Saturday, November 11, 2017

C.S. Lewis on the mystery of love and supposed "insurances against heartbreak"

If you’ve never read it, make sure you get C.S. Lewis’ book, THE FOUR LOVES. It is available very inexpensively HERE as an e-book. A friend gave me this book when I was a teenager. I cannot put into words what it has meant to me down through the years. Entering into my 38th year as a priest today, I read my favourite passage (pp. 120-127) from the book this morning, which I have always experienced as simultaneously beautiful and terrifying, and I share the following extracts with you. No-one grasps the heart of the Gospel quite like Lewis!

. . . Don’t put your goods in a leaky vessel. Don’t spend too much on a house you may be turned out of . . . There is no man alive who responds more naturally than I to such canny maxims. I am a safety-first creature. Of all arguments against love none makes so strong an appeal to my nature as ‘Careful! This might lead you to suffering.’

To my nature, my temperament, yes. Not to my conscience. When I respond to that appeal I seem to myself to be a thousand miles away from Christ. If I am sure of anything I am sure that His teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities. I doubt whether there is anything in me that pleases Him less. And who could conceivably begin to love God on such a prudential ground – because the security (so to speak) is better? Who could even include it among the grounds for loving? . . .

. . . We follow One who wept over Jerusalem and at the grave of Lazarus, and, loving all, yet had one disciple whom, in a special sense, he ‘loved’ . . . Even if it were granted that insurances against heartbreak were our highest wisdom, does God Himself offer them? Apparently not. Christ comes at last to say ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’

. . . There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.

. . . God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them. He creates the universe, already foreseeing – or should we say ‘seeing’? there are no tenses in God – the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated incipient suffocation as the body droops, the repeated torture of back and arms as it is time after time, for breath’s sake, hitched up. If I may dare the biological image, God is a ‘host’ who deliberately creates His own parasites; causes us to be that we may exploit and ‘take advantage of Him.’ Herein is love. This is the diagram of Love Himself, the inventor of all loves.

Monday, November 6, 2017


- Encouragement in the New Evangelization 
promoted by two recent popes

One of the recurring themes of Joseph Ratzinger’s ministry (before as well as after he became Pope Benedict XVI) is the Catholic life as an ongoing personal encounter with Christ.

In 2004 he observed that in the West 'Christianity is seen as an old tradition, weighed down by old commandments, something we already know which tells us nothing new; a strong institution, one of the great institutions that weigh on our shoulders . . . If we stay with this impression, we do not live the essence of Christianity, which is an ever new encounter, an event thanks to which we can encounter the God who speaks to us, who approaches us, who befriends us.'

That puts it in a nutshell.

Cardinal Ratzinger went on to say that if we fail to understand Christianity 'in a personal way, from the point of view as encounter with Christ . . . if this encounter is not realised, which touches the heart, all the rest remains like a weight, almost like something absurd.' (An interview published in the Italian Catholic weekly Vita Trentina 8th May 2004, Translation by Zenit)

Benedict and those around him continued to use the expression 'the new evangelization' which had been coined by Pope St John Paul II. What is 'new' about it? Evangelization has always meant reaching those who have never heard the Gospel so that they might encounter Christ, and become part of the Church - his community of faith and love. But in our time John Paul and Benedict added a new dimension, a new focus . . . the 're-evangelization' of peoples and cultures that were once Christian but have become 'post-Christian.' Indeed, ever the realist, Benedict has for years seen the entire West in that category. Hence his prophetic radio talk as a young theologian in 1969, outlining what some now call the 'Benedict option', when it’s not really an 'option' at all, but a realistic prediction of how normal it will be for western Christians during the next couple of generations to live, worship and evangelize in small clusters of supportive, praying communities wthout a lot of the props that 'Christendom' has provided over the centuries, and on which we have come to rely.

'A post-Christian man is not a Pagan'

Another fairly brutal realist when considering the complexities of even communicating the faith in post-Christian Europe was C.S. Lewis. In his 1945 lecture De Description Temporum he pointed out the foolishness of imagining that 'the historical process allows mere reversal'; that Europe can come out of Christianity ‘by the same door as in she went’ and find herself back where she was. It is not what happens. A post-Christian man is not a Pagan; you might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce.'

That this is true hardly needs to be stated. Although it is not unfashionable in our day to speak of 'spirituality' as a warm and fuzzy aspect of being human, and although there are still amiable agnostics and friendly atheists about, modern European culture clearly nurses at its heart a specific hatred for creedal Christianity in general and for the Church in particular. Without disputing that much of this is well deserved, the impartial observer is puzzled at the way it contrasts with the amazing lengths to which the same liberal culture will go in its accommodating and even encouraging Islam.

'The gift of Christ's Spirit and his love
are meant for each and every people and culture"

For John Paul II the New Evangelization certainly included the faithful proclamation of the Gospel so that those who respond will personally encounter Christ. (Remember that on the very night in 1978 of Cardinal Wojtyla’s election as Bishop of Rome, the evangelist Billy Graham was preaching the Gospel message in the Cardinal’s cathedral in Krakow!). But, according to his Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in America (1999) the New Evangelization also includes the renewal of the Church in the Holy Spirit, so that she might live in the world truly as a supernatural community of faith and love that works toward the 're-evangelization' of the West, even in the sense of developing 'a clearly conceived, serious and well organized effort to evangelize culture.' He went on to say that 'the gift of his Spirit and his love are meant for each and every people and culture, in order to bring them all into unity after the perfect unity existing in the Triune God.'

Unfortunately, the New Evangelization is itself a vision that easily fragments. There are those who concentrate only on Gospel proclamation to the individual, and those who neglect it. There are those who concentrate only on congregational life, and those who neglect it. And there are those who concentrate only on being the yeast leavening the lump of culture and those who neglect it. As understood by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the New Evangelization is an integration of these aspects of what it means to be living in an ongoing encounter with the Lord. It gives us a vision for bearing witness to Christ in a post-Christian world that enables us to persevere in times of discouragement and difficulty.

* * * * * * * * * * *
This is my column for the November 2017 New Directions 
Go HERE to subscribe to the magazine

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Christians and Euthanasia

Today, Paul Keating, former Prime Minister of Australia, spoke forcefully against the Victorian Parliament's proposed euthanasia legislation. Go to the report HERE.

Healing the Dying is the name of a book by Mary Jane Linn, Matthew Linn and Dennis Linn, first published in 1979. A friend gave it to me when it arrived in the Australian bookshops. Apart from the book itself, which is a wonderful encouragement to priests, pastoral care workers, doctors, nurses, and families and friends of those at the end of their lives, the notes following Chapter 5 contain this succinct Statement on Christian Affirmation of Life, developed by the American Catholic Hospital Association. I have shared this statement with many parishioners and friends over the years as a guide for their own instructions to medical staff, relatives and friends, and I’ve read it a number of times from the pulpit when preaching on the Gospel of Life. Here it is: 

Statement on Christian Affirmation of Life

To my family, friends, physician, lawyer and clergyman: 

I believe that each individual person is created by God our Father in love, and that God retains a loving relationship to each person throughout human life and eternity. 

I believe that Jesus Christ lived, suffered and died for me and that his suffering, death and resurrection prefigure and make possible the death-resurrection process which I now anticipate. 

I believe that each person's worth and dignity derive from the relationship of love in Christ that God has for each individual person, and not from one's usefulness or effectiveness in society. 

I believe that God our Father has entrusted to me a shared dominion with him over my earthly existence, so that I am bound to use ordinary means to preserve my life, but I am free to refuse extraordinary means to prolong my life. 

I believe that through death, life is not taken away but merely changed, and though I may experience fear, suffering and sorrow, by the grace of the Holy Spirit I hope to accept death as a free human act which enables me to surrender this life and to be united with God for eternity. 

Because of my belief: 

I, __________________________, request that I be informed as death approaches so that I may continue to prepare for a full encounter with Christ through the help of the Sacraments and the consolation and prayers of my family and friends. 

I request that, if possible, I be consulted concerning the medical procedures which might be used to prolong my life as death approaches. If I can no longer take part in decisions concerning my own future and there is no reasonable expectation of my recovery from physical and mental disability, I request that no extraordinary means be used to prolong my life. 

I request, though I wish to join my suffering to the suffering of Jesus so as to be united fully with him in the act of death-resurrection, that my pain, if possible, be alleviated. However, no means should be used with the intention of shortening my life. 

I request, because I am a sinner and in need of reconciliation, and because my faith, hope and love may not overcome all fear and doubt, that my family, friends and the whole Christian community join me in prayer and mortification as I prepare for the great personal act of dying. 

Finally, I request that after my death, my family, my friends, and the whole Christian community pray for me, and rejoice with me because of the mercy and love of the Trinity with whom I hope to be united for all eternity.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Sharing the Gospel

One night in 1989 two friends and I were on a Sydney train travelling back to where we were staying during a meeting of the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia. As happens on such occasions, there were many clergy and lay representatives from around the country in the same carriage. Across the aisle from us were two young lay representatives from the Diocese of Sydney (noted for its robust Reformed Evangelicalism). In the seat behind us was a bishop of the extreme liberal-Catholic variety, travelling with a layman from his diocese.

Near the Sydney representatives was a group of ordinary young people, clearly puzzled at the deluge of clergy who had boarded the train all at once, and they were discussing this with some amusement. One of the Sydney men looked up and said, “I can tell you what this is all about, if you’re really interested,” and he went on to say that it was a national conference of Anglican Church leaders - not just clergy, but “lay people like us, too.”   

Soon there was a lull in the conversation, and the Sydney man said, “I know what you’re thinking: how can otherwise quite sensible people believe all that stuff about God?” The young people smiled at each other, and the Sydney man continued, gently and unassumingly, “That’s O.K., I used to think that, too, until I looked into it for myself. Eventually I came to the point where I couldn’t avoid saying that Jesus is God, that he died on the cross, rose from the dead, that he loves me, and that if I wanted real life here and now, as well as in eternity, then I should join the community of his followers.” The gospel in about twenty seconds! 

A few of the young people asked questions. Then the train reached the destination of the Sydney Synod reps. The one who had done all the talking quickly reached into his pocket, pulled out a handful of business cards, handed them around the group, and said, “I don’t want you to think I’m being pushy, but this is my station. Here is a card with my phone number. If any of you decide you want to talk about these things, I’d be happy to meet in a cafe somewhere . . . or you could check out your nearest Anglican Church.” And off he and his friend went!    

I was moved by this spontaneous witness to the Lord, and thought how wonderful it would be if lots of laity and clergy from the Catholic tradition learned to use opportunities like that to share the Gospel. The terrible thing is that just as the train left the station, the bishop in the seat behind us complained to the layman sitting next to him, “How embarrassing! You can tell we’re in Sydney!”

Now I know that there are many ways of evangelizing. The Church as a community evangelizes just by “being” in the wider society - a kind of priestly ministry of presence, praying, worshipping, living and loving, daring to believe that in a wonderful way all this somehow unleashes waves of blessing on those who live and work around us. I really believe that! As individuals we have a ministry of presence all the time in our relationships with others. And of course, we evangelize by serving one another and those around us in times of heartbreak and tragedy, as we have seen in this country when terror or natural disasters strike. 

Unfortunately, while actions of love and service prepare the ground for Gospel proclamation and response, quite often suave liberals and certain kinds of snooty Anglo-Catholics criticise those who verbally share the Gospel, often falling back on the idea that St Francis of Assisi said “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” 

Several scholars have pointed out lately (much to my embarrassment, because I myself have occasionally attributed those words to St Francis!) that St Francis said no such thing. After all, he was the evangelist with a heart truly on fire for God who preached at length up to five times each day! (The closest the scholars say we get to those words is Francis’ Rule 1221 which is actually about preaching friars ensuring that their deeds match their words.)

The new evangelization is about the sacramental reality of the Church’s ministry of presence, and our need lovingly to persevere with hurt, wounded and suspicious people who are nowhere near an awakening of faith. It is about a new recognition of the specially gifted evangelist in the Church’s life. But it is mostly about run of the mill Christians learning to share the Gospel with others in actions as well as words.

Not far from where I grew up was a drive-in cinema. As teenagers, my friends and I could rarely afford the entry ticket. We would join the line of old cars outside the wire fence from where we could just see the screen, but, unfortunately, not hear the sound. We spent our time putting scurrilous dialogue into the mouths of the actors. We discovered that while it was possible some of the time to figure out the film based on the visual, mostly, without the dialogue we completely misunderstood it.

That’s why the new evangelisation entails clergy and laity alike being able to “make a defence to anyone who asks [us] for a reason for the hope that is in [us]; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15).

Or to put it another way, why shouldn’t Anglo-Catholics be able to lead others to Christ?

The most beautiful confirmation of what I’ve tried to share with you was written back in 1975 by Pope Paul VI in his Apostolic Exhortation to the whole Church, Evangelii Nuntiand [On Evangelization In The Modern World].  

“21. Above all the Gospel must be proclaimed by witness. Take a Christian or a handful of Christians who, in the midst of their own community, show their capacity for understanding and acceptance, their sharing of life and destiny with other people, their solidarity with the efforts of all for whatever is noble and good. Let us suppose that, in addition, they radiate in an altogether simple and unaffected way their faith in values that go beyond current values, and their hope in something that is not seen and that one would not dare to imagine. Through this wordless witness these Christians stir up irresistible questions in the hearts of those who see how they live: Why are they like this? Why do they live in this way? What or who is it that inspires them? Why are they in our midst? Such a witness is already a silent proclamation of the Good News and a very powerful and effective one. Here we have an initial act of evangelization . . . All Christians are called to this witness, and in this way they can be real evangelizers . . . 

“22. Nevertheless this always remains insufficient, because even the finest witness will prove ineffective in the long run if it is not explained, justified - what Peter called always having “your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have” - and made explicit by a clear and unequivocal proclamation of the Lord Jesus. The Good News proclaimed by the witness of life sooner or later has to be proclaimed by the word of life. There is no true evangelization if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed.”

May we as individuals and as parish communities do better at bringing others to Jesus so that they will know the newness of life to be found only in him.