Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Obedience and Renewal

Let us ask again: do not such reflections serve simply to defend inertia, the fossilization of traditions? No. Anyone who considers the history of the post-conciliar era can recognize the process of true renewal, which often took unexpected forms in living movements and made almost tangible the inexhaustible vitality of holy Church, the presence and effectiveness of the Holy Spirit. And if we look at the people from whom these fresh currents of life burst forth and continue to burst forth, then we see that this new fruitfulness requires being filled with the joy of faith, the radicalism of obedience, the dynamic of hope and the power of love.

Dear friends, it is clear that configuration to Christ is the precondition and the basis for all renewal. But perhaps at times the figure of Jesus Christ seems too lofty and too great for us to dare to measure ourselves by him. The Lord knows this. So he has provided “translations” on a scale that is more accessible and closer to us. For this same reason, Saint Paul did not hesitate to say to his communities: Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. For his disciples, he was a “translation” of Christ’s manner of life that they could see and identify with.

Ever since Paul’s time, history has furnished a constant flow of other such “translations” of Jesus’ way into historical figures. We priests can call to mind a great throng of holy priests who have gone before us and shown us the way: from Polycarp of Smyrna and Ignatius of Antioch, from the great pastors Ambrose, Augustine and Gregory the Great, through to Ignatius of Loyola, Charles Borromeo, John Mary Vianney and the priest-martyrs of the 20th century, and finally Pope John Paul II, who gave us an example, through his activity and his suffering, of configuration to Christ as “gift and mystery”. The saints show us how renewal works and how we can place ourselves at its service. And they help us realize that God is not concerned so much with great numbers and with outward successes, but achieves his victories under the humble sign of the mustard seed.

Homily, Chrism Mass, 2012

Reflection – The idea often is out there that obedience to the Church means turning your brain off, becoming passive, relapsing into a kind of ‘pay, pray, and obey’ mode where all the power and initiative of the Church lies with the clergy, while the laity are supine and essentially inert.

This is simply not the case. For example, the Church’s teaching about the male human being the necessary matter for the sacrament of ordination (i.e. ‘no women priests’), far from relegating women to the sidelines of the Church’s ministry, is sparking a whole new intellectual and spiritual movement of Christian feminism that is enlivening the faith and discipleship of many women, and challenges all of us to both develop and live out of a whole rich understanding of gender and its theological meaning. There is nothing passive about it.

At the same time, the Church’s sexual teachings, so difficult and painful for so many people I realize, have sparked in the past thirty years one of the greatest theological revivals of our history. Blessed John Paul II’s ‘theology of the body’ presents the eternal vision of human sexuality in the light of Christ in a way that has renewed and deepened the faith of millions. And this theological renewal is largely driven by lay theologians and evangelists, for the most part married men and women.

And of course what Pope Benedict is referring to here is precisely the new movements and communities (MH being one of them, and among the oldest!) that have re-vitalized Christian faith and culture all over the world. These are little-known in North America for the most part, but their influence is huge in Europe, Latin America, and Asia.

Obedience and its challenges provoke growth, not passivity. I said yesterday that I would never have come up with the ‘no sex outside marriage’ law on my own. And this is true: I am child of the sexual revolution, and left to my own devices would have gone down that road, not exactly happily, but certainly with alacrity.

The strange intervention of God in my life (which is another story) which put me on the path of ecclesial obedience and obsequium fidei has really forced me to deepen my understanding of God, the human person, the body, the passions, the mystery of love, the theology of the Cross and the eschatological hope of resurrection. Sexual libertinism (which is where I would have ‘naturally’ gone) is banal and shallow and takes us nowhere but to the wasteland of self-indulgence; the call to chastity has pushed me into spiritual and human depths I would never have reached otherwise.

Obedience is renewal and evangelization and deepening of faith and life, in other words. And this is what Pope Benedict means as he invokes all these saints and their example. The renewal of the Church has never come from political activism and agitation; it always comes from men and women who plunge into the passion of faith and the imitation of Christ, the obedience of the Son and the way of the Cross.

And again, this is plenty for one day’s blog post. I realize that keeping these posts to a manageable length while treating such complex issues may mean that I raise more questions than I can answer. But we have to start with the basic call to obedience and the basic foundation by God and by Christ of his Catholic Church as teacher and guide to us. If we don’t start there, we are not starting from a Catholic place at all. We will continue to discuss this tomorrow, God willing.