Friday, November 13, 2009

WHERE LOVE AND JUSTICE MEET - Fr Raniero Cantalamessa

Some of you know that I am a fan of the Papal Household Preacher, Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, who models for all of us the blending of Catholic Faith, evangelical preaching and pentecostal experience. I have taken this talk (given to the Prison Fellowship World Convocatio, in Toronto, Canada, on 7th July 2007) from his WEBSITE in its entirety, in the hope that it inspires you as it inspired me.

"Held every four years, the Prison Fellowship World Convocation brings together judges and former prisoners, chaplains and volunteers, politicians and prison officials". So reads the program of this convocation. The people listed play very different roles, yet there is one thing that links all of them together - an equalising factor in front of which all the differences -included that between judges and ex-convicts - appear to be almost irrelevant. Let the Apostle Paul be the one to explain what it is really about:

"All men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin...There is no distinction; all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3: 9, 21-24).

In Paul's day, 'Jews and Greeks' meant 'Hebrews and pagans'; today we could take the words to mean 'believers and non-believers', in other words, the whole human race. The Apostle speaks of this subjection to sin in which we all share, only in view of another, infinitely happier thing in which we also share, and that is, forgiveness and grace.

"The justice of God has been manifested... They are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's justice, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins" (Romans 3: 24-25).

None of this would mean anything to us if we didn't understand exactly what the expression "God's justice" means. There's a risk that a person on hearing God's justice being spoken of and not knowing its exact significance, might feel dismayed rather than encouraged and start thinking: "It's what was to be expected. After the revelation of God's wrath (Rom 1, 18), now his justice is revealed, that is, his just punishment against sinful humankind!" For centuries Paul's declaration was experienced as a frightening rather than a liberating message.

It was Martin Luther who discovered, or better still, rediscovered, that the expression "God's justice" in this context doesn't indicate his punishment or, worse still, his revenge against man; on the contrary it indicates the creative act by which God makes a human being just. I said that Luther "rediscovered" this, because long before him St. Augustine had written: "Just as the expression 'salvation of the Lord' means the salvation by which he saves us, so 'God's justice' means the justice by which, through his mercy, he makes us just"[1]. Later on, Luther wrote: "When I discovered this I felt a new man and it seemed that the doors of paradise were opened wide to me"[2].

"God's justice" has therefore an active, not a passive meaning. It means that God gives each person not what he or she deserves (according to our human understanding of justice), but what he or she doesn't deserve at all, the free gift of mercy and grace and the promise of eternal life. In some recent translations of the Bible "in present-day language" as they call them, the concept of justification is rendered by "rehabilitation", which seems to me very appropriate. It implies the idea that justification is not something given once and for all, leaving us with nothing to do for the rest of our life. Rather God gives us a new possibility in life, he puts in front of each of us, so to say, a clear white sheet of paper on which we can write a completely new chapter of our story. Human beings are restored, made "able" to do good.

The wonderful "good news" that St. Paul proclaims to all people and all times is, therefore, this: God's benevolence has now been made manifest to us, that is, his good will towards humankind, his forgiveness; in a word, his grace. It is Scripture itself which thus explains the concept of "God's justice":

"When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy" (Tit 3: 4-5).

To say "the righteousness of God has appeared" is therefore like saying: the goodness and loving kindness of God has appeared. Truly "justice and love have met". Once and for all time!

With that in mind, we can understand the jubilant exclamation of the Apostle: "There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit which gives life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death" (Rom 8: 1-2). In Franz Kafka's novel The Trial, the author tells the story of a man who is placed under arrest while continuing with his ordinary life and work. No-one knows why. He begins the painstaking task of trying to discover the reasons, where and when the trial would take place, the charges against him, and the procedures. But no-one can tell him anything except that there really is a trial going on, and he is the defendant. Then one day they come to take him away for execution.

In the course of the story we learn that there are three possibilities open to the man: he could either be fully acquitted, or apparently acquitted, or the case could be adjourned. But an apparent acquittal or an adjournment would solve nothing; the accused man would only be kept in a state of mortal anxiety for the rest of his life.

On the other hand, if he were fully acquitted, "all the records of the trial would have to be destroyed. Not only the charges against him but the trial itself and even the sentence would have to be cancelled from the record. Everything would have to be destroyed". But no-one knows if there has ever been such a case of full acquittal! There are only rumours, no more than "beautiful legends". Like all Kafka's works, the novel ends at this point: something is glimpsed in the distance, which you dream about but can never reach, as in a nightmare.

In faith we can cry out to the millions of men and women who see themselves in that accused man: Real acquittal does exist! It is not a legend, a lovely dream! Jesus has "wiped out the written record of our debt; he has destroyed it by nailing it to the cross" (Col 2:14). "There is no more condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8: 1). No more condemnation! Of any kind!

Up to this point, I have explained the message of the Bible. It is time to ask a question: What has all this to say to us in a convention like the present? I believe, this: the purpose of the prison system ought not to be to punish criminals and let them pay for their crimes, but to rehabilitate them and make law-abiding citizens of them, as God has done with us in Christ. The impact of the idea of "God's active justice" could be formidable; in a society that truly respects the human person it could renew the vision we have of the prison system and its purpose.

It is not for me to say how this can be brought about in practice. This is, I suppose, the very scope of all that is attempted and achieved in the ambit of the "Prison Fellowship International"; all the seminars taking place during this Convention focus on this issue. Everyone here- whether in the spiritual, or the legal and social sphere - is working to make the time people are to spend in prison not an enforced passing of dead time while simply awaiting release, but rather a time of personal improvement leading up to a return to a positive place in society. We see how fruitful the concept of justification as "rehabilitation" could be.

There is, however, a particular issue that I need to address, and it is the question of the death penalty. Death penalty stands out in direct and total contrast to the idea of an active justice, the purpose of which is to render a person just and not simply to make a guilty party pay for his crimes. The death penalty excludes any possibility of a person changing. God says in Ezekiel: "Do I indeed derive any pleasure from the death of the wicked? Do I not rather rejoice when he turns from his evil way that he may live?" (Ez 18: 23). God does not want a guilty person to die, but rather to change. This surely provides an additional motive for Christians to oppose the death penalty.

If we want to apply God's kind of justice on the human level, it is important that we understand how God brought about the universal rehabilitation that Paul calls "justification through faith". He did not do it simply by wiping the slate, removing evil or making it somehow insignificant. The controversial biblical concept of "God's anger" means only this: God does not tolerate evil, but reacts to it with all the power of his holiness. He tolerates (even loves) the sinner, but not sin.

God is the only one who really practices the so called "zero tolerance" of crime. Woe to us if he didn't! A compromise with evil at that level would destroy the very ethical foundation of the world. For Nietzsche, sin was nothing other than an ignoble "Jewish invention", good and evil simply "prejudices of God", and in our own time a strong current of psychology follows him in that direction, dangerously reducing modern society's resistance to evil.

God does not trivialise evil, or consider it just "the other face of reality". He overcame it, taking it on himself and conquering evil with good (see Rom 12: 21). On this point, we need to go back to Paul's message with which we started, and take in the rest of it:

"They are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith" (Rom 3: 24-25).

The justification, or rehabilitation, of sinners is made possible by the sacrifice of the Son of God, that is, of God himself. In Jesus, the prophecy of God's Suffering Servant is fulfilled:

"Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Is 53: 4-6).

At this point I turn especially to the chaplains, the pastoral workers and all who provide a spiritual service in prisons. Make use of every opportunity to get this message across to those who are beginning to be aware of their responsibility and who at times feel crushed by the weight of their own faults. Experience shows that it carries an extraordinary power for resurrection. It is not possible to count the number of those whose conversion began when they heard these words and believed in them.

This is what happened, for instance, the 24th May 1738 to John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church:

"That evening", he writes in his Journal, "I went very unwilling to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther's Preface to the epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death"[3].

His brother, Charles Wesley, had the same experience and, being a poet, he wrote a hymn which has resounded time and time again in prison and outside of prison, bringing immense solace to people convinced of sin:

I felt my Lord's atoning blood
close to my soul applied;
me, me he loved, the Son of God,
for me, for me he died [4].

A 4th century Father of the Church wrote these extraordinarily up-to-date 'existential' words: "For every man the beginning of life is the moment when Christ was immolated for him. But Christ is immolated for him at the moment he acknowledges grace and becomes conscious of the life obtained for him by means of that immolation"[5].

In October 1999 an agreement was signed between the Catholic Church and the World Federation of Lutheran Churches regarding the doctrine of justification through faith. In that document the hope is expressed that the common doctrine on justification by grace alone would now move into practice and become a lived experience for all believers rather than remaining an object of learned disputes among Catholic and Protestant theologians.

I believe that prison is the best place to proclaim this message of the free gift of justification through faith and help people to make such lived experience. If I were a prison chaplain in an English speaking country (and had a better voice!) I would teach Christian prisoners to sing twice a day the beautiful hymn:

"Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see."

But according to St. Paul we all once were lost. So, why don't we start singing right now all together: "Amazing grace...".

After making our own God's justice through an act of faith, it is necessary to imitate God's behaviour by doing something for our brothers and sisters who suffer the consequences of their misdeeds. We cannot die for sinners as Jesus did, and even if we could, our death would have no power to wipe out anyone's sin, because we ourselves are sinners.

There have been, it is true, people who have closely imitated Jesus in this respect. We think of St Maximilian Kolbe, who offered himself to die in the place of one of his fellow prisoners in the extermination camp at Auschwitz. Yet Christ's example inspires not only heroic acts such as this, but also the more usual sort of mercy works that is possible for everyone. We are all able to give something of ourselves: our time, abilities, affection, a letter or even a post card, a social or legal aid, a moment of human warmth that those in prison need no less than freedom. In order to encourage his disciples to do this, Jesus has said: "I was in prison and you came to visit me" (Mt 25: 36). Prison fellowship is not something started by Mr. Colson; it was started by Jesus Christ, if we intend "prison fellowship" in the sense of fellowship with prisoners.

Almost all the stories of "resurrection" during a prison term or on release from jail that I have read or heard had their beginning in a gesture of love and compassion on the part of some "good Samaritan". I too have had a little experience of this. For ten years I have been conducting a weekly religious programme on the Italian state television RAI Uno. One day a letter came to me from a listener; it started like this:

"Dear Father, my name is... I'm from the Province of Palermo, and I'm thirty years old. I'm a 'repentant' criminal. In the past, I have committed many crimes, all very terrible ones; I ought to have hung a millstone round my neck and thrown myself from a bridge, but I trust in the mercy of God which can do all things. It is a hard thing to live in absolute solitary confinement in prison, and I have now endured it for 28 months. I would love to talk with you: please do me this act of charity, come to see me."

This was a man whose very name, in those days, made people in Italy shudder: a man of the Mafia known for his terrible deeds. I went to see him, and a friendship was born. He began to work with the police and contributed to the arrest of some of the chief bosses of the Sicilian Mafia. I found him a repentant man in the Christian sense of the word, whom only a distorted family upbringing had moved to do the kind of things he had done.

I blessed his marriage, in the prison, to the woman with whom he had had a child while still in hiding. Because of his collaboration with the justice, after a time, according to the Italian law, he was granted house arrest, and at present he is becoming fully re-integrated into society, under a new name to protect him from possible vendettas. He tries to lead an exemplary Christian life with his family and is full of wonder and humility because of what the Lord has done for him.

In one of his letters from prison he wrote to me words that I wish all people in jail could one day make their own:

"When I first began to know remorse, it was like waking from a dream. I found myself shut off and alone, ashamed and unable to look anyone in the eye. But there, in the abyss of my dark desperation, I met Jesus Christ. When no one would have given a brass farthing for my chances, he gave me hope, bringing me to understand that it was also for me that he had gone to the cross."

When Jesus started preaching the Gospel in the synagogue of Nazareth he said: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." (Lk 4: 18-19). I came all the way from Rome to let this message resound here among you and through you among the people in prison. May the same Spirit of God be upon you and anoint you for this precious task.

[1] St. Augustine, The Spirit and the Letter, 32, 56; PL 44, 237.

[2] M. Luther, Preface to the Latin Works, Weimar Ed., 54, p. 186.

[3] John and Charles Wesley, Selected Writings and Hymns, ed. by F. Whaling, Paulist Press, New York 1981, p.107.

[4] Charles Wesley, Hymn "Glory to God, and Praise and Love", in The United Methodist Hymnal, Nashville, Tennessee, 1989, n. 58.

[5] Easter Homily of the year 387; SCh 36, p. 59 f.


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