Vocations, New Evangelization and such like

Happy new year, belated though the greeting might be.

The past year has seen a lot of talk, using both ink and air, about vocations, and the culture of vocation, as the Church in this sceptred but Godless isle seeks to repair the damage of the last few decades that has been visited upon the priestly and religious life. For a long time I have been one of those happy to talk of religious and priestly callings as being just two among many possible vocations, such as marriage or single life, or even more narrowly to a range of what are more traditionally termed careers. Some have noted the danger of reducing vocation to career-choice and have changed the rhetoric to centre on vocation as state in life: celibate priest or religious, married, consecrated virginity or the single life. (Yet some die-hards, yea heretics, still hold to vocation being a call away from the normative state of life for humanity as elaborated in Genesis, namely marriage and the raising of a family: marriage is hard-wired into human nature, not a call external to it. Yes – I am a heretic now.)

This rhetorical shift was satisfyingly sensible: job and vocation are not synonyms. Yet still something indeterminate and indistinct gnawed away at satisfaction. Partly it was empirical: all the talk and preaching on vocation, all the initiatives initiated and courses run, the literature and websites produced, the psychology and affective skills employed seemed impressive in scope. Yet if one stopped to look at results, they were meagre. There has been a growth in vocations in the traditional sense, yet it seems to have been almost in spite of the vocations industry than because of it. So many of the vocations that have emerged have come from the more traditional sources, or been inspired by the example and teaching of recent popes. All this feverish promotion of the traditional vocations, situated with an avowed egalitarianism among other states of life now also called vocations, seemed remarkably fruitless.

Perhaps, one thought, the promotion of the New Evangelization was missing link. To promote a culture of faith leading into mission, employing the latest media and insights, going out into the marketplace, and making evangelization (hitherto not a common Catholic word if I remember rightly) a mission, even a ministry, shared by the laity as well as clergy and religious. The implication, and sometimes the assertion, was that this mission flowed from our Baptism, and now it is time to revive it.

However, troublingly, it was easy to detect the emergence of what has all the markings of yet another industry. The industrialization and democratization of vocation and evangelization seems to meet the needs of our 21st century world with its new media, more literate and technologically-savvy laity, especially youth and a revived urge to be doing something.

And here comes my heresy. I just do not see it working, either thus far or in the near future. There is immense goodwill and fervent desire to be righting the listing ship. Yet these positive energies are being directed into what is all too often mere activity. There comes to mind the old tag-line (or was it a poster?): Jesus is coming. Look busy. Busy we are, to what appears no good result.

If we survey the history of the Church, we see readily enough that it had its periods of decline and resurgence, its vigour waxed and waned. At the risk of gross simplification, it seems that most of the decline coincided with the blurring of the necessary distinction between Church and world, with the decay of Christian identity leading to Christians being in the world and all too clearly of the world. Resurgence coincided with the emergence of individuals, men and women, whose initiatives and insights did not emerge primarily from the progress of secular knowledge and its insights. They had a common, unifying thread: a radical, uncompromising return to the Gospel which is ever present in the Church but its lustre too easily tarnished by her members. To put it another way, and to employ the idiom of the Second Vatican Council, it was about the universal (and we must say also, perpetual) call to holiness, of the integrity that comes when the movement of our lips matches the movement of our lives.

All our striving for vocations and for evangelization will mean nothing if they exist merely as techniques and strategies which are effectively the focus of a relentless activism. There is need for relentless activism, but first and foremost it needs to be directed towards prayer, sacraments, the works of charity and of mercy, walking the extra mile, turning the other cheek, offering both our shirts and our cloaks – and these not on some impersonal, macro level. Our Christian living begins on the micro level, wherever we find ourselves, and with whomever: the troublesome relative, the annoying confrere, that hateful colleague, the needy friend, the homeless man sleeping on a busy city street. We are not called to change the world, but we are called to change our hearts by concrete acts empowered by our prayer. This prayer need not be the prayer of the professional religious, or the mystic, but the common, and too often scorned, recitation of set prayers or frequent offering of interior words and aspirations to the God who is ever at our side, or the lighting of a candle, or the tingle in our heart as we read holy scripture.

The more meagre our prayer and our sacramental nourishment, the more tepid our faith, the more anemic our living, the more soulless our activity. Too many like this, and we find our Church in decline, and so too vocations and evangelization. And no amount of talking and self-examination will solve the problem unless they lead to real holiness. Vocations and witness to the faith emerge from a healthy Church, a Church healthy in her members most of all. Too much of our vocations work and evangelization and mission is focused on what are actually symptoms, not causes.

So, most likely, until we rediscover what it is to be Christian both in word and in deed, to be devout in our worship and prayer and brave in our charity and compassion, to be in the world but never one with the world, to value our faith and our sacramental life as more than a conscience salve we compress and cram into an hour before Sunday lunch (or Saturday night on the town) – unless our lives as members of the Church conform more truly to the Gospel call and to the grace ever offered us (and too often ignored by us), then none of these initiatives for vocation or evangelization will ever bear much lasting fruit. At best they may occasionally strike lucky. But is that good enough? Read Matthew 6:33, and think about it a little.

One should never write late at night. The purple passages abound, and perhaps a little perspective is lost. But really, the only activity that God really needs of us now is that daily commitment to conversion that bears fruit in our living, a turning from self to God and to others that ultimately is the gift of God himself. Let us pray that we do not receive the gift in vain. Let us rend our hearts, not our garments. (Cf Joel 2:13)

I do begin to see that perhaps this is what Pope Francis is on about.

Jesus is coming. Be holy.

Pope Francis’ empty chair: what it means for the Year of Faith

Well, we all knew it would not be long until the next piece of papal perfervidness. It came with the pope’s no-show at a long-standing engagement in the papal diary inherited from Pope Benedict, a concert as part of the Year of Faith held at the Vatican under the auspices of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization. Playing was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. One does not need to be a culture vulture to recognize at least one movement of the symphony.

The pope, the guest of honour, did not turn up. His non-attendance was only announced on the night. The official line from Archbishop Fisichella was that Pope Francis had an “urgent task that cannot be put off but must be dealt with at the present moment”. This, of course, only raises more questions than it settles. Some are saying it reflects his priority on simplicity and solidarity with the poor (though why these pundits think the poor are against fine music is beyond me). Some have spread word that the pope told his officials that he is not “some Renaissance prince who would listen to music when there is work to be done” – a statement that conjures up images of Nero fiddling while Rome burned –  though why he would be working on Saturday night is not addressed. Fr Z wonders if the pope has taken the opportunity of having all the officials out of the house to get some off-the-record meetings in, though how this would not get back to his officials in good time is not addressed. Fr Ray Blake addresses such issues sanely.

Sandro Magister dodges the reasons, and sees an opportunity lost:

“I am not a Renaissance prince who listens to music instead of working”: this is the phrase that was put into his mouth by some of the “papists” of the curia, unaware that they were only doing him harm with this.

For Church historian Alberto Melloni, the gesture has the grandeur of “a solemn, severe peal” that confirms the innovative style of Francis.

But in reality, it has made the beginning of this pontificate even more indecipherable.

The evangelizing impulse of Pope Francis, his wanting to reach the “existential peripheries” of humanity, would in fact seem to have precisely in the language of great music a vehicle of extraordinary efficacy.

In Beethoven’s Ninth this language reaches sublime heights, makes itself comprehensible beyond all boundaries of faith, becomes a “Courtyard of the Gentiles” of incomparable evocativeness.

Benedict XVI followed his public attendance at each concert with reflections that touched the minds and hearts of those present. One year ago, after listening to none other than the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven at the theater of La Scala in Milan, pope Joseph Ratzinger concluded as follows:

“After this concert many will go to the Eucharistic Adoration, to the God who immersed himself in our suffering and continues to do so, to the God who suffers with us and for us and thus made men and women capable of sharing the suffering of the other and transforming it into love. It is precisely to this that we feel called by this concert.”

One thing I think is clear, whatever the real reason for the pope’s non attendance (and for now further speculation will prove fruitless). The Year of Faith is dead. The upcoming encyclical on Faith to be co-authored by Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict will be used by the former for other purposes: perhaps as part of a hermeneutic of continuity linking his papacy with Benedict’s; perhaps as a convenient way to get an early encyclical out and add some gravitas to a largely populist papacy.

However he has not pushed the Year of Faith at all. He honoured Benedict’s commitment as pope to lead the worldwide Eucharistic Adoration on 2 June, but only confirming it at relatively short notice (and so preventing my monastery from pursuing our original plans for a day of activities surrounding the Adoration). For some reason the Year of Faith has not featured in his papal rhetoric and agenda. It seems not to suit him or his priorities so he has been letting it die. And on Saturday night, he probably gave it the coup de grâce.

Perhaps even sadder is the fact that this concert was organised by the Council for the New Evangelization. It might not be dead, but it did suffer a humiliation: it has not enough clout to get the pope to attend one of its major events.

Pope Francis has different priorities. We had best get used to it. And pray for him.

The Empty Chair

(Photo: Reuters)

Aleteia – a great new Catholic web resource

A couple of days ago a wonderful new resource graduated from its beta testing phase to its live phase. Aleteia (and those who know their Greek will recognise the Greek word for truth) is a world-wide Catholic network for the sharing of faith resources, in service of the Truth. It is a collaboration with Google (Italy) to bring together the trending topics of interest to Catholics and all seekers of Truth. They call this approach “web-listening”.

The virtue of web-listening is that it can discover what really are the topics of interest to Catholics on the internet, those issues for which they, and others, are searching for answers. So this morning it showed as trending topics: immigration reform, gun control, Mali, Islam, religious persecution and the worldwide phenomenon of the March for Life. On the home page there are links for exploring in greater depth recent trending topics.


It is an up-to-date web initiative, so you can follow Aleteia not only by visiting its main web site but also on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ . At the bottom of the homepage is a link to two very useful resources. One is a Powerpoint presentation on Web Listening and Spirituality (while the link is in Italian, the download includes an English version of the presentation). It reveals, among other things, that last year 71% of all discussions online concerning ethics and religion came from the USA, and that 46% of all discussion on ethics and religion is conducted via social networks like Facebook and blogs. The three biggest topics in 2012 were abortion, the nature of marriage and the Year of Faith.

The second resource is an app for the Year of Faith for Android-based smartphones and tablets (it can be found on Google Play Store here – there are also versions for iPhones and iPads). It is called Porta Fidei, and has information on all the papal catechesis for the Year of Faith, as well as resources on the Creed, the Trinity and the Church, including the catecheses of Bl. John Paul II on the Creed, and also Paul VI’s Credo of the People of God. It has relevant multimedia links, and news from Aleteia on the Year of Faith. On loading it will show a thought for the day. It is, of course, free so there is no excuse not to download it as a means of deepening your involvement in the Year of Faith.

porta fidei

The Internet is BIG!!

Ever wondered how big the internet is? The graphic below from Makeuseof.com gives you one perspective on its scale, though I suspect it is already out of date. Still, it shows that there is plenty of scope for the presence of the Church in all its vigour.

One trillion pages. That’s 1,000,000,000,000 pages. Wow…

No childish devotion

Today throughout the Church is the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. For a thorough treatment of the devotion you can read the article on it at the Catholic Encyclopedia, or for fully authoritative teaching on the Sacred Heart you can read the more recent 1956 encyclical Haurietis Aquas from the hand of Pope Pius XII.

Rather than duplicate what these two sources explain and teach, we might just focus on an essential truth of this devotion. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is very much his human heart. It is not so much that we worship the flesh and blood of his physical heart in itself, but rather what it symbolizes. In general use, we refer to the heart as the centre of our feeling and emotion, our inmost core, the place where we encounter God, and from which springs what love we can show to Him and to others. Much as when our physical heart ceases to function our body dies, so too this metaphorical (yet real!) heart is the life of our spirit. Jesus Christ, as a man as well as God, had such a human heart, both literally and metaphorically.

Thus, in a sense, the devotion to the Sacred Heart is a bold and audacious one. In adoring Jesus’ Sacred Heart we are adoring his humanity. Or to put it less disturbingly, we are adoring his Incarnation. For this real and metaphorical human heart of Jesus is ennobled and elevated (and we might even say completed) by its intimate and indivisible union with his divine nature, and thus with the most intimate life of God. In Jesus’ heart humanity and divinity encounter each other for us and for our salvation.

Jesus’ love for us, consummated in his self-sacrifice on the Cross (for no greater love has anyone than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends), springs from his Sacred yet human heart. At the same time, since it is the heart also of the incarnate Second Person of the Trinity, that self-giving love is transformed into something with divine power and effect. That is why Jesus’ death is not just the simple death of another man. His is a death that reveals a love that is totally other-centred: paradoxically, both for us and at the same time for the Father. For Jesus’ love for the Father cannot be separated from his love for humanity, as we see most clearly in John 17, where Christ prays to the Father that “all mine are thine, and thine are mine, and I am glorified in them” (v.10). Christ’s love for the Father reaches its zenith when he obeys the Father’s will that he should die for sinful humanity; Christ’s love for sinful humanity reaches its zenith by the very same obedience to the Father’s will.

So in Jesus’ Sacred Heart our Lord’s human love for us, and the suffering and anguish it entailed, meets, is accepted by and united with the divine love of God, the heart of the great Easter event of our salvation. In Jesus’ Sacred Heart the price of sin is paid and accepted. In his Heart, justice and mercy embrace and are satisfied.

Karl Rahner SJ, undeniably one of the theological greats of the twentieth century (flawed though he sometimes was), was a great apostle of devotion to the Sacred Heart. He reflected on this devotion in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, when traditional devotional practices were increasingly discarded or marginalized. While he accepted that the Church was an organic body that grew and developed, and that change in its devotional life was to be expected, he refused to accept that the devotion to the Sacred Heart was a devotion that could be discarded. In a time of a strong antiquarian spirit in the Church, which looked back to the primitive and very early Church for inspiration and discarded practices not found then, Rahner felt this spirit was sometimes nothing less than a blinkered attempt to return to the supposed golden days of the Church’s childhood, one that failed to realise that as the Church grew it also matured. The devotion to the Sacred Heart is for Rahner not something childish, but belonging to the maturity of the Church. And while some dismiss it as something not original in the Church’s life, equally to be resisted are those who, in their limited grasp of history, see the Sacred Heart devotion as something old-fashioned:

It is true that, despite its roots in John’s theology of the pierced side as the source of water and Spirit from which the Church is born, and despite the beginnings of an explicit devotion in the Middle Ages, this devotion is an historical event and an historical experience that were given to the Church only in the modern age. Naturally, this spiritual experience has its human-historical limitations that do not always have to remain the same. Christian faith and theological reflection have only slowly understood the proper nature of this spiritual experience, and what is properly meant when we speak of the heart of Jesus. We do not have to hold onto everything that has ever been said in the theology of the devotion to the Sacred Heart, in its efforts to assimilate spiritual experience. Nor are we supposed to hold onto the concrete devotional practices that were very much alive in former times. But when we consider the history of devotion to the Sacred Heart – not superficially, superciliously, or with scorn – and when we see the wealth of spiritual and charismatic experience it contained, when we bear in mind all the Church’s official declarations about it, when we remember the liturgical worship of the heart of Jesus in all its grandeur and impressiveness, we should not venture to say that we can simply forget about this devotion as something antiquated. If we were to think and to act that way, we would have to say that we were about to give up something that belongs to the Church’s past and therefore something of our own spiritual experience in the Church as well.

We may feel that we can easily forget about this past of our Church. In the laziness of our heart we are all too tempted to do so. But this does not prove that we are allowed to do so before God and considering our responsibility for the continuity of the Church’s history. Such a feeling must rather frighten us. We should face the question whether such a lazy slipping back into a primitive spirituality that wrongly appeals to ancient times, when the Sacred Heart devotion was unknown, is not something that we must overcome in a spirit of hopeful determination, if we do not want to be condemned by our past…

(Theological Investigations, 23, “Devotion to the Sacred Heart Today”)

The reason that Rahner cites for the continuing relevance of devotion to the Sacred Heart is that it both meets and answers as it corrects a tendency in “this naive era of optimism” to assume that everyone can be saved. Yet there is room for hope, and Rahner introduces a line of thought that would be taken up also by the equally great Hans Urs von Balthasar. Rahner continues:

[The Church] will never preach a theoretical doctrine of universal salvation, because, while carefully eschewing theoretical curiosity in eschatology, she will always humbly submit to the fear instilled by the threatening apocalyptic sermons of Jesus. But it seems to me that the Church has learned to have a universal hope for all and to forego making any theoretical and dogmatically binding statements about the actual occurrence of definitive damnation for a part of humankind.

First the Church must counter a false and worldly optimism which does not match the reality of modern existence:

Although those who continue to harbor great secular optimism are not forbidden to do so, this dawning time is one in which people are, to a large extent, running into limits they can no longer exceed. It is a time of crisis offering no possible alternatives, a time of resignation, of weariness, sterility, and exhaustion, a time in which individuals become ever more ignorant because they feel increasingly helpless before the enormity of what needs to be known. It is a time in which, despite all the talk of freedom and democracy, individuals are subject to ever more planning, and must be, because otherwise the enormous mass of people could not coexist, because otherwise people would exterminate a great part of the rest of the world by means of nuclear wars, just so that the survivors might have enough space in which to live. We are living in a time in which the anthropological sciences madly endeavor to smash people’s illusions, to unmask human beings as the mere product of fortuitous evolution, of the powers of their unconscious, of their drives, and of a society that does not know where it comes from and where it is going. Nature, exploited by humans, threatens them, and they themselves have learned how to bring about the universal suicide of humankind.

However, in acknowledging the true darkness of the world today, the Church nevertheless can speak with a balanced optimism, or rather with real hope, one that is founded on Christ:

It is into such a humanity that the Church enters with Jesus Christ’s message of universal salvation. It is because of Christ that we are emboldened to hope that the individual and humankind are advancing irreversibly, single-mindedly, toward eternal salvation in God, when they seem only to be plunging into the dark abyss of death. The Church keeps this hope, because she wishes to be faithful to the true God and the crucified Jesus. She holds on to it, while being fully aware of the dreadful, seemingly unabating wickedness of world history, which only discovers new and unprecedented ways of spending itself in hopeless guilt. In all this hopelessness for the present and the future, the Church remains the one that harbors universal hope, that even dares to hope more thoroughly than she did in the past.

This universal hope is not an easy painkiller in the wretchedness of our time, but, considered from the human point of view, it is an exorbitant demand. It is a modern form of the folly of the Cross, of hoping against all hope. It is a folly that sets God’s wisdom against the world’s wisdom, a wisdom in which the world begins to have doubts about itself. It is the courage to live that alone makes us really free; that, without uselessly counting the cost, teaches to let go and to give; that alone can prefer being to having and that can even love the enemy by whom one is killed.

So, living in a world in which a false optimism, or even escapism, is engendered by a vain faith in technology and secular democracy which blinds us to the very real dangers inherent in both, we are pointed by the Church to the Sacred Heart of Jesus as a true grounding for our faith and the source of a bold but well-founded hope. This hope is not just for ourselves but for all (for God wills that all men be saved and come to a knowledge of him [cf 1 Timothy 2:4]), and it is oriented to an end that is eternal rather than one centred on the here and now. The Sacred Heart is not a synonym for the Person of Jesus Christ; rather it refers to an encounter within Christ’s Person between the terminal cancer of human sinfulness and the overwhelming abundance of mercy which is God’s remedy for it. In the heart of Christ himself that battle has already been won. In pointing to his Sacred Heart as the foundation of our surest hope in sharing in Christ’s victory, the Church also points to that Heart as a revelation of God’s will for us, and so she recalls in the Liturgy today Jesus’ own words:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 1:28-30)

Far from being childish or outmoded, devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus instead is a great weapon in the New Evangelization, as it confronts human hopelessness not with a vacuous optimism but with the assurance that God himself has shared the human condition in Jesus Christ and in him has transformed it into something wonderful; and as it invites people to have hope in him in whose heart that transformation has been achieved, for us and for our salvation.

Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us.