13. John Paul II beatus. Chronicles of a distant observer

John Paul II is now “blessed”, according to the canon law of the RC Church. The ceremonies that took place in Rome between April 30th and May 1st were followed by a couple million people who were present in one or more of the events and celebrations, and by millions of people around the world who were watching on TV, or observed by means of other media outlets. It is true that the events in Rome were a bit overshadowed by the royal wedding in London, on the one hand, and the shooting of Bin Laden in Pakistan, on the other. The impression is that these two world events somewhat obscured the beatification of John Paul II, at least from a media point of view. The latter, however, was impressive and thought-provoking.

It so happens that I was not in Rome when the ceremonies took place. I was actually in the USA visiting churches and promoting Gospel work in Rome. For this reason I had the opportunity to observe the beatification from a distance, as most people would normally do. Instead of being an eye-witness and fully immersed in the events, I had the chance of being a distant observer with little internet access, some exposure to TV coverage, and only and quick perusal of one or two secular newspapers. In a sense, this is the way that most people would normally have access to Vatican events, and more generally to issues related to Roman Catholicism (grabbing some bullet points, listening to some catchwords, or watching some selected pictures, and that’s all). Little theological awareness, little help in grasping the big picture, and little analysis of what happened. Is this the way in which most Evangelicals form their evaluation of Roman Catholicism?

I was impressed by what I could not gather from a distance. Here are two main pieces of information that stood out to me as a “normal” busy person looking superficially at what took place in Rome.

A memorial service?

The first bit of information I picked up was that what took place in Rome had actually been a “memorial service” celebrating the political achievements, the charming personality, and the ecclesiastical success of John Paul II. The framework was the celebrity status applied to a global-scale religious figure. In a world in which few people deserve praise, John Paul II was commended as a “hero” of his time. A memorial service is something that is palatable to most people, Evangelicals included. There is nothing wrong in nurturing the memory of a person and treasuring the lessons of their life. This, however, is not the main thrust of the beatification. Beatification is a recognition by the RC Church that the person beatified can be presented to the faithful as an intercessor for their needs, worries, sickness, etc. The faithful are encouraged to pray the beatus in order to receive healing and protection. The faithful are encouraged to bow down before the beatus, to have sacred pictures of the beatus, and to develop a fully-orbed devotion for the beatus. In other words, beatification is a decision by the RC Church to add another mediator to the thousands that are already there. Beatification touches on the mediatorship of Jesus Christ. Christ alone is not sufficient in himself, but shares his mediator role with other figures that the RC Church recognizes as “blessed” (and then eventually “saints”). Notwithstanding RC uneasiness to acknowledge this, beatification is a subtraction from the sufficiency of Christ’s work and the full humanity of his person. The “blessed” is added to Christ. Therefore holding a “memorial service” is one thing, perhaps even compatible with basic Biblical teaching, though always in danger of paying too much tribute to the celebrity culture. Proclaiming beatus upon a person is very different in that it diverts the faithful away from Christ and towards the beatus himself. Unfortunately, the latter meaning was absent from what I could gather as a distant observer.

 

A Christ-centered message?

The other impression that was apparent from what I was exposed to was that the general tone of the celebrations was Christ-centered. Few quotations from Benedict XVI’s homily were mentioned and they seemed to refer to John Paul II’s relationship with Christ. The pope was praised as a “servant of Christ” and a “follower of Christ”. (By the way, these expressions are the same that Billy Graham uses in his forward of a picture book on John Paul II that was on display in the US airports’ bookshops). What the media failed to do, however, was to present the Marian framework which was the framework of the whole celebration. On Saturday night more than 300,000 people gathered for a Marian vigil of prayer, all singing totus tuus (“wholly yours”, the Pope’s motto expressing his devotion to Mary), and prayed to Mary all night. Moreover, the homily of Benedict XVI contained many references to the Marian spirituality of John Paul II, commending it to the faithful as the way to uphold Christian witness in today’s world. On Sunday the coffin of John Paul II and the relics of his blood were displayed in St. Peter’s square for veneration by the people. Had I not had a basic knowledge of RC and a bit of spiritual curiosity to go beyond the headlines, I would have had the impression that the beatification was indeed Christ-centered, which in actual fact was not.

The beatification of John Paul II was a reminder of several challenges that we all face. First, relying on the general media as a first point of reference to the reality and accuracy of events is often misleading. Second, relying on a superficial awareness of RC helps in developing a distorted picture of it, and as a result an inaccurate understanding emerges. Third, if most Evangelicals rely on the general media and on a superficial awareness of RC, it is not surprising that we are naive (to say the least) in our evaluation of it.

 

Leonardo De Chirico

leonardo.dechirico@ifeditalia.org

Rome, 14th May 2011

12. Marian devotion and John Paul II. Tales from a will-be beatification

Roman Catholicism is accomplished at handling both macro and micro dimensions of its universe. For example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a breathtaking synthesis of the millenary-old wisdom of the Church. It provides an instance of the ability of the RC Church to master and condense history, doctrine, and culture. Yet the same ability is observable in a careful analysis of a liturgical celebration. Every gesture, movement, action, word, etc., is a part of the whole which informs it.  Attention to both universals and particulars belong in the same RC realm.

The combination of both macro and micro dimensions will be displayed in the intensive 3-day beatification of John Paul II. More than 300.000 people are expected to be in Rome for this event and the program is a reflection of the “catholic” breadth of the Church as well as of her “roman” character. The catholicity of the Church will be demonstrated by the presence of all the cardinals and especially by the participation of the massive number of people at the various stages of the beatification: the Marian prayer vigil on Saturday,April 30th; the beatification ceremony on Sunday, May 1st; and the thanksgiving Mass on Monday May 2nd. The whole celebration will be marked by a strong Marian accent given the particular Marian devotion of John Paul II, but also by a powerful presentation of the heroic virtues of the previous Pope.

The Saturday night Marian prayer vigil is an attempt to honor the Marianism of the former Pope and to commend it to the faithful. The open air vigil will commence with a procession behind the Maria Salus Populi Romani (“Mary the salvation of the Roman people”), a Byzantine Marian icon that is deemed to be the protector of the Romans, followed by her enthronement at Circus Maximum. The elevation of the icon is a symbol of Mary being the object of public hyper-veneration, i.e. the unique tribute of honor that the RC Church pays to her. The crowd will then join in the singing of the hymn Totus Tuus (“Wholly yours”), echoing John Paul II’s motto that indicated his total commitment to Mary. A Marian rosary will follow in satellite link with five Marian sanctuaries: Krakow (Poland), Bugando (Tanzania), Harissa (Lebanon), Guadalupe (Mexico) and Fatima (Portugal). These places were all visited by John Paul II during his long pontificate and video excerpts of his speeches on Mary will be shown on large screens. During the night the crowd will be encouraged to join in prayers to Mary. The beatification ceremonies will be a great boost to Marian spirituality .

The following day the beatification ceremony will be held in St Peter’s square, accompanied by Wojtyła’s coffin which will be taken out of its present location. During the ceremony, the Pope will be officially presented to the RC Church as a recipient of petitions and intercessions of the faithful. Prayers to him and votive masses will be encouraged in RC practice and piety. Then the crowd will pay homage to the coffin in a prolonged and visual expression of communion between the living and the dead. It will perhaps take days to ensure that all present will have an opportunity to do so. After praying to Mary, the people will pray to John Paul II. Prayer will be one of the catchwords of the beatification event, yet one always needs to ask to whom prayer will be presented and in which spiritual framework.

Outside of the RC theological and doctrinal framework, it is difficult to come to terms with these deep convictions and widely practiced patterns of spirituality. Some Evangelicals would like to think that they are peripheral and non-essential, related only to fringe movements and folk religious expressions. Yet reality says that this is not the case. We are dealing with the core of the RC faith, appealing especially to the masses and totally integrated into the doctrinal outlook of the RC Church. After a book on Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict XVI will highlight Mary of John Paul II. His faith allows – or better – demands to do both in the same breath. The beatification of John Paul II will be a display of the RC’s ability to strongly uphold what other Christians would consider as far away from basic Christianity.

Leonardo De Chirico
leonardo.dechirico@ifeditalia.org

Rome, 11th April 2011

11. “The Courtyard of the Gentiles”, a Response to Atheism

Atheism has been at the center of the RC Church’s worries since the time of the Counter-Reformation. During the peak of the clash between the Enlightenment and the Vatican in the XIX century, Pope Pius IX issued the Syllabus (1864) in which “atheism” was added to the dreadful list of modern mistakes. A century later, Vatican II inaugurated a milder approach to atheism by attempting to engage its adherents in dialogue and to listen to their concerns. Gaudium et Spes – one of the Council’s main documents – addressed the issue of atheism in nuanced terms, challenging the church to go beyond mere confrontation. A Vatican Secretariat for the dialogue with Non-Believers was formed in 1965, then in 1988 it was turned into a Pontifical Council (a higher status) and eventually merged with the Pontifical Council for Culture (1993). After the fall of Communism, that had proclaimed “God is dead”, it seemed that atheism was going through a steady decline in appealing to present-day society as an alternative to traditional Christianity. More than atheism, however, the religion of our time seemed to be a new form of idolatry, i.e. egolatry (the cult of the self). But September 11, 2001 changed once more the tide in the West. As a reaction to the resurgence of religious-political fanaticism, a new and rampant atheism has become vocal and is capturing media interest and the imagination of the youth. It is a highly ideological and very antagonist form of atheism. What is the RC Church doing to confront this challenge on a global scale? One attempt is called the “Courtyard of the Gentiles”.

 

A symbolic place for meeting “strangers”

The choice of the name (Courtyard of the Gentiles) brand is highly evocative. The Second Temple in Jerusalem had a courtyard where the “gentiles” were allowed in. It was a place of meditation, listening, observation and dialogue, as well as a place of business (e.g. Jesus was not happy with its transformation into a market-place). Priests and scribes often gathered there to meet and dialogue with inquiring foreigners. The new initiative of the Pontifical Council for Culture wishes to set up an itinerant courtyard to become a place of dialogue with atheists in a spirit of mutual respect and desire to engage in meaningful exchange. Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, an erudite biblical scholar and able communicator, is the head of the Pontifical Council for Culture and the main inspirer of the “Courtyard of the Gentiles”. In his project, the first phase will try to involve those atheists who are perhaps as serious as believers in asking fundamental questions about God, life, evil, freedom, etc. The harshest and most offensive atheists (à la Richard Dawkins, for example) are for the moment outside of the Courtyard’s radar. It should be noted, however, that both practical and militant atheists are a top priority on the RC Church’s agenda.

 

The “catholic” scope

The first event was in Paris (24-25 March 2011) where the three-day initiative involved UNESCO, the Sorbonne and the Institut de France on the general theme of “Enlightenment, religions and common reason”. Academic events, festivals and concerts, among other things, were all part of the Courtyard. The hope is that it will become a catalyst for further and on-going opportunities for dialogue with non-believers. Of course local RC parishes and other RC movements will be all involved. Churches will be open and prayer vigils will be organized. Academics and Taizé groups, cardinals and fringe intellectuals, pop music bands and vanguard artists, celebrities and ecclesial movements, liturgies and hyper-technological shows…will all be on display, demonstrating the catholicity of the RC Church in action. It will be a highly organized and well thought-out apologetic exercise in RC fashion, both elitist and popular, both traditional and innovative, both word-oriented and image-oriented, both Catholic and ecumenical. After Paris, the courtyard will be set up in Tirana (2011), Stockholm (2011), Prague (2012), Assisi (2012), Geneva (2012), Québec (2012), Marseille (2013), Moscow (2013), Chicago and then Washington (2013). The website has lots of information (www.atriumgentium.org) and gives an idea of the breadth of the project. Will it succeed, however, in bringing people back to the Church?

 

A test-case for Benedict XVI’s papacy

Pope Benedict XVI’s agenda has fully emerged , and is now being implemented. From the beginning of his pontificate he said that the secular and post-Christian West should be the primary target of the RC Church. Both baptized, non-practicing Catholics, and perhaps baptized yet un-believing people are the main target. The New Evangelization, on the one hand, and the “Courtyard of the Gentiles”, on the other, are the tools that will be used to try to make a difference in both camps. Ratzinger’s papacy will be largely measured around their success or failure.

 

Leonardo De Chirico
leonardo.dechirico@ifeditalia.org

Rome, 28th March 2011

10. Jesus of Nazareth according to Benedict XVI

March 21st, 2011

It is too early to say whether it will become a theological classic, but Jesus of Nazareth (second part) by Benedict XVI is already a commercial asset. The first printing of 1,200,000 copies in twenty-one languages (and some e-book editions as well) makes it a good business for both author and publishing houses. Launched in time to be an ideal gift for the Easter season, it will probably sell more than the first volume that was published in 2007 and that sold 2 million copies. The first volume covered the life of Jesus from his birth to the great miracles and sermons, whereas this second one recounts the apex of Jesus’ ministry, i.e. his passion, death and resurrection. Though the two books present different elements of the Gospels, there is close continuity and coherence in Ratzinger’s approach to Jesus’ life.

The hermeneutics of Vatican II

One important feature of the Pope’s portrait of Jesus has to do with biblical hermeneutics. How do we read the Gospels? Ratzinger knows that the historical-critical school has nurtured skepticism, if not agnosticism, towards the Gospels as reliable accounts of the life of Jesus. The outcome has been the alleged chasm between the Jesus of history (unknowable in the main) and the Christ of faith (based on ‘mythological’ theologizing by the authors). While not renouncing the historical-critical methods and extensively conversing with liberal exegetes (mainly Germans), Ratzinger wants to recover the faith-element inherent in the Gospels, both as an essential ingredient of their formation and as a fundamental principle of their interpretation.

He calls for a hermeneutical “both-and” approach to the Gospels, i.e. open to critical-historical readings but within the context of a hermeneutics of faith. In the preface he argues that his sketch of Jesus’ life is an exercise of what Vatican II intended for Biblical interpretation. In fact  Dei Verbum (the Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation) n. 12 says that the reading of the Bible should search out the manifold characteristics of the text within the whole of Scripture and under the “judgment of the Church” whose living tradition is the on-going stream of Revelation.

One note of comparison is worth mentioning. The Evangelical scholar I.H. Marshall identifies three ways in which contemporary biblical scholarship is concentrating on areas more congenial to Evangelicals: the recognition that all biblical books are theological documents with a theological message; that they are all literary texts to be studied in their final form rather than in terms of sources; and that they should be studied canonically as part of the Bible as a whole (Beyond the Bible. Moving from Scripture to Theology, Grand Rapids: Baker 2004, pp. 19-20). Dei Verbum’s approach (and therefore Ratzinger’s) comes close to this, especially in its emphasis on the unity of Scripture and the legitimate place of faith in the reading process.

Yet it is different in equally important issues. First, it wants to retain historical-critical methods by modifying them rather than denouncing their anti-supernatural presuppositions and their arrogance to supersede Scripture. Second, while pushing aside the final judge of a self-claimed universal “reason”, it installs another final judge in the magisterium of the (RC) Church. Tota Scriptura (the whole of Scripture) is recognized but is not allowed to be Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) in that Scripture is viewed always as a part of a wider reservoir of Revelation which is authentically guarded and taught by the Church.

Strong points and question marks

Let’s first consider the strong points. He tends to practice what John Calvin called the “harmony of the Gospels”, i.e. the attempt to read the Synoptics and John’s Gospel together as much as possible, thus complementing each other rather than giving conflicting accounts. Outward discrepancies between the Gospels are generally treated as differences in emphasis, in perspective, and in intention. If taken together, the Gospels give a fuller picture rather than a fragmented one. Admirable also is the constant reference to the Old Testament as the over-arching framework for the words and deeds of Jesus. He also affirms the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus and strongly advocates for its pivotal significance for the Christian faith. These are all welcome features of Ratzinger’s book.

            A few points of contention are also worth noting. For instance, one overt concession to historical-critical methods pushes Ratzinger to say that the Lord’s eschatological discourse has been constructed through different redaction stages and are not the actual words of Jesus as they were spoken. There is also a persistent sacramental reading of the episodes of Jesus’ life as if they were naturally connected to the RC understanding of the Eucharist as a sacrifice of Jesus and the Church. This is true, for example, as far as the narratives regarding the entry to Jerusalem and the announcing of the destruction of the temple are concerned. Then, commenting on the priestly prayer in John 17 Ratzinger finds clear hints to the apostolic succession in the RC way. Finally, touching on the sensitive issue of the responsibility of the Jews in the death of Jesus, he denies any and goes on to say that Christians do not need to worry about the evangelization of the Jews because “all Israel” will be saved, thus leaving the reader with the idea that purposeful evangelism is not for the Jews.

Expiation and universalism

Perhaps the most serious problem with Ratzinger’s account has to do with expiation. Since the cross occupies a central place In the Gospel narrative, the book ponders on it quite extensively, expounding the doctrine beyond the Gospels themselves. His treatment resounds with what he had already presented in his 2005 encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) and tries to balance God’s justice and God’s love, looking at the cross as the mystery in which the two are combined. Yet  even in his profound comments there are two missing points: propitiation and penal substitution. While God’s justice is often referred to, no place is given to God’s wrath (e.g. Luke 3:7; John 3:36) and the role of the cross in appeasing it. The harsh words of Jesus about God’s judgment are somewhat sentimentalized. Moreover, while expiation is exegeted in its ‘covering’ aspect, no attention is given to the legal exchange that took place at the cross. While Isaiah 53 is used as a background narrative for the meaning of the cross, it is not understood in penal substitutionary terms. The meaning of the sacrifice of Jesus being for “many” or for “all” further complicates the point. The issue here is different from the Calvinist-Arminian debate about the extension of the atonement. Ratzinger’s preoccupation with carefully defining the words is more in line with the “catholic” (i.e. universal), inclusivist view of all mankind being linked to the cross of Jesus, taking therefore a universalist slant.

Pope Benedict XVI has admirably written a Gospel portrait of Jesus of Nazareth that wishes to present the “real” Jesus. More than the “real” one, however, the picture that comes out of the book is that of a “saint” Jesus, i.e. a figure that is astonishingly adherent to RC expectations.

Leonardo De Chirico
leonardo.dechirico@ifeditalia.org

 

9. The New Evangelization at the 2012 Synod of Bishops

March 11th, 2011

A missional turn in the Roman Catholic Church?

The “New Evangelization” looks set to become a key catchphrase in RC circles in the future. The phrase was introduced and used extensively by John Paul II during his long pontificate as it was one of his ways of facing the effects of secularization in the Western World. Pope Benedict XVI has been consistently referring to the New Evangelization in his teaching, but in 2010 a new Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization was established as a way to formalize the emphasis he placed on it with the desire to spread it out long-term and world-wide.  John Paul II had the vision and provided the language (coining a new Hollywood-style Marian title: Mary the “Star of the New Evangelization”!) but Benedict XVI is spelling out what that means .

Further, Pope Benedict XVI has recently announced that the next Synod of Bishops will take place in October 2012 on the topic of the New Evangelization. That means that all RC bishops throughout the world will convene in Rome to discuss it. The following steps will be taken:

1. a preparatory document is set out (Lineamenta) calling for response and feedback;

2. Based on the bishops’ written answers a working tool will be prepared (Instrumentum Laboris) that will serve as official text for the Synod,

3. After the Synod (perhaps one or two years later) the Pope will issue a Post-Synodal Exhortation which will be part of his magisterium. So both Lineamenta and Instrumentum Laboris are preliminary and provisional documents, whereby the final Exhortation has magisterial value.

We are now in the Lineamenta phase. The 60-page text (in eight official languages) has been sent to Bishops and presented to the press. Its full official title is The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith. By November 2011 feedback will be gathered in order to draft the Instrumentum Laboris in time for the October 2012 Synod. What is the significance of the Lineamenta?  There is one in particular. .

What does “New” mean?

The phrase New Evangelization has been circulating for at least three decades in Popes’ speeches and documents. But in the Lineamenta, perhaps for the first time, the meaning of “new” is expounded, at least in part. The document argues that “Evangelization” has three main meanings:

1. The ordinary, on-going mission of the church;

2. The “first” evangelization to non-Christian people;

3. The “new” evangelization to the baptized, yet non-evangelized.

It is clear that, whilst always connected to the first two applications, the “new” evangelization is specifically addressed to the people who are registered in the RC Church’s books in that there were baptized and are counted as Roman Catholics in official statistics, yet they are practically un-churched, spiritually pagan, in need to be regained to the Church, though they are sacramentally part of it. They are RCs in the cultural sense, yet you would not find them at the Sunday mass and they would have naïve beliefs and embarrassing lifestyles if measured by the RC Catechism.

The New Evangelization is addressed to “nominal” Roman Catholics, though the word “nominal” is not used in the document. Recent global statistics say that the total number of Roman Catholics around the world is on the increase: in 2009 there were 1,181 billion people who have been baptized (1,3% more than 2008). Yet, these figures tell only half of the truth. The real concern for the RC Church is the increase of secularized Roman Catholics, especially in the Western World but also in parts of the Majority World. These people “belong” without “believing” (quite the opposite than in the Evangelical world where people may believe without belonging). The New Evangelization is the means by which they may belong and believe, being both quantitatively and qualitatively part of the RC Church. The other concern, especially in Latin America, is the loss of people who were baptized in the RC Church but are now affiliated to “sects” – a derogatory term that is also used to stigmatize Evangelicals. According to Lineamenta, the tools of the New Evangelization are two very traditional but well established patterns of spiritual formation: a renewed emphasis on catechism (i.e. transmitting the RC faith) and renewed efforts towards catechumenate (i.e. fostering discipleship).

The underlining ecclesiological crux

The New Evangelization is not primarily about mission to the unbelieving world. It is mainly addressed to reverse the tide within RC Christianity i.e. it is more of an internal affair, rather than a missional goal. Its task is to recapture to the Church those who have been baptized, perhaps christened, attend funerals and weddings, yet live lives which are alien to the standards of the RC Catechism.

The Lineamenta document sets the scene for the global discussion on the New Evangelization and raises many questions to which Bishops will respond. One big issue is missing though. While there is a frank realization of the problem, the awareness of the causes seems defective. Certainly, secularization explains much of present-day Western detachment from traditional Church’s rites and patterns. But one has to ask a deeper question which has to do with the ecclesiology emerged from Vatican II (1962-1965). The big question that Vatican II addressed was an ecclesiological one: what kind of church do we want? A church of the faithful, a confessing church, a church that matches faith and practice? Or a “catholic” church, the people’s church, whatever this means in terms of lack of faithfulness and integrity? A church that majors on conversion and discipleship or a church that wants to be all-embracing and all-inclusive? Ecclesiologically, the question was: do we want a church of the baptized ones (leaving aside what happens after infant baptism) or a church of disciples? Vatican II unequivocally answered: the former, while preserving the apparatus of the latter! That answer has serious consequences that are evident to all, RC hierarchy included.  Secularization is one explanation of the lack of spiritual depth in Western RC, but the other explanation lies in the Vatican II ecclesiology.  The Lineamenta document speaks much of secularization and skips over the tenets of RC present-day ecclesiology as if they were not part of the issue at stake. Here are some questions that should be addressed instead:

–       is it baptism (whatever the theology behind it) or conversion the turning point for Christian life?

–       Do the pagan-Christians need just to be aware of who they are already or do they need conversion from idols to God?

–       Is church discipline a qualifying mark of the church or is it an optional add-on?

We will see how the Synod responds. Will the New Evangelization be merely a pastoral initiative to bring people back, leaving everything else untouched, or will it be an opportunity to ask more fundamental questions about the church of Jesus Christ?

Leonardo De Chirico
leonardo.dechirico@ifeditalia.org