Sharing the Faith

September 23, 2011

Encountering the Word through the Papal Theologian

“… for all the people wept, when they heard the words of the law.” –Nehemiah 8:9

I don’t get how anyone could ignore the fact that words have the power to make a person weep. That, for me, is clear evidence of the underlying mystery of the tangible world; the mysteries of life cannot be accounted for in a purely mechanistic view of the cosmos. In such a view, words–what are essentially sound waves or ink on a page–that can “shake” a person to the core of their being such that their body can only react by tears of overwhelming emotion is difficult to account for. Evolutionarily or otherwise, it just doesn’t make sense. In these cases, I believe tears point to the existence of the soul, and the essence of humanity– the human spirit as the image of God.

A few days ago (Sept. 20th, 2011) Fr. Wojciech Giertych, OP, the papal theologian (an office formerly known as the “master of the sacred palace”), an office held by Dominicans since its conception, came to my school to speak about St. Thomas Aquinas’ vision of moral theology. I was expecting somewhat the ordinary or usual affair when a speaker came–I’d sit and listen, have a few “ah-ha!” moments and be on my way. It turned out that the whole day would be a surprise gift and personal message from God to me about the meaning of my labors and struggles as a Christian and student of theology.

A mass is scheduled at school every Tuesday a quarter after eleven, followed swiftly by a luncheon. Even the homilist, Deacon Emmanuel, touched on fittingness of that day to speak of the importance of the freedom in evangelization. It was the feast day of many Korean martyrs. To my surprise, Fr. Giertych was there to concelebrate and, afterward, made himself available for conversation and questions after lunch. Though a rather large man, tall but not overweight with a booming and deep voice, he was such a graceful guest to our school. He was very accessible, had a wonderful sense of humor and all the while deeply truthful and wise. While I didn’t have any pressing questions I made sure I was attentive to the answers he gave to those who did.

Many of the questions surrounded evangelization, teaching, catechesis–especially to those who are skeptical of Magisterial authority and teaching. Fr. Giertych had very enlightening answers about the relationship between faith and reason as well as indications of other relationships to consider with our faith (e.g. Faith and action, freedom, morality, etc.). One particularly interesting point he made was how baptized parents are able to share in the magisterial mission of the church in the teaching of their children. Then a question arose about the priest-sex-abuse scandals and the impediment that they present to the sharing of the faith. He began by suggesting that we lead inquirers toward a distinction between “the vatican” and “the church,” which essentially implies a difference between the preacher and what/who is preached. Of course the preacher must place himself under the same directives of his/her listeners but a good preacher does not preach himself but the Truth. He brought it home with one of his own experiences. He once was the Master of study at a Dominican house and was preaching to some novices about the spiritual life. He was going along helping them to explore the spiritual life until the students realized that he was not living out what he was preaching–there was a disparity between his life and his teaching.

So one day he brought the student into the chapel and addressed them directly, asking, “Why should I need to bring the level of my preaching down to my sinfulness?” At that he heard nothing, they all realized that he was pointing to something more than and beyond himself. As preachers they would have to do the same. He went on to say to us that of course we are to strive to live up to what we preach but we cannot allow our preaching to suffer when that which we are to preach is perfection–we do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ. In our speaking, we must trust in Jesus as the true teacher and step out of the way.

At that tears flowed from my eyes.

I’m not sure why I cried. It’s not like I hadn’t heard or read it before. It’s something Paul said many, many years ago and that I’ve read and heard many times. Yet, this hearing was new. I realized that the fear or timidity holding me back was the result of my made up, artificial connection between what I hoped to teach and my unworthiness to teach it because of my own sinfulness. In that moment I experienced liberation in the sense that I could be bolder in the speaking of truth. Ultimately I’m not the source of truth. Jesus is truth. Therefore, I have no need to fear. Arguments ad hominem  don’t work on Christians because true Christians don’t preach themselves but Jesus. I imagine that what I experienced is what the Israelites experienced as the book of Moses was being read to them that day referenced above from Nehemiah. I was hearing God’s law and, instead of oppression, I experienced freedom.

That was only the early part of the day.

Fr. Giertych returned in the evening to give his formal talk on Aquinas’ vision of human Morality. In it I was affirmed greatly in my work as a student, particularly in the task set before me to write about the effects of sin and suffering on the consciousness of Christ. The talk he gave was framed by Christology, my focus. The overall key to his talk was how Christian morality is built around utter human freedom. The moral life is graduated in three steps. At the first level, one does good things because that is what their circumstances call for. Either by the commands of their parents or toward a basic self-interest. At the second level one seeks to do good things for no other reason than that they are good. This involves assessment and calculation but at this stage the person is able to bring reason and will into an accord with their experience of truth and respond accordingly. The third and final stage, the perfection of the moral life, is acting spontaneously toward the good such that goodness accompanies one’s actions as naturally springing from their being. This stage is accompanied by a creativity and fecundity so as to inspire the pursuit of good in others. In other words, goodness is “naturalized” into the moral Christian that no calculations or judgments even take place. Unhesitatingly, the moral Christian just acts and goodness is infused into his/her very vision and action.

To be creative in our goodness is precisely the message we must hear in our day. We oftentimes interpret the call to creativity to mean to be “different” resulting in a James Dean image of the rebel without a cause, or just expressing some form of non-conformity. But I think the more appropriate kind of creativity we should aspire to is a conformity to the finality of creation. It’s not so much about being different for the sake of being different. It’s futile. Our differences will spring naturally from our individuality. Our focus just needs to be to have love for others. That is how our true differences begin to show. We ought to strive to be creative in the ways we interact with our family, loved ones and even the people we might consider enemies. It is creative, not because we seek to deviate from what should be, but because what should be is diverse in its being. To act with loving spontaneity is nothing short of our call as human beings. To put it ever more simply, the question is no longer whether I should love, but only how do I love? See the difference? Love is already in the response.

And so bringing this kind of love into our lives means bringing it into all of our relationships. Whereas God does so naturally, in the sense that such a love is God; humanity, in her adoption by God, gains the capacity for such a love. Just like how we raise our children to be responsible and loving members of society, we must fumble with God’s call to love as He loves, much like how we fumbled when learning just to tie our shoes. Over time and with practice the “bunny ears” or the “over-under and through” becomes second nature and the spontaneous response to our untied shoes. That is the same way we learn to love unconditionally. We’ll be clumsy at times and it does take sustained work and effort but there is no greater teacher than the “doing,” the continued practice of love through spontaneous acts of goodness.

At this point I’d distinguish between “spontaneity” and “randomness.” Love is not random though it is indescriminate. Love at every moment seeks to fulfill the other which includes the needs of the other. “Random” hugs do not fulfill but an earnest conversation or the getting to know someone is the place where love heals and grows.

God, through Christ, exemplifies this most splendidly. As Aquinas says in the Summa, there were other ways in which God could have redeemed humanity and so in this way the incarnation and crucifixion was not necessary. But, in a spontaneous act of love, God became man and died through which God declares God’s love for us. We can imagine in many ways why it was fitting for God to do that but in the end there is no real immediate reason for God to pursue us in such a way other than that God loves us. What is an appropriate response to God’s love? The same, wholly personal, spontaneous and creative albeit imperfect love for God and our brothers and sisters; the kind of love that requires us to step out of our comfort zone and dare to love beyond our own capabilities. For me that means embracing a love for God that is more bold, courageous, public and shared with others. What does it mean for you?

Here are just some words (among others) that have helped inspire me to be a bolder Christian.

“In our seeking of wisdom, we are a community that is grounded in a tradition: we are the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology. We are an institution of the Catholic Church, and therefore we are an institution founded upon a charism. The Church never institutionalizes a task, no matter how noble, but always institutionalizes a charism, a particular gift of the Holy Spirit for the sake of the redemptive or healing work of Christ. This means that it is not only what we study that defines us, but the manner or spirit of our study. In our case the school institutionalizes the charism or gift of St. Dominic: we are ordered to a study that is for the sake of others, that is solicitous of others to the degree that we regard study as an act of mercy which, St. Thomas Aquinas remind us, denotes a compassionate heart for another’s happiness. In more contemporary terms, mercy, Bl. John Paul II taught us, is a special power of love to restore relationship, so that the pursuit of truth that we hold in common has this, eminently practical, objective: the reconciliation, the happiness and even the final beatitude, of others.”                             –Fr. Michael Sweeney,OP

President of Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology

“Why Catholics Don’t Share Their Faith”        http://www.christlife.org/resources/articles/ShareFaith.html

“Why Be a Christian?”      http://www.christlife.org/resources/articles/whybeachrtn.html

JMJ

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