Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Song of Basil

I was on the phone with a dear friend -- and dear source -- last night; a most wonderful man of God imbued with Benedictine spirituality to the hilt.

In a conversation which stretched (as they tend to do) across an hour and more, the name of one of the legends of the epoch came up: that of George Basil Hume, Benedictine, Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church, Member of the Order of Merit, Archbishop of Westminster (1976-99), Abbot of Ampleforth (1963-76), beloved of God.

Just as we'd be a lot better off if John O'Connor were still with us, the same would be true if Fr Basil, too, weren't so quickly and sadly taken. Cardinal Hume was a man ahead of his time, but fortunately for the rest of us still catching up, he left his beloved church with a truly splendid inheritance.

If only we chose to call on it....

After being reminded of Hume's stunningly beautiful perception that "Judgement is whispering into the ear of a merciful and compassionate God the story of my life which I had never been able to tell," I decided to go back through Basil's writings and cull what I could from them for the good of us all.

I'll be running bits and pieces of what I found as time and space allow, but for now, here is an almost prophetic reminder of what church is and what church isn't, words suited for our own times, which at points seem hopelessly vitriolic, divisive and superficial.

Some background: in 1996, Mother Angelica visited Britain to plug EWTN there. Of course, this prompted a fit of glee (glee = joyous visions of fiery doom and chastisement for "liberals") among repressed English reactionaries who just couldn't take it (it = whatever Mother Angelica didn't like) anymore.

Father Basil, ever the Catholic, was not too keen on this parallel movement which posed some questionable issues vis a vis the licit authority of the apostolic succession in affairs of teaching and governance. (For more information, viz. St. Stanislaus Parish, St. Louis, MO; half the presbyterate of Belleville, et al.)

So the good cardinal did what any savvy bishop worth his salt would do: he attended the gathering and spoke.

Here are some excerpts from the text:

[W]e are asked to examine the extent to which the Word of God has become the inspiration of Christians in our day. Now we need to remind ourselves that Christianity is a revealed religion. The central truths that we believe could not have been discovered by our unaided human reasoning. Furthermore, we shall never be able to understand fully their meaning. It is, however, natural, and indeed desirable that the human mind would wish to explore the significance of revealed truth and what flows from it. I appreciate that in exploring the meaning and significance of the truths of our faith, the explorer will sometimes lose his or her way. That is why we need the guidance of the teaching authority of the Church. But exploration is a necessary part of the process known as the development of doctrine, or what St. Anselm called faith in search of understanding. So I defend the right of people to explore and discuss, but at the same time I urge such persons to remember that it is always important to remain in communion with the successor of St. Peter. There comes a point when obedience is required. This is so even when what we think to be true appears to be at variance with the definitive teaching of the magisterium. These are delicate and difficult matters and I will return to them later.

I turn now to a subject which I know is of concern to many of you: namely the handing on of the Faith to future generations. I was much struck by a passage from a book which I read recently:

"What is the primary aim of all evangelisation and of all catechesis? Possibly that of teaching people a certain number of eternal truths, or of passing on Christian values to the rising generation? No, it is to bring people to a personal encounter with Jesus Christ the only Saviour by making them his disciples".

This was said at an Advent retreat given to the papal household by a Capuchin Professor of Theology Fr Raniero Cantalamessa [the preacher of the Papal Household]. [Quoted by James Alison in his book "Knowing Jesus".]

So there is more to the transmitting of the faith to young people than the teaching of its truths. Young people can have an adequate knowledge of their faith, but still, alas, remain unmoved by and detached from its true meaning and significance. Minds and hearts have to be won for Christ. How are we to do this in a society that is very secular and materialistic, in a culture that is opaque where the things of God are concerned, in families which no longer think and act in a traditional Catholic manner? Where do we start? We need, of course, to lead young people towards an authentic and ever increasing understanding of the faith and simultaneously to an authentic and ever increasing personal commitment to Christ, within the community of the whole Church's belief, life and worship. But these, the faith, the Church's moral teaching and practice, must be taught in our schools and homes. The Catechism of the Catholic Church must be the guide.... But teachers and writers need our understanding, help and guidance, and certainly not public condemnation....

The life of the Church is a sharing in the life of the Trinity itself: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

This sharing in the Divine life holds us together in one body. It is the source of that description of the early Christians being of "one heart and soul" [Acts 4,32]. This does not mean, of course, that Christians have to agree on everything. They do not, and never have done so. They will hold,however, to the centrality of faith in those matters that have been listed in the Creed and defined by the Church. In a Church where minds are lively and education almost universal, discussion is inevitable. This does not mean, of course, that it does not have its limits. There are times when discussion should cease, when docility to the mind of the Church is the proper attitude for us to adopt. Yet our reaction to other persons ought always to be characterised by a willingness to show respect; to be careful not to damage another person's good name; to affirm what is good in another; never to be rude or insulting. The spirit of the Pharisees lurks in each one of us, myself included, tempting us to sit in judgement on others and even to seek to exclude them from the Church.

In this connection, I wish to refer once again to principles enunciated by both Pope Paul VI and John Paul II.

In "Veritatis Splendor" the present Pope stated:

"A clear and forceful presentation of moral truth can never be separated from a profound and heartfelt respect, born of that patient and trusting love which man always needs along his moral journey, a journey frequently wearisome on account of difficulties, weaknesses and painful situations.The Church can never renounce 'the principle of truth and consistency whereby she does not agree to call good evil and evil good', she must always be careful not to break the bruised reed or to quench the dimly burning wick". [Veritatis Splendor No. 95]

The Pope went on to quote an important passage from "Humanae Vitae" by Paul VI:

"If on the one hand it is an outstanding manifestation of charity towards souls to omit nothing from the saving doctrine of Christ, still on the other hand this must always be joined with tolerance and charity. Of this the Lord Himself in His dealing with people has left an example. For when He came, not to judge but to save the world, was he not severe towards the sin,but patient and abounding in mercy towards sinners?" (No. 29)

I have sought in my ministry to be guided by these principles, namely"severe towards the sin, but patient and abounding in love towards sinners"-- guidance, not condemnation, is the more effective answer to dissent.Proclaiming the truth, not only in word but also in the way we act, is generally more successful than the outright condemnation of error; patience is required to lead people gradually from where they are to where they should be or never dreamed they might go.

St. Matthew records a parable of Our Lord which reminds me, at any rate, of the need to be patient. "The Kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field" he said. But an enemy came along and sowed weeds among the wheat. What was to be done? "Do you want us to gather up the weeds?" the servants of the household asked. He answered: "No; lest ingathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until harvest......" [Mt. 13, 24-30]

These are some of the ways in which the Church seeks to achieve "one heart and soul" among the faithful. In this, the bishop has a particular,God-given task. By virtue of his ordination, the bishop is responsible for building up and preserving "unity and charity" in the diocese, acting "in the person of Christ, the Head". Remarkably, the Council called bishops"Vicars and legates of Christ" who "govern the particular Churches assigned to them ..... by the authority and sacred power which indeed they exercise exclusively for the spiritual development of their flock" . [Lumen Gentium N.27]. I quote these passages to remind you that bishops, though under the authority of the Pope and appointed by him, are nonetheless not his delegates. In communion with him they share in responsibility not only for the dioceses in their care, but also for the whole Church. The relationship between the Successor of St Peter and the bishops is such that it is not possible to express loyalty to the Church without including loyalty to one's own bishop.

Finally, the Holy Father concludes his questions about our implementation of the Conciliar teaching by asking if our relations with the world around us are ones of 'open, respectful and cordial dialogue, accompanied by careful discernment and courageous witness to the truth'. To undertake this all Catholics need a sure grounding in their faith, including moral principles and the Church's Social doctrine. But above all, a mature spiritual life will equip each one of us for the task of witness and dialogue, and, incidentally, will best enable us to be of "one heart and soul", however varied our opinions and attitudes....

It is only through and with Christ that we shall find the way to discovering truth and to enjoying the fullness of life with God. Those words and many others are being whispered by him into the ears of each one of us today and on every day.

Our reaction? To go down on our knees and acknowledge our weakness, our frailty, our sinfulness. Not for us to stand before him and boast of our achievements, not for us to compare ourselves with others, and to our own advantage. Rather we pray "Lord be merciful to me a sinner", and then,wonderfully to discover his peace, as he says: "Come to me all you who labour and are burdened, I will give you rest; learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart". [Mt. 11]

"Yes, Lord, there were times when you were angry -- you cleansed the temple of those who defiled it. You rebuked Peter for his failure to understand your mission. But my thoughts dwell on those many moments when you showed to us a gentleness of touch, spoke words of encouragement, saw through our follies and mistakes to find in each one of us the one you love. So you went and still go in search of the lost sheep. You are always looking out for and welcoming your prodigal son or daughter. You sat down with the rejected -- those who did not belong or behaved in strange and wrongful ways. It is thus, too, today. Yours is a patience and concern unmatched by any of ours. No one is excluded, save those who exclude themselves."

"To go down on our knees" -- much will be done by way of preparation for the Millennium, but none more important, in my view, than to let our minds and hearts dwell more and more on him, the Word who became flesh. Prayer,then, must become a serious undertaking for all of us -- the personal encounter with Jesus Christ, the prayerful reading of the Scriptures,especially of the Gospels, time spent alone trying to raise our minds and hearts to God, the reading of books about the spiritual life and lives of the Saints, above all a love of the Mass. Together with traditional popular devotions we must find room for developing new resources, spiritual, liturgical, artistic, imaginative, to promote new devotions which can speak to some of the spiritual needs of our times. They will be authentic if they are nourished by Scripture and liturgy, and enjoy the support of the local bishop. If we do all these things we shall remain firmly rooted in the tradition of the Church and shall bring forth treasures new and old. Then we shall show to our society the face of Christ, the face of Him who is both God and man.

A lot of reading, to be sure, but worthwhile stuff.