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

 

8. Overcoming the “sacred empire”?

March 4th, 2011

Cardinal Kurt Koch and some prospects of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

Kurt Koch is a name that perhaps does not mean much to most people. A few months ago, though, Benedict XVI appointed him as cardinal and gave him the responsibility to preside over the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, which is the Vatican institution devoted to ecumenical dialogue. Former bishop of Basel (Switzerland), and himself a Swiss (b. 1950), Koch took over the post at the Pontifical Council from another “prince” of the RC church, cardinal Walter Kasper, who resigned after reaching his 75th birthday, as Canon law prescribes.

Koch has been involved in RC ecumenism since his ordination to priesthood. His doctoral thesis obtained in Luzern was on the theology of history in Wolfhart Pannenberg. Knowledge of Protestant German theology has been his daily bread, theologically speaking. He seems conversant with D. Bonhoeffer, J. Moltmann and E. Jüngel (and also H. Küng). Much less prominent on his horizon is Evangelical theology. Moreover, his Episcopal experience in central Europe has meant that the relationship with non-RC Christians has always been central in his views and practice.

Opportunities and Challenges for European Christians

It is too early to say how cardinal Koch will develop the multifaceted action and strategy of the Pontifical Council. There is a way, however, to gain at least a flavor of what his main concerns will be, especially concerning the situation of Christianity in Europe. His previous writings provide a taste of what his thinking and ethos are regarding ecumenical matters and more general issues that are at stake for Christian witness. He is not a theologian of the caliber of Walter Kasper, but he is a thinker that deserves attention.

One particular book of Koch’s is worth mentioning, for a number of reasons. First, it was published in German (Kirche ohne Zukunft?, 1993), in French (Chrétiens en Europe, 2004) and in Italian (Quale futuro per i cristiani?, 2010), thus projecting Koch in international conversations on European Christianity. Second, the book contains a series of lectures that Koch delivered in Poland after the fall of the Berlin Wall on the prospects of the Christian faith in a pluralist society. The fall of communist regimes has been a watershed event that continues to have implications for Christian witness and Koch explores some of the scenarios for us. Third, ecumenism is right at the core of what Koch has to say in arguing that Christianity indeed has a future in Europe. He thinks that the challenges before Christians demand a way forward in terms of unity.

Backward to the “sacred empire” or forward to an “open house”?

Cardinal Koch agrees with many observers that secularization as a sociological process and secularism as an ideological framework represent the European cultural climate. Any type of Christian spirituality, therefore, needs to come to terms with it. In secular society religious concerns are widespread, yet they are not lived out in traditional patterns and within ecclesiastical institutions. How should Christians respond? Churches, Koch argues, have the tendency to reclaim their traditional status and power when they are challenged by secular trends. For him it is a wrong move. Instead of defending the privileges inherited from the past, churches need to be self-critical and willing to lose the unnecessary benefits that are unjust and unfair in democratic and pluralistic societies. In doing so Christians have to resist the direction of marginalization in which secular society wants to push them. Secularism has a place for churches only if they are institutions for “free-time” (i.e. not for the whole of life), and if they deal with the destitute, which always makes an affluent society nervous. In a telling comment, Koch argues that the church must learn to accept pluralism without reservations, even if pluralism diminishes her status (p. 29, Italian edition). Rather than aspiring to re-building the “sacred empire”, the church should wish to become an “open house” (p. 35), which acknowledges her provisional nature.

The “New Evangelization”

Churches will make a gross mistake if they get entangled in preserving past settlements of church-society relationships. Their role should be to engage Europe in the “new evangelization”. In a rather narrow historical perspective, Koch says that the word “evangelization” began to circulate at Vatican II (1962-1965). Perhaps this is true as far as RC circles are concerned, but it is also true that the word had been part of the Evangelical language for centuries. For Koch evangelization does not mean to rally a new crusade to claim back the past dominion, but instead to live out the Gospel in spiritual terms. Real Christian life is the “fifth gospel” for modern man (p. 62), and that speaks more powerfully to him. In other words, the mood of evangelization should not be dogmatic but mystagogical, i.e. more concerned with mystical realities than theological definition. In this respect the church needs to be semper evangelizanda (always in the process of self-evangelizing). In evangelizing others, she should evangelize herself. In doing so evangelization will not be “confessionalist” (i.e. reproducing past schemes and divisions) but “ecumenical” (i.e. promoting unity).

Where do we go from here?

The combination of the acceptance of pluralism and an emphasis on mysticism (others would instead speak of “spirituality”) seems to be Cardinal Koch’s direction in Europe. In a sense, his views are not very different from those of Protestant ecumenicals. Rather different tones and perspectives are found in John Paul II’s 2003 Exhortation Ecclesia in Europa (The Church in Europe), and in Joseph Ratzinger’s writings on Europe (e.g. A Turning Point for Europe? The Church in the Modern World, 1994). In these writings there is no hint of the willingness by the RC Church to renounce her privileges, especially when they imply political and economic benefits. There is no evidence of the practical viability of Koch’s arguments. The main theological justification of a RC “sacred empire”, i.e. a Church having a state (the Vatican), is left totally unquestioned even by progressive voices. The Gordian knot of the settlement is carefully protected and possibly extended, rather than cut or even untied. Cardinal Koch must work out what he means by overcoming the “sacred empire” towards an “open house”, not just in the safety of a lecture room, but inside the Vatican establishment itself.

The meaning of “evangelization” then needs to be spelled out more clearly, both theologically and practically. Appealing to postmodern mysticism can resonate with some European maîtres-à-penser, but what does it mean in terms of gospel faithfulness and a call to conversion to Jesus Christ? Again, giving a lecture is one thing, doing evangelism and seeing it happen can be quite another. From Basel to Rome, from bishopric in Central Europe to the Vatican curia, from the lectern to a more complex reality, Kurt Koch will surely have opportunities to test the weight of his views on Europe.

Leonardo De Chirico

leonardo.dechirico@ifeditalia.org

7. The Pauline Year. A More Pauline Church?

February 21st, 2011

The Roman Catholic Church is master at celebrating special years: the year of Jubilee, the Holy year, the Marian year, the Year for priests, etc. In a sense, every year is a “special” occasion for something. So it was with the Pauline Year (PY). Designed to celebrate the bimillennium of the birth of St Paul, which historians place between the years 7 and 10 AD, the PY included a series of liturgical, cultural and ecumenical events, as well as various pastoral and social initiatives, all inspired by Pauline spirituality. It took place between June 28th 2008 and June 29th 2009 and had as its center the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls (Rome). This massive Basilica was built by Emperor Constantine (IV century AD) over the burial place of the apostle Paul and is one of the four great Roman basilicas. The occasion to assess the outcomes of the PY was given by a 500-page book entitled L’anno paolino (The Pauline Year) that was officially presented in a press conference at the Vatican on February 9th. The book is a reference tool with all kinds of information on what took place during the PY.

Ecumenical (little) achievements

One of the chief aims that stirred Benedict XVI to proclaim the PY was to have a catalyst event that would foster the ecumenical cause on behalf of Christian unity. Since Paul is a central figure for both Eastern and Western sides of the church, the idea to celebrate a Pauline year took shape. Particular attention was given to ecumenical gatherings that would re-invigorate Christian unity on the basis of a common and renewed appreciation of Paul. For Eastern Orthodox churches, the PY was meant to highlight Paul’s missions to the East and the great legacy of his teachings about the “mystery” of the faith. Solemn events and liturgies were performed during the year, even though the success has been mainly symbolic. No real breakthrough was achieved in the name of Paul as far as the Eastern front of RC ecumenism. For Protestant churches, the PY was crafted to underline the importance of justification by faith and other Pauline themes dear to Protestant hearts. The hope was to give another chance to the 1999 Joint Declaration between Roman Catholics and Lutherans on justification which promises much (i.e. agreement on the basics of the Gospel) yet is delivering very little in terms of a deepened Christian unity. During the PY, divisions over gay unions and how to respond to the challenges of secular culture further divided the relationship between historic Protestants and the RC Church. On the whole, the PY was wishful thinking as far as ecumenism is concerned. In theory it was a great idea (though quite unsubstantiated historically), but in reality it was quite the flop.

Paul’s relics

Apart from ecumenical analyses, another feature of this special year is worth mentioning. The ambitious program desired to honor the great themes of Paul’s letters: creation, sin, salvation, grace, faith, and mission. Pauline scholarship afforded the chance to produce books and convene conferences. Opportunities were created to read Paul afresh or, for most people, to read him for the first time. All this is welcome, yet it is interesting to note how Benedict XVI closed the PY. In a solemn liturgy the Pope announced a recent discovery. In the marble sarcophagus in which according to tradition Paul’s body was buried, bones of a skeleton dating to the first century AD had been found and analyzed. It is possible that these skeletal remains belong to the Apostle Paul, though no certainty can be established. The point of the Pope’s announcement was to state that these relics were going to be displayed for public veneration. While underlining great Pauline and Biblical themes such as salvation and grace, and faith and mission, the PY encouraged at the same time practices that are far from Pauline and Biblical spirituality. Paul himself wrote that the “living letter” of his service are living men and women who follow his teaching (2 Corinthians 3:2-3), rather than his dry bones calling people to bow down before them.

A Pauline church?

These comments generate a fundamental question: How is it possible to combine Paul and the veneration of relics? How is it feasible to square the spirituality of justification by faith and the cult of the dead? How is it legitimate to nurture a Christ-centered life and folk-religion practices? How is it possible to produce fine Pauline scholarship while fostering anti-Pauline habits? In fact for the RC Church not only is it possible, but it’s also mandatory. The RC worldview demands complexio oppositorum (the combination of the opposites) as its paradigm without having Scripture alone as its decisive criterion. The issue at stake is not questioning the Pauline nature of the RC Church. In a sense, the RC Church is a Pauline church. The issue is that, besides the Pauline element, the RC Church is also Petrine, Marian, Papal, Imperial, Roman, Tridentine, folk-oriented, etc. Pauline teaching is only one aspect of the whole and the whole goes far beyond the other canonical strands of the Bible. It is a “catholic” whole in the sense that it wishes to embrace all. The standing question is whether or not the PY was an opportunity to return to the Gospel or a chance to expand Roman catholicity. The latter is closer to the truth.

Leonardo De Chirico
leonardo.dechirico@ifeditalia.org

 

6. The blessed John Paul II. A Christ-centered legacy?

February 7th, 2011

Karol Wojtyla (1920-2005), since1978 better known as Pope John Paul II, has been one of the most influential men of the XX century. A quick look at the titles of biographies about him shows the magnitude of the man: “The man of the end of the millennium” (L. Accattoli), “Witness to hope” (G. Weigel), “The man of the century” (J. Kwitny), “Pilgrim of the absolute” (G. Reale), “The defeater of communism” (A. Santini). As is always the case with human analyses of human biographies, celebrative voices abound as well as critical readings. Other titles point to the controversial aspects of his life: “Victory and decline” (C. Cardia), “The Pope in Winter: The Dark Face of John Paul II’s Papacy” (J. Cornwell), “The Wojtyla enigma” (J. Arias), “The last Pope king” (L. Sandri).

His life was at the centre of the major affairs of the XX century: the tragedy of Nazism and the trauma of the Second World War, the apex and fall of Communism, the Second Vatican Council and its debated implementation, the apparent triumph of Western democracy and the oppressive costs of globalization for the Majority world, the fracture of ideologies and the rise of secular hedonism. Wojtyla played a significant role in all these major events. Supporters have acclaimed his achievements in terms of navigating, surviving and overcoming the dangerous streams of our post-something world. Critics have pointed out the double-faced, contradictory trajectory of his life and his very backward looking Catholic outlook.

2011 will mark the beatification of John Paul II and the official ceremony will take place on May 1st in St. Peter’s square. Two million people are expected to take part in this massive event that will capture the attention of the whole world. So it is proper to examine the significance of the proposed beatification and how John Paul II’s legacy can be properly assessed.

First, we should inquire about the meaning of beatification in RC eyes. Beatification (from Latin beatus, blessed) is a recognition accorded by the RC Church of a dead person’s virtues and capacity to intercede on behalf of individuals who pray in his or her name. The “blessed” (so she/he is named thereafter) becomes the recipient of petitions and intercession of those who offer them. Beatification is the third of four steps in the canonization process, with the highest recognition being the sainthood of an individual. Since 1983, in order to be recognized as “blessed”, the RC Church demands that one miracle be proven to have taken place through the intercession of the person. The process towards beatification can only begin five years after the person’s death. However, in John Paul II’s case, it began much earlier. Many still remember what happens at his funerals when the crowd began to shout: “santo subito!” (“Make him a saint now!”), thus putting pressure on the hierarchy to treat him as an extraordinary case – something that even a scrupulous Pope like Benedict XVI dared not to address.

The theological significance of beatification lies in several key RC doctrines. According to Vatican II, the saints “do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, as they proffer the merits which they acquired on earth” through Christ’s mediation (Lumen Gentium, n. 49, quoted also in the Catechism, n. 956). The saints, in whose category the blessed belong, have an intercessory role on the basis of their merits which are considered within the framework of the mediation of Jesus Christ. On this basis the Christian people are encouraged to pray to the blessed for healing, protection, favor, and to nurture a profound devotion to him/her made of pilgrimages, prayer groups and chains, folk spirituality, etc. Notwithstanding all the best intentions and motivations, Evangelical eyes find it difficult not to consider the theological fabric of beatification as a means that moves people away from Christ. In this respect, it is interesting to note that John Paul II himself, in his 27 years of papal reign, proclaimed as blessed 1338 people and as saints 482 people, more than all his predecessors taken together since the XVI century! In fact, it was in 1588 that modern procedures were established for the beatification process and prior to John Paul II the RC Church proclaimed 1319 as blessed and 296 as saints.

Second, how do we assess John Paul II’s legacy? Because of the stature of the man, the question is overwhelming in every respect. Amongst the vast amount of books available, one guide in particular worth noting is Tim Perry’s edited book The Legacy of John Paul II: An Evangelical Assessment (Downers Grove, IL: IVP 2007, pp. 327). The chief reason of interest is that it is one of the few attempts to provide an evaluation from an Evangelical point of view. The book bears witness to the fact that it was under John Paul II that Evangelical attitudes toward RC began to change and become friendly, if not even cooperative. This Pope was the one who called his Church to be engaged in mission, encouraged the pro-life front, welcomed some of the Evangelical concerns in relation to Bible literacy and liturgical variety, and seemed to be closer to the Majority world than his predecessors. It also witnesses to the fact that some Evangelicals today speak of the Pope as “Holy Father” (Timothy George, pp. 309-312) – something that is not biblically natural. Moreover, in evaluating the over-all theology of his 14 encyclicals, some Evangelicals can say that it is “Bible-based, humanity-focused, Christ-centered and mission-attuned” (Jim Packer, p. 8) – something that sounds like a full endorsement.

Certainly there has been a significant shift of attitude and John Paul II has made quite an impression on many Evangelicals. The book edited by Perry contains positive comments on each encyclical signed by Wojtyla and the tone is close to admiration, with some minor criticism. Of course much of it is a fair summary of what the Pope wrote, yet selective in many ways. For instance there is no mention that each encyclical ends with an invocation to Mary, which does not represent a Christocentric and biblical pattern. Moreover, there is little recognition to the fact that, besides the Bible, papal encyclicals quote even more extensively sources of the tradition of the Church. The Bible is only one source amongst many, and apparently not the decisive one. On specific contents, Faith and Ratio (Faith and Reason, 1998) combines Aristotelian reason and Thomistic faith, a choice that leaves out many Biblical strands. Ecclesia de Eucharistia (The Church from the Eucharist, 2003) reinforces the traditional RC doctrine of the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist, its re-enactment of Jesus’ death and the practice of adoration of the host. Ut Unum Sint (That They Be One, 1995) claims that the Pope is willing to change the forms of his universal ministry but not the substance of his petrine office that supplements the headship of Christ on the church. Redemptoris Mater (The Mother of the Redeemer, 1987) is a Marian-centered re-telling of salvation history, something that the Bible does not encourage. The list could go on and on, yet one point must be further elaborated.

Marian devotion was a characterizing feature of John Paul II’s life. He believed the so-called secrets of Fatima, in which Mary played a decisive role, deviating the bullet when the Pope was shot in 1981 by the terrorist Ali Agca. Apparently, the Pope believed in Marian providence, considering Mary a major player in world affairs, both earthly and cosmic, both material and spiritual. For this reason he was able to dedicate planet earth to her at the beginning of the new millennium, along with the human family and new century, pleading for protection and guidance all the while. Moreover, his personal motto was totus tuus, totally yours, with “yours” referring to Mary. In honor of his highly Marian spirituality, the beatification ceremony will take place on May 1st, at the beginning of the Marian month according to the RC liturgical calendar.

The question remains: Is the legacy of John Paul II Bible-based and Christ-centered? The answer is not as simple and straightforward as Tim Perry’s book seems to indicate. His strong Marianism, for instance, is a defining feature of his life that always qualifies the rest. The months ahead will be another opportunity to come to terms with his pontificate, his achievements and contradictions, and indeed his inherently Roman Catholic legacy.

Leonardo De Chirico
leonardo.dechirico@ifeditalia.org

 

 

5. A mystical view of Purgatory? On a recent catechesis by Benedict XVI

January 28th, 2011

One of the prerogatives of the teaching office of the Pope is to hold the cathedra Petri (Peter’s chair). St. Peter’s basilica hosts the relics of a chair that tradition traces back to the apostle Peter (though, like most relics, they were produced in the Middle Age). The cathedra Petri is part of the altar, so as to indicate the unique combination of the teaching and sacramental role of the Pope. The First Vatican Council (1870) introduced the dogma of the infallibility of the Pope when he speaks ex-cathedra (from the chair). This is not a physical reference to the chair, though the Pope often speaks literally from the chair when presiding over rites and functions in St. Peter’s. Ex-cathedra refers to particular conditions which confer the mark of infallibility to his teaching. Besides this unique expression of papal authority, the chair also refers to his ordinary teaching office which takes place in different forms, such as encyclicals, exhortations, speeches, books, media (both written and audio), and occasions like papal visits and the presence of regular audiences.

As part of his ordinary, weekly teaching office, the Pope delivers a catechetical speech on Wednesdays in the context of a general audience which is attended by a couple thousand pilgrims, visitors, etc. The presentation is in Italian, though written summaries of the speech in other languages are distributed to the public. All texts are readily available on the Vatican website (www.vatican.va). Generally the Pope follows series on the liturgical calendar, doctrinal topics, the lives of saints, Church traditions, etc. On January 12th, the topic of the catechesis was particularly interesting in that it touched on purgatory.

Belief in purgatory is part of the RC doctrine concerning the afterlife. It was elaborated in the Middle Ages and then stated doctrinally by the Councils of Florence (1438) and Trent (1563). It is also taught in the 1992 Catechism (nn. 1030-1032). This is to say that it is well entrenched in the tradition of the RC Church and her present-day doctrinal horizon. Purgatory basically refers to the ‚Äúfinal purification‚Äù of the saved ones in order to achieve the holiness necessary to enter heaven. The premise of purgatory is that salvation is not by grace and faith alone, but is by grace and what is achieved by means of merit and works. Purgatory is the last “work” required to get to heaven, i.e. a time of purification that lasts in proportion to what still needs to be purified. While it contains reminiscences of the language of 1 Corinthians 3:15 and 1 Peter 1:7, the driving force of its development has been the practice of prayer for the dead, as the RC Catechism honestly acknowledges. In fact, RC doctrine believes that prayers, indulgences and works of penance can be offered on behalf of the dead so that their purification through purgatory is accelerated.

In one of the first catechesis of the new year, Benedict XVI returns to the doctrine of purgatory in the context of a devotional talk on Saint Catherine of Genoa. She was a XV century mystic who is best known for her vision of purgatory. According to the Pope, Catherine does not add new revelation on purgatory, yet her visions underline the fact that it is an “interior fire” that prepares the soul for full communion with God. Rather than a physical place of fire, as portrayed by Dante’s imagination in the Divine Comedy, purgatory is depicted by Catherine of Genoa as an inner fire which elevates man’s path towards God.

The Pope makes it clear that this mystical intelligence does not alter the traditional doctrine, but expands it towards its mysterious borders. The physical, spatial dimensions of purgatory are enriched further by the mystical development. It is a matter of adding other elements to the already consolidated doctrine and not questioning its well established profile.

Purgatory has already been at the center of Benedict XVI’s magisterium in a more ample treatment. His second encyclical, Spe Salvi (Saved in hope, 2007), contains telling comments on judgment in the afterlife. In the papal encyclical, God’s judgment is a combination of justice and grace. Few people (if any) receive only his justice (i.e. punishment), and few people receive His full grace (i.e. immediate salvation). Instead most people receive both justice and grace, then purgatory is this intermediate state of the soul that discloses both (nn. 45-48). In the afterlife the soul goes through a time of purification, deserving neither justice or grace. In Spe Salvi as well, the Pope stresses the importance of prayers and acts of suffrage on behalf of the dead in order to speed their time of purification. This is based on a belief on “communion” between the living and the dead that allows the suffrage of the former for the latter.

The doctrine of purgatory is part of the RC doctrinal web that impinges on grace, sin, salvation and eternal life. It is not a disposable, secondary appendix, but an essential part of the RC view of the ordo saluti. Thus far, Benedict XVI has been re-stating and expanding its doctrinal core, adding some mystical suggestions rather than changing it towards a more biblical picture of the afterlife.

Leonardo De Chirico
leonardo.dechirico@ifeditalia.org