Monday, April 4, 2016

The Struggle Against Protagonism

The First Reading (1 Chronicles 17:1-15) from today's office of the Solemnity of the Annunciation, where at Holy Mass we have the other time in the OF, besides Christmas, when in the Credo we genuflect at the "et Verbum Caro factum est", reassured me greatly in terms of Christ's will to carry me and His Church.

"Once David had settled into his house, he said to the prophet Nathan, ‘Here am I living in a house of cedar, while the ark of the Lord’s covenant is still beneath the awning of a tent.’ Nathan said to David, ‘Do all that is in your mind, for God is with you.’

"But that very night the word of the Lord came to Nathan, ‘Go and tell my servant David, “The Lord says this: You are not the man to build me a house to dwell in. I have never stayed in a house from the day I brought Israel out until today, but went from tent to tent, from one shelter to another. In all my journeying with the whole of Israel, did I say to any one of the judges of Israel, whom I had appointed as shepherds of my people: Why have you not built me a house of cedar? This is what you must say to my servant David: the Lord of Hosts says this: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, to be leader of my people Israel. I have been with you on all your expeditions; I have cut off all your enemies before you. I will give you fame as great as the fame of the greatest on earth. I will provide a place for my people Israel; I will plant them there and they shall live in that place and never be disturbed again; nor shall the wicked continue to destroy them, as they did in the days when I appointed judges over my people Israel; I will subdue all their enemies. I will make you great; the Lord will make you a House. And when your days are ended and you must go to your ancestors, I will preserve your offspring after you, a son of your own, and make his sovereignty secure. It is he who shall build a house for me and I will make his throne firm for ever. I will be a father to him and he a son to me. I will not withdraw my favour from him, as I withdrew it from your predecessor. I will preserve him for ever in my house and in my kingdom; and his throne shall be established for ever.”’

Old Testament or New, Christ is King and establishes His Throne forever in our midst. Our challenge is to cooperate with His grace and do His bidding, just as Mary, the humble maid, the chosen one, did and conceived by the Holy Spirit.

By chance I ran across and read a book about the so-called "catacomb pact" of 1965 involving people committed to the so-called "Church of the poor". Here's a brief description of its negligible status today and with reference to the support it still enjoys seemingly from the Bologna School:

"Der Pakt fällt in Europa dem Vergessen anheim. Wenn wir den Erzählfaden über den Katakombenpakt wieder aufnehmen, leitet uns das Interesse, den Katakombenpakt als „geheimes Vermächtnis des Zweiten Vatikanischen Konzils“ wieder ans Licht zu heben und zu erinnern. „Heute, über fünfunddreißig Jahre nach diesem Ereignis, wurde noch nicht einmal der Versuch gewagt, eine Bilanz über den konkreten Einfluss dieser ‚Selbstverpflichtungen‘ zu ziehen“, stellt der bedeutende Konzilshistoriker Giuseppe Alberigo im Jahr 2000 fest."  (Arntz, Norbert (2015-11-05). Der Katakombenpakt: Für eine dienende und arme Kirche (Topos Taschenbücher) (German Edition) (Kindle Locations 80-84). Topos. Kindle Edition.)

I happened upon this book in German (no idea if there are other language editions), which tells the story of the so-called "catacomb pact" which was signed by nearly sixty Council Fathers in 1965 just before the close of the Second Vatican Council. It was one of the results or fruits of the "Church of the Poor" movement during the Council and bound its signatories, among other things, to live poor in solidarity with the poor upon their return to their dioceses. I picked up and read the book simply because I had never heard of this pact.

I don't recommend the book, because to a great extent its reading of the developments in the Church and in society in the latter part of the 20th Century is at best partial and often skewed. Moreover, it represents just one more example from another quadrant on the political spectrum of a profound misreading not only of the Second Vatican Council but more importantly of what is needed for reform in the Church. 

Much of the argument in favor of constructing the Church of the poor draws its authority from the Gospel scene of the Last Judgment, of separating sheep from goats, exalting sheep and damning the goats to hell on the basis of how each treated his neighbor and hence Christ. What has always struck me about the Last Judgment passage from the Gospel is how oblivious the "goats" are to the Lord's presence in their midst. In the parable of poor Lazarus at the rich man's door a similar obliviousness to the neighbor in need is at work. Obviously the "catacomb pact" has much about it of the mendicant movement (St. Francis and St. Dominic) and of identification with Christ in His disguise of poverty. Nevertheless, as we are taught about the nature of fasting and penance, to please God it is not enough to go around bent over and subdued, with a dirty face. A fundamental change of heart is required. Just choosing to "live poor" is not enough; it may be no more than a charade. Job's friends sat in the ashes with him but still failed to recognize him as righteous before God.

Arntz makes big of Karl Rahner's ecstatic acclamation of the birth of a "world Church" in replacement of something which was Europe-centered as the great departure or acquisition of Vatican II. The author goes on to chronicle something in terms of protagonism on the world stage, which hardly seems gain. As pretentious as tiaras and ostrich plumes may be, leaving them behind in favor of a continuance of willfulness which still fails to give the Gospel and the Kingship of the Lord Christ center stage hardly seems gain, growth or sanctification. 

In his blog MondayVatican, my friend Andrea Gagliarducci styles this week as a sort of moment of truth, with another session of the Vatileaks 2 trial on the docket and the presentation of the post-synodal apostolic exhortation scheduled for 8 April. He makes a somewhat oblique reference to attempts by dark forces to undermine the moral authority on the world stage of the papacy and the Holy See. Here too, I have my doubts as to whether we haven't drifted too far afield from the great mystery of what God accomplished through the consent of His lowly handmaid, in the mystery of the Incarnation, starting today with the conception of the God Man in the spotless womb of the Virgin Mary.

If we took a "wrong turn" as Church at some point in the last half century, it certainly was not for failing to sustain the momentum of the "catacomb pact", nor was it for other ways or for lack of skill and commitment to the fullness of Gospel truth. As important as all four marks of the Church are: one, holy, catholic and apostolic, oneness and universality are not simply played out by maximizing papal protagonism, by centering everything on the person of the Holy Father as the ultimate and best Catholic point of reference.

I can remember from his election in 1978 rejoicing with many Catholics at the success of Pope St. John Paul II at breaking through the glass ceiling which had amounted to an almost total media censorship of Bl. Pope Paul VI, at the very latest dating from the publication of Humanae vitae in 1968. With the Pontificate and travels of John Paul II we experienced a pope on the front lines, a real protagonist of Catholic life and thought. He was at the center of attention and this despite his own teaching or admission that the "real pope" was the priest in his parish.

Under Pope Benedict XVI we witnessed a cautious pullback from this seemingly necessary and predominant presence of the Successor of Peter as a sort of universal pastor, shepherding by word and deed, most particularly by capitalizing on his image transmitted by the whole spectrum of means of social communication. Like King David, very naturally and with a spontaneous approval by the prophet Nathan, later corrected by God Himself, papal protagonism in the service of the Gospel seems like David's plan to build God a house.

If there is or was something to do or to be done in the service of the Gospel, I think it must be done more by taking the Blessed Mother as our inspiration. Regardless of whether his image of Our Lady might be slightly idiosyncratic, if not heterodox, I take that of Bernanos to point in the direction of true simplicity and poverty at the service of the Divine Word:

"Our Lady knew neither triumph nor miracle. Her Son preserved her from the least tip-touch of the savage wing of human glory. No one has ever lived, suffered, died in such simplicity, in such deep ignorance of her own dignity, a dignity crowning her above angels. For she was born without sin-in what amazing isolation! A pool so clear, so pure, that even her own image-created only for the sacred joy of the Father-was not to be reflected. The Virgin was Innocence. Think what we must seem to her, we humans. Of course she hates sin, but after all she has never known it, that experience which the holiest saints have never lacked, St. Francis of Assisi himself, seraphic though he may be. The eyes of Our Lady are the only real child-eyes that have ever been raised to our shame and sorrow. Yes, lad, to pray to her as you should, you must feel those eyes of hers upon you: they are not indulgent-for there is no indulgence without something of bitter experience-they are eyes of gentle pity, wondering sadness, and with something more in them, never yet known or expressed, something which makes her younger than sin, younger than the race from which she sprang, and though a mother, by grace, Mother of all grace, our little youngest sister.'" (Georges Bernanos. The Diary of a Country Priest: A Novel (Kindle Locations 2282-2290). Kindle Edition.) 

As admirable as it might be to zealously roll up our sleeves and plunge into the work of promoting the Divine Will and Teaching, we do it rightly through a humble obedience like Mary's to that same will. "Catacomb pacts" and more smack of David's righteous will to build a house that God does not want or ask of him.

We seem to make big of our mediatic presence in a virtual public square. Prophetic gestures are indeed claiming center stage but they are for the most part human willed and created. One must wonder concerning what any of it has to do with my day to day; gestures seem to detract from possibilities for recognizing God living and true in our midst, as if I were doing the Lord some sort of favor. 

The Annunciation at Nazareth and the Birth at Bethlehem certainly cannot be disassociated from material poverty, but that poverty was not the sine qua non for what was first and foremost God's action, His entering into our world as one like us in all things but sin (tremble and bend the knee!). He built the house and chose His Dwelling in Mary for the sake of establishing within the hearts of a people He chose for His own a rapport of thankfulness and worship. Gift is primary and all else is trimming.  

There's a certain puzzlement at least in children and maybe in grownups too about the significance of carrying away from the Easter fire in the Vigil Service only a flickering candle. No matter how large and well decorated the candle, its flame is just too plain, small and uncertain a light. You couldn't read by it even if you tried. The emptying out, the kenosis we need in our lives is on God's terms and not ours, no matter how reasonable or heroic a project to His honor might be. The challenge is in recognizing Him and proclaiming Him as Lord.


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