuality from love and procreation; and the relegation of the family to the private sphere.
The results are plain to see: in our grandparents’ day nearly everyone was married; now fewer than half are. Of those who ever give marriage a try, it’s generally only after a long period of experimentation and cohabitation, even though this radically reduces marital sticking power. Many who try don’t stay married. What’s more, many adults think children are an optional extra for their marriage. Many children grow up without the experience of a mum and dad committed to each other and to them over the long haul. Despite widespread promiscuity the memory of a genuinely marital culture survives in the aspirations of most people to be “relatively monogamous” – they spend sustained periods with one person before moving on to another and they keep hoping that one might be “for keeps.”
Thus Pope Francis has observed that the “family is experiencing a profound cultural crisis” and yet is remarkably resilient. Through his two Synods on the family Francis hopes to recall humanity to that “total communion of life,” founded on “the depth of obligation” that the spouses assume when they marry each other. In other words, the marriage-based family is not a community founded on sentiments – important as emotions are in drawing and holding us together and inclining our personalities and actions in particular directions. Marriage is not so much about feelings as about gift: it is the place where self-donation is lived and learned, where men and women find themselves and their happiness in a sincere gift of self despite their “irreconcilable differences.”
The biggest challenge for the family today is not in the realm of the hot-button issues that gained media attention around the recent Synod, but the much more fundamental problem that modernity has forgotten how to love. That might sound odd in a culture saturated with love songs and “making love,” but it is interesting that Google has found that the most commonly asked “How to …” and “What is …” questions asked of its search engines in America and Australia are “How to love?” and “What is love?”
In particular, I think modernity struggles with any kind of love that goes beyond feelings: especially the cross-shaped, self-spending Easter sort of loving rather than the heart-shaped, self-pleasing Valentine’s sort of loving. People today are less and less willing to commit, for the long haul, to another person or a small community of persons, come what may, even when the loving is hard. They are less and less willing to engage in the self-sacrifice that requires the compromising of our wilfulness, even unto death.
The biblical stories of human Genesis suggest that at the heart of what has gone wrong with humanity, time and again through history, has been a crisis in the most fundamental human relationship, between a man and wife, and then violence between two brothers, and outwards it stretches. But the biblical stories of human Re-genesis in Christ suggests that human healing can come through a holy family (imaged in the ecclesia domestica) and through a brotherhood in and through Him that breaks the endless cycles of harming and hurt.
Youth: A Church ever ancient and ever new
The God of the Christians is a God St. Augustine called “beauty ever ancient, ever new.” When God assumed a human nature, it was the nature of a child and a young man in which He lived and died; the ancient, eternal One was incarnate in a young and fresh one. In redeeming us he united us to this freshness, this energy, this eternal youth. So the exitus-reditus is not just of an inspiring Word and a redeeming Love, but also a rejuvenating Life.
Contrary to the expectations of the age, the last three popes have had an extraordinary appeal for young people. Even the more “introverted” and “cerebral” Benedict XVI had a remarkable effect here in Sydney when he joined the youth of this city and country and huge numbers from overseas back in 2008. All three popes have reached out to young people, to affirm their place not just in the future of the Church and the world, but right now. But rather than romanticizing youth, they have challenged them to reach beyond the superficiality of so much of pop culture, to aspire to more than comfort and consumerism, to dare to live lives of heroic holiness and self-giving.
Among St. John Paul’s enduring gifts to young people were his catecheses on the Theology of the Body, offering a personalistic Christian understanding of sexuality which has a dramatic effect on young people who are introduced to it.
Christians have to be creative and prudent about how the various media of communication can be harnessed to present the fullness of the Gospel of Christ and to encourage a personal encounter with the God-man who saves. But powerful as they are – for good and ill – we can’t put the whole weight of evangelization and catechesis on the old and new media. A personal, face-to-face encounter with a faithful and enthusiastic Christian, an experience of the Sacred Liturgy, the witness of Christian family life or a quiet act of charity: these are often the most powerful vehicles for transmitting the Gospel of Christ.
St. Dominic, upon meeting a heretic at an inn, spent the whole night talking to (and drinking with?) him, eventually converting him to the Christian Faith. Dominicans like to tell this story because it gives them an excuse for time spent in pubs! In Western Sydney these past few years, we’ve had a very successful Theology on Tap series each month, with hundreds of young people gathering to hear talks from orthodox and interesting Catholics. The young people would often end up talking through the night like Dominic, so fired up were they about the topic. There were also opportunities for confession and the context of Christian friendship, food and drink. These things help. I’ve recently published a study on the positive effects of World Youth Days and other Catholic youth festivals: they are a way of connecting directly with the young, of offering them some quality catechesis and of allowing them to experience life as an unabashed Catholic, even if only for a week at a time. We need this sort of creative thinking if we are to connect with young people today.
There are plenty of reasons to reach out to youth, and Church survival is the least of them. Much more important is their salvation and happiness and the contributions they can make to our Church and our world. It is youth who so often reflect the Blessed Trinity’s eternal beauty and youthfulness in the Church. Young people need the Church and the Church needs them. As Archbishop of a youthful and energetic city, I am committed to making our young people a central focus of my pastoral attention.
Tommy the quiet but inquisitive boy and Tom the would-be-friar grew up to be the greatest theologian in history. After writing one of his most famous treatises, on the Blessed Sacrament, he placed it before the crucifix in St. Dominic’s Church in Naples. So pleased was Christ with Aquinas’s work that, according to witnesses, the corpus came to life, descended from the crucifix and declared, “Thomas, you have written well of me, especially concerning the Sacrament of my Body.” He then offered Thomas whatever his heart desired. Solomon had responded to a similar offer by asking for wisdom. Thomas’s answer was immediate: “All I want is You.” The childhood curiosity to know what is God had matured into the adult hunger for God Himself. Thomas Aquinas was now ready to join the reditus of Christ to heaven, and within weeks that was his fate.
Christ has so much to offer the city of Sydney and the people of Sydney have much to offer to Him. It is my hope and prayer that the two will be brought closer together in my time as Archbishop of Sydney.
Archbishop-elect Anthony Fisher, O.P. has been appointed by Pope Francis to become the ninth Archbishop of Sydney.