Monday, April 30, 2007

Two things...

It says a lot about the world that I find myself increasingly using the adjective sane as one of the most emphatically positive things I can say about persons and things.
More positively, the Cntyr sent me this wonderful Monty Python clip:And Milan is better than Napoli! ;)

New Auxiliary Bishops in Melbourne...

According to the Bolletino: One Fr Timothy Costello SDB (of whom I've never heard) and Mons Peter J Elliott, who is the author of Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite - probably the sanest and most reasonable practical book on how to celebrate the liturgy of Paul VI.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Fr Z on Augustine

Fr Z presents a tour-de-force post about the great Bishop of Hippo:
Each year Augustine’s presenceand importance is brought into focus by literally hundreds of new monographs, scholarly articles and books. Students at nearly every level of mature learning encounter him in some way, often in his works The City of God or his autobiographical prayer to God called Confessions. There is virtually no field in the liberal arts or many of the sciences that does not owe something vital to the Augustinian tradition, extending through Boethius, John Eriugena, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure, Dante Alighieri, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibnitz and a myriad of others. His anti-materialist philosophical and theological writings even stand up to the challenges of modern physics, such as the Uncertainty Principle elucidated by Werner Heisenberg.
Augustine has particular relevance today. As do many of the Fathers of the Church, they can teach us again to read Scripture, freed from the over emphasis on the often sterile and text killing historical-critical method which gripped the Church like a vice for so long, liberated from the “hermeneutic of suspicion” by which so many priests and scholars were taught to assume that what Scripture said was false unless provable with critical tools. Most of the central doctrine and formulas describing what we believe as Catholics, indeed as Christians, were hammered out in the crucible of those turbulent centuries and no one made a greater contribution than Augustine. Augustine could help enormously with a revival of doctrinally sound and useful preaching. Always practical, the great and lofty orator shunned any style of discourse that went over the heads of his flock. He thought that being understood, and helping people to love God and live properly through the living sermon of your own holiness was paramount. Augustine wanted his clerics and the bishops he trained to be holy more than they were erudite.
As the scholar of Augustinian monasticism Fr. George Lawless, OSA told me recently, invoking the bible image of old wine in new skins, it was once thought that a sermon without a citation from Augustine was like having wine cellar without wine. The widely published Fr. Lawless, who teaches in Rome at the “Augustinianum”, one of the sites chosen for the exposition of the saints relics, also shared with me something he will have given in a conference by the time this goes to press, and it is entirely to him that I owe credit for this marvelous insight he recalled from the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, namely, that post-Reformation doctrine had become so many bones without flesh, while pastoral practice and spirituality was now flesh without bones. Fr. Lawless sees in Augustine’s gifts to us, these bones and flesh together. This is a marvelous image to reflect on while the bones of Augustine were present with us all in Rome, near for the first time in 16 centuries to the mother who, by her cooperation with God, brought to light of the world this towering figure who took flesh and bone from her. May we take spiritual and doctrinal flesh and bones from him in the years to come while we await the unification of the same in the coming of the Lord.

Bernini Angels

Yesterday evening, as sunset/dusk was just about to happen, I was walking across the Ponte S.Angelo and was admiring the Bernini angels and noticed just how differently the light was hitting each one of them depending on what direction they were facing, and whether they were in the shadow of Castel S.Angelo or not. It's quite striking how different the colour of each angel can be.

Jail Switch for the Tractor

From the Telegraph:
Bernardo Provenzano, the so-called godfather of godfathers, has been moved from his top security jail after warders gave him a cake for his 74th birthday.
The Mafia supremo, who was arrested last year in an isolated farmhouse after more than 40 years on the run, was secretly moved after officials decided he and the guards had become "too friendly".
He had been in solitary confinement under the strict Rule 41 prisoner regime for Mafia bosses, which means only one hour a day of exercise and limited visits and phone calls.
An investigation was launched by the Italian prison service after a tip-off that he had been given the cake in his cell at Terni prison, north of Rome, earlier this year.
The Department of Prisons in Rome raised the matter with prison director Francesco Dell'Aria, and decided to move Provenzano as a precaution.
He was driven under police and helicopter escort 300 miles north to the maximum-security wing at Novara prison, near Turin. The measures were taken despite the insistence of prison staff that the cake was not part of any elaborate escape attempt.
Apart from the cake - which prison sources said he did not eat - his only other request has been for a satellite television link so he can see Sicilian regional news.
The prison denied his request and asked if he would prefer a subscription to a Sicilian newspaper instead. Provenzano - who is thought to have made millions from extortion, gun running and contract-rigging - replied: "I haven't got any money."

In the S.Maria Maggiore Museum until Thursday

The Exultet Roll of Avezzano - click the images to see the delicate illustrations in more detail.

Vere dignum et iustum est

O inaestimabilis dilectio caritatis:
ut servum redimeres, Filium tradidisti!
O certe necessarium Adae peccatum,
quod Christi morte deletum est!
O felix culpa,
quae talem ac tantum meruit habere Redemptorem!

The Pope & Fur

An interesting news story:
ROME — An Italian animal rights group is asking Pope Benedict XVI to give up his fur, including an ermine-trimmed red velvet cape and papal hat, in "a choice of high religious and ethical value."
"It would be a praiseworthy example of Christian charity," Roberto Bennati, the deputy chairman of the Anti-Vivisection League, said in a statement released late Friday.
Benedict sometimes wears a fur-trimmed hat called a "camauro," headgear popular with pontiffs in the 17th century. He also has donned a red velvet cape trimmed in ermine.
The Anti-Vivisection League made its appeal ahead of a papal trip later this month to Pavia, a northern city that is home to some of Italy's furriers.
"In the respect for the sacredness of all living species, we urge the Holy Father to make a choice of high religious and ethical value, giving up fur on this occasion as well as in the future," said Bennati.
The Vatican has not publicly responded to the appeal.
Given that the forecast temperature for tomorrow's mass is in the mid-20s Celcius (high 70s Fahrenheit), I think that the Pope has probably left his fur at home. *Rolls eyes*

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Death of (Anglican) Canon Rodney Hunter

Ruth Gledhill points to a disturbing incident in Malawi:
On Remembrance Day last year, a 73-year-old English missionary priest died in Malawi. Canon Rodney Hunter merited a short Times obituary and was much mourned by those who knew and loved him here and in Africa. But he was elderly, and had had cancer. There seemed little in his death to arouse suspicion. Now, it turns out, he was poisoned. Mutterings that all was not right with his death began a few weeks back, and police in Africa have this week confirmed the worst.
The diocese of Lake Malawi was in the public eye at about this time when Acton vicar Nicholas Henderson was appointed its new bishop, and then his appointment was blocked by the Global South leader Bernard Malango and by the diocese's court of confirmation because of Henderson's links with the liberal theology of the Modern Churchpeople's Union. The court described Henderson as a 'man of unsound faith'. To refresh your memory of this story, see the Thinking Anglicans archive.
In spite of strong support in the diocese, which has long links with Henderson's west London flock, Malango appointed another bishop, Leonard Mwenda, in Henderson's place. Mwenda's enthronement was conducted under police guard, amid scenes of stone-throwing. Mwenda in turn appointed Rodney Hunter as an assistant priest at Lake Malawi's Anglican cathedral.
A few months later, Father Rodney was dead. Poisoned.
Police enquiries are continuing but I have to ask: have the Anglican Communion's gay wars claimed their first victim?
She also has disturbing news from the Philippines:
Meanwhile, JihadWatch is reporting that the severed heads of seven Christians have been delivered to the military in the Philippines.

A (Dominican?) Vocation?

Over at Godzdogz (sic), Bruno Clifton OP has a brief, but thought-provoking post on the issue of his vocation. One part stuck me in particular:
In 2000, while at the RNCM, I read but one page of a book, The Catholic Faith by Richard Conrad OP, a Dominican friar. Its clarity, its reasonableness, its understanding exposed a tradition of thinking about truth and fell into a groove for me. ‘Who are these Dominicans?’ I thought. ‘This is what needs to be done, this study, this cultivation of understanding, this preaching. More people should do this work’. And I turned back to music. But it was too late… The seed of desire had begun to grow and the sense of duty, responsibility and calling gradually unveiled. The Catholic Church needs Preachers and if you can’t get a job done…
Whenever we see something in the Church or in the world and think 'more people need to be doing this work. This is worthwhile,' we should be attentive to the fact that this could well be the way that God is calling us to a particular vocation or mission.

Happy Birthday!

Happy Birthday Rome!
The 21st of April marks the traditional foundation date of the City of Rome. According to the Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro, it was founded in the year we would now call 753 BC, putting us in the year 2760 AUC (Ab urbe condita), according to the Roman numbering of the years.

Friday, April 20, 2007

And you think English-language religion reporting is bad?

The bulletin at the Corriere della Sera gets it very, very wrong:
Chiesa: abolito il limbo, salvi i bimbi morti senza battesimo
CITTA' DEL VATICANO - I bambini morti senza battesimo saranno salvi. La Chiesa ha abolito il limbo con un documento della Commissione teologica internazionale, approvato dal Papa e pubblicato oggi. Il limbo, infatti, riflette una ''visione eccessivamente restrittiva della salvezza''. (Agr)

Church: Limbo abolished, babies saved without baptism
Vatican City - Babies who die without baptism are saved. The Church has abolished limbo with a document of the International Theological Commission, approved by the Pope and published today. Limbo, in fact, reflects an 'excessively restrictive restrictiveness of salvation.

Where does one begin in correcting the mistakes in such a short report? As mentioned previously, the Catholic News Service does an excellent job in reporting this story.
Readers might be interested in this two-page article I wrote which was published on Beliefnet a number of months ago which covers the main theological issues. A longer version of the same piece appeared on this 'blog back in October.

A brief and inadequate summary of the problem
I think the main problem in understanding the whole question is that it's not clearly realised that Limbo was initially proposed as a merciful doctrine. The fact is, we seem to have forgotten that as St Augustine teaches, the default condition of fallen humanity is of estrangement from God, a situation which, if it is not rectified means that we are damned. However, Christ AND ONLY CHRIST has saved us - and this salvation is ordinarily 'passed on' to us by means of our baptism and our participation in the life of grace. This participation in the life of grace heals us and elevates us to share in God's own life - namely the eternal participation in the beatific vision - this is what salvation is. Without a share of Christ's grace we are neither healed nor elevated, and thus, Heaven is an absolute impossibility.
In his defence of the universality of Christ's saving work, Augustine drew on the example of little babies because they were unable commit personal sins. Even little infants are baptised, pointed out Augustine, therefore they too need to receive Christ's salvation. This necessity of baptising infants throws into sharp relief just how dependent we are on Christ for salvation - He is the only way in which we can share in the life of God. But the logical consequence of this argument is inescapable, unbaptised infants seem to have no way of sharing in Christ's salvation. The necessity of baptism is strongly affirmed in Scripture and there is no obvious 'alternative route', and so, with great protests of anguish (he wasn't a monster, my dear readers...), Augustine is forced to argue that unbaptised children necessarily go to Hell - albeit, to suffer in the 'mildest of flames'.
This 'simple' solution didn't quite sit well with later thinkers, and the idea of limbo was proposed to better reflect God's mercy - despite being incapable of participating in the divine life of heaven, later theologians proposed that somehow God conceded the souls of these unbaptised children a state of perfect natural happiness. They weren't in heaven, but they were on a kind of 'fringe' (this is what Limbo means) so that we didn't need to worry about their suffering. The idea of limbo testifies to an instinct in the bosom of the Church that, so far as we can judge, God would not permit these poor souls to suffer. Limbo is a theological attempt to provide a merciful answer to a very upsetting question.
So why not just deduce that they are saved? Is that not more appropriate to God's mercy? And here comes the difficulty - we can only talk about the afterlife to the extent that God has revealed details to us - and in terms of the solution of this problem, there is very little in Scripture and the Tradition that allows for a definitive answer. The necessity of Baptism and the doctrine of Original Sin are central tenets of the faith. We might like to make an appeal to God's mercy, but at the same time, we cannot set our idea of His mercy against what He has revealed to us in total truthfulness.
In the past few centuries, various theologians have come up with various theories as to how Christ's grace might reach these unbaptised souls. If the Catholic News Service report is accurate, then it does not endorse any of these ideas - but does recognise that these ideas give us reason to be in a state of 'prayerful hope' about the fate of these children. We are allowed to think that there might be a way for these babies to share in God's own life.
It should be noted that this could only be possible if, somehow, Christ works to save them in some extraordinary manner which makes good the lack of baptism. Any hope we have for these babies' salvation cannot compromise the utter and total reliance of man on Christ for his salvation.
For theologians, the key point that the document makes is that we simply don't know what the fate of these babies is. The document seems to take the very sensible approach of steering away from giving an answer where none is to be given. (Indeed, I suspect that many theologians are probably convinced that unbaptised children are saved, and it may well be that this document will remind them that, in fact, the question is still open, and seemingly always will be open.) What God has told us in Scripture and Tradition does not answer the question, and therefore the Church cannot pronounce one way or the other. Parents are still under the strictest of obligations to have their babies baptised - that is the one sure way to the life of grace, and the denial of baptism through negligence is a grave thing indeed. However, should a child die without baptism, our attitude will be of prayerful hope that the God of mercy will take care of this little one according to the wisdom of his design.

That darned McBrien

Now, maybe he's being quoted out of context, but he reportedly says:
"If there's no limbo and we're not going to revert to St. Augustine's teaching that unbaptized infants go to hell, we're left with only one option, namely, that everyone is born in the state of grace," said the Rev. Richard McBrien, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame

*Rolls eyes*
That does not follow. Note the fact that this document gives various theological theories which give a motive for prayerful hope:
The document outlined several ways by which unbaptized babies might be united to Christ:
-- A "saving conformity to Christ in his own death" by infants who themselves suffer and die.
-- A solidarity with Christ among infant victims of violence, born and unborn, who like the holy innocents killed by King Herod are endangered by the "fear or selfishness of others."
-- God may simply give the gift of salvation to unbaptized infants, corresponding to his sacramental gift of salvation to the baptized.
NONE OF THOSE THEORIES IMPLY THAT MAN IS BORN IN A STATE OF GRACE. They all 'compensate' in some sense for the lack of baptism and make Christ's grace available in an extraordinary way analagous to the so-called baptisms of blood and of desire which in other circumstances can 'compensate' for the lack of sacramental baptism. The fact that such an extraordinary and compensatory act of God can happen in some cases, is not a universalization of the state of grace.
McBrien allegedly adds:
"Baptism does not exist to wipe away the "stain" of original sin, but to initiate one into the Church," he said in an e-mailed response.
Again, that is at best misleading, and at worst outright Pelagianism. One might just stay within the boundaries of orthodoxy if one says the above sentence with the intention that membership of the Church is the primary purpose of baptism, and the removal of the stain of Original Sin (does McBrien put the word stain in scare-quotes?) is some kind of secondary effect of baptism. However, if it is intended to mean that Baptism is all about initiation into the Church and has nothing to do with Original Sin... well, that position has been condemned as heretical more times than I care to remember.
On a more positive note, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church for the truth about baptism:
1262 The different effects of Baptism are signified by the perceptible elements of the sacramental rite. Immersion in water symbolizes not only death and purification, but also regeneration and renewal. Thus the two principal effects are purification from sins and new birth in the Holy Spirit.64
1263 By Baptism all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins, as well as all punishment for sin.65 In those who have been reborn nothing remains that would impede their entry into the Kingdom of God, neither Adam's sin, nor personal sin, nor the consequences of sin, the gravest of which is separation from God.

I'll stop now. I'm thinking some very uncharitable things about Fr McBrien and his Pelagian-sounding statements.
I'll add one note, however... Fr O'Brien's description of baptism being about initiation into the Church, whilst having a certain amount of accuracy, isn't exactly the richest way of describing the elevating effects of this marvellous sacrament. Initiation into the Church, yes... but also a sacramental participation in the death and resurrection of Christ our Saviour, an incorporation into the Body of Christ, rebirth as a new creature.

ITC Limbo Document Out

Biretta-doff to Argent.Via the Catholic News Service:
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- After several years of study, the Vatican's International Theological Commission said there are good reasons to hope that babies who die without being baptized go to heaven.

In a document published April 20, the commission said the traditional concept of limbo -- as a place where unbaptized infants spend eternity but without communion with God -- seemed to reflect an "unduly restrictive view of salvation."

The church continues to teach that, because of original sin, baptism is the ordinary way of salvation for all people and urges parents to baptize infants, the document said.

But there is greater theological awareness today that God is merciful and "wants all human beings to be saved," it said. Grace has priority over sin, and the exclusion of innocent babies from heaven does not seem to reflect Christ's special love for "the little ones," it said.

"Our conclusion is that the many factors that we have considered ... give serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptized infants who die will be saved and enjoy the beatific vision," the document said.

"We emphasize that these are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge," it added.

The 41-page document, titled "The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized," was published in Origins, the documentary service of Catholic News Service. Pope Benedict XVI authorized its publication earlier this year.

The 30-member International Theological Commission acts as an advisory panel to the Vatican, in particular to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Its documents are not considered expressions of authoritative church teaching, but they sometimes set the stage for official Vatican pronouncements.

The commission's document said salvation for unbaptized babies who die was becoming an urgent pastoral question, in part because their number is greatly increasing. Many infants today are born to parents who are not practicing Catholics, and many others are the unborn victims of abortion, it said.

Limbo has never been defined as church dogma and is not mentioned in the current Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states simply that unbaptized infants are entrusted to God's mercy.

But limbo has long been regarded as the common teaching of the church. In the modern age, "people find it increasingly difficult to accept that God is just and merciful if he excludes infants, who have no personal sins, from eternal happiness," the new document said.

Parents in particular can experience grief and feelings of guilt when they doubt their unbaptized children are with God, it said.

The church's hope for these infants' salvation reflects a growing awareness of God's mercy, the commission said. But the issue is not simple, because appreciation for divine mercy must be reconciled with fundamental church teachings about original sin and about the necessity of baptism for salvation, it said.

The document traced the development of church thinking about the fate of unbaptized children, noting that there is "no explicit answer" from Scripture or tradition.

In the fifth century, St. Augustine concluded that infants who die without baptism were consigned to hell. By the 13th century, theologians referred to the "limbo of infants" as a place where unbaptized babies were deprived of the vision of God, but did not suffer because they did not know what they were deprived of.

Through the centuries, popes and church councils were careful not to define limbo as a doctrine of the faith and to leave the question open. That was important in allowing an evolution of the teaching, the theological commission said.

A key question taken up by the document was the church's teaching that baptism is necessary for salvation. That teaching needs interpretation, in view of the fact that "infants ... do not place any personal obstacle in the way of redemptive grace," it said.

In this and other situations, the need for the sacrament of baptism is not absolute and is secondary to God's desire for the salvation of every person, it said.

"God can therefore give the grace of baptism without the sacrament being conferred, and this fact should particularly be recalled when the conferring of baptism would be impossible," it said.

This does not deny that all salvation comes through Christ and in some way through the church, it said, but it requires a more careful understanding of how this may work.

The document outlined several ways by which unbaptized babies might be united to Christ:

-- A "saving conformity to Christ in his own death" by infants who themselves suffer and die.

-- A solidarity with Christ among infant victims of violence, born and unborn, who like the holy innocents killed by King Herod are endangered by the "fear or selfishness of others."

-- God may simply give the gift of salvation to unbaptized infants, corresponding to his sacramental gift of salvation to the baptized.

The document said the standard teaching that there is "no salvation outside the church" calls for similar interpretation.

The church's magisterium has moved toward a more "nuanced understanding" of how a saving relationship with the church can be realized, it said. This does not mean that someone who has not received the sacrament of baptism cannot be saved, it said.

Rather, it means that "there is no salvation which is not from Christ and ecclesial by its very nature," it said.

The document quoted St. Paul's teaching that spouses of Christians may be "consecrated" through their wives or husbands. This indicates that the holiness of the church reaches people "outside the visible bounds of the church" through the bonds of human communion, it said.

The document said the church clearly teaches that people are born into a state of sinfulness -- original sin -- which requires an act of redemptive grace to be washed away.

But Scripture also proclaims the "superabundance" of grace over sin, it said. That seems to be missing in the idea of limbo, which identifies more with Adam's sinfulness than with Christ's redemption, it said.

"Christ's solidarity with all of humanity must have priority over the solidarity of human beings with Adam," it said.

Liturgically, the motive for hope was confirmed by the introduction in 1970 of a funeral rite for unbaptized infants whose parents intended to present them for baptism, it said.

The commission said the new theological approach to the question of unbaptized babies should not be used to "negate the necessity of baptism, nor to delay the conferral of the sacrament."

"Rather, there are reasons to hope that God will save these infants precisely because it was not possible to do for them that what would have been most desirable -- to baptize them in the faith of the church and incorporate them visibly into the body of Christ," it said.

The commission said hopefulness was not the same as certainty about the destiny of such infants.

"It must be clearly acknowledged that the church does not have sure knowledge about the salvation of unbaptized infants who die," it said.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, was president of the commission and head of the doctrinal congregation when the commission began studying the question of limbo in a systematic way in 2004.

U.S. Cardinal William J. Levada now heads the commission and the doctrinal congregation. Cardinal Levada met with the pope to discuss the document Jan. 19 and, with the pope's approval, authorized its publication.
I'm loathe to comment before reading the document itself, but CNS seems to have given an intelligent reading of the document and has stated quite clearly that the ITC doesn't have Magisterial authority. We cannot expect intelligent reporting of this in the secular press. Expect headlines to speak of the 'Pope' or 'the Vatican' 'abolishing Limbo'.
What we actually seem to have is a rather measured document which does not declare the automatic salvation of the unbaptized and does not totally dismiss limbo as being an unsupportable theological position. The report suggests that it does not obscure the genuine difficulty of the question and insists on the necessity and obligation of baptism.

Just because something is scientifically possible...

... that doesn't mean that we should necessarily do it.
Sacrilege from the Times:
A caffeinated bar of soap has been invented for people who are short of time.
Every time a person lathers their body with the soap it produces two coffee cups’ worth of caffeine. The effects are said to be absorbed within five minutes and last for up to four hours. The soap, called Shower Shock, is intended for people who are too busy to make a cup of coffee in the morning. Shower Shock soap is on sale through the US-based internet company Think Geek and costs £3.50.

Rediscovered Fra Angelicos

From the Telegraph:
Two Renaissance paintings that were found hanging behind a door in a modest two-bedroom terrace in Oxford fetched a total of £1.7 million at auction yesterday.
Bidders for the altar panels, by the Italian monk Fra Angelico, included the Italian government.
However, the eventual buyer was an anonymous European.
For more than 30 years the panels, measuring 15in x 5in, belonged to Jean Preston, a 77-year-old spinster who travelled everywhere by bus. She was unaware of their significance until shortly before her death last July.
They had a probate value of £400 when Miss Preston's father bequeathed them to her in 1974. He was thought to have paid considerably less for them in America in the 1960s. The discovery solved a 200-year-old mystery. The small works were originally part of the altarpiece of the Church of St Marco in Florence, which was broken up during the Napoleonic wars.
Six of the eight panels had been found. But the location of the remaining two was unknown until their discovery in Oxford.
Miss Preston's house contained other art treasures, including some Pre-Raphaelite masterpieces.
She had been curator of manuscripts at two universities in America, Princeton and Huntingdon. She returned to Britain 10 years ago.
The proceeds of the sale will be divided between Miss Preston's relatives.
Martin Preston, 45, a health worker from Wiltshire, said: "Auntie Jean knew everything there was to know about medieval literature, but not a lot about art."
I'm not sure how plausible that last sentence is.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Jesus of Nazareth - Africa and the Good Samaritan

A passage out of sequence
Because I have been asked about it, I skipped ahead several chapters to translate part of the Holy Father's commentary on the parable of the Good Samaritan which concerns Africa... and which has attracted much of the press attention in recent days. It's worth reading carefully and in full. (Usual apologies for any defects in translation)
The relevance of this parable is obvious. If we apply it to the dimensions of globalised society, we see how the populations of Africa find themselves robbed and pillaged and this concerns us very closely. We see how they are our neighbours; we also see that our way of life and the history in which we are involved have defrauded/stripped them and continue to defraud/strip them. Above all, this includes the fact that we have wounded them spiritually. Instead of giving them God, the God so near to us in Christ and instead of welcoming from their traditions everything that is precious and great, and bringing those things to fulfilment, we have instead brought them the cynicism of a world without God, in which only power and profit matter; we have destroyed moral criteria so that corruption and the unscrupulous desire for power is evident. And this doesn't only apply to Africa.
Yes, we must give material assistance and we must examine our way of life. But we give much too little if we only give material things. And don't we also find man defrauded/stripped and tormented closer to home? The victims of drugs, of person-trafficking, of sexual tourism and people who are internally destroyed, who are empty despite an abundance of material goods. All of this concerns us and calls us to have an eye and a heart for our neighbour, and also the courage of love towards our neighbour. Because, as I have said, the priest and the Levite pass on the other side perhaps more out of fear rather than indifference. We need, starting with our interior selves, to learn again the risk of goodness; we are only capable of goodness if we become interiorly good, if we are interiorly neighbours and if we have the ability to identify what type of service in our surroundings and in the broader scope of our lives is demanded, what is possible for us and therefore what is given to us as our duty. [pp 235-236]
For the sake of completeness, it should be noted that Benedict has an awful lot more to say about the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Jesus of Nazareth - The Temptations of Christ and St Augustine

The aid of the West to developing countries based on purely technical-material principles, that doesn't only leave God to one side, but has also led men away from Him because of their pride in their own self-importance, has made the Third World into the Third World in the modern sense. This assistance has put to one side existing religious, moral and social structures and has introduced its own technicalist mentality into the vacuum. They think that they can change rocks into bread, but they have given stones in place of bread. The primacy of God is at question. It concerns recognizing Him as a reality, a reality without which nothing else can be good. One cannot govern history with mere material structures leaving God aside. If the heart of man isn't good, then nothing else can become good. And goodness of heart can only come from He who is Himself goodness, the Good. [p56, Unofficial translation from the Italian]

This commentary on the temptations of Jesus, and in particular Satan's suggestion that Christ change stones into loaves of bread struck me very deeply. I don't want to harp on about this point, but the above passage is proof (if proof were needed) that the Holy Father is a thoroughgoing Augustinian. What we have above is a development of St Augustine's doctrine (found in, for example, his late anti-Pelagian work ‘Against Julian’) that the acts of man cannot be pleasing to God unless they are rooted in the theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity. St Augustine affirmed something which would certainly strike many modern ears as outrageous. He argued that the virtues of pagans were ultimately vices, as they did not draw on the source of goodness and were not properly oriented to their proper end due to the absence of what we would now call the theological virtues. St Thomas Aquinas, on the other hand, laid down a theology of virtue which afforded more space for so-called natural virtues.
Now, I'm not sure that we can attribute the Augustinian doctrine in its full rigour to Pope Benedict - in his anti-Pelagian polemic, Augustine sometimes ended up taking positions which further reflection theological development ended up moderating. (And indeed, the Augustinian position, as developed by later authors has much to commend it over the Thomistic theory.) However, it is clear from the above passage that in his social thought (as already expressed in Deus Caritas Est), Pope Benedict is very much thinking along Augustinian rather than Thomistic lines. He very clearly sees that even what appear to be man's most worthwhile ‘secular’ projects are ultimately harmful and misguided if the primacy of God is ignored or denied.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Jesus of Nazareth - The Baptism in the Jordan

I feel a certain ambivalence about posting these extracts translated from the Italian edition of the Holy Father’s new book. Firstly, I'm very aware of that my translation from the Italian may not always accurately reflect Pope Benedict’s actual thoughts. Translation is not as simple as it might seems to be. (Traduttore, traditore!) Secondly, I wouldn't want it thought that I'm intending to offer any thing like a comprehensive synthesis of all that’s in the book itself.
Those reservations aside, I have to say that I'm sufficiently enthused by what I meeting so far that I have to share some snippets, along with my own thoughts and I very much look forward to the discussion which will follow the publication of the English edition of this work.
On Moses
I had intended referring to the ‘Introduction’ in today's post, where Pope Benedict presents Christ as the new and greater Moses who surpasses all the expectations of the people of Israel. Time, alas, does not allow me to deal with this topic adequately. However, I would make the following observations.
1. This treatment of Christ with reference to a concrete Old Testament figure is typical of the best patristic exegesis, and highlights the preparatory role of the Old Testament in a very real way. We are not dealing here with some kind of religious evolution, but rather the specific promises made by God to the people of Israel. God's self-revelation is something very specific, and the figure of Christ is tied very tightly to specific biblical figures who went before him and who foreshadowed him. Pope Benedict has always made a point of highlighting the ‘scandal’ of this particularity. Some modern theologians and exegetes are unable to accept the concreteness of this preparation, and do not see the relationship between God and Israel as differing qualitatively from the religious experience of any other nation or tradition. To an extent, this is understandable and has cropped up within Christianity at various times, starting with various Gnostics and in particular Marcion who tried to present the God of the Old Testament as someone different from the Father-God of the New. The universal role of Jesus is much more easily appreciated if he is detached from his Jewish background. However, such an approach is alien to the tradition of the Church and taken to its logical conclusions ends up in a denial of Christ as the unique mediator between God and man who entered history at a precise time and in a specific place. Thus, Pope Benedict is saying that Christ arrived following a specific preparation and a definite promise made by God. He affirms Christ as a concrete figure who cannot be substituted by another.
2. Secondly, this presentation of Christ as the New Moses reflects another recurring feature of Joseph Ratzinger's thought. He has written several occasions about the various covenants of the Old Testament and their significance for Christian theology. Indeed, it has been said that his theology in this area has opened the way for a particularly fruitful dialogue between Christianity and Judaism.
On the Baptism
The first chapter proper of the book is devoted to the baptism of Christ in the Jordan. Having read the chapter as a whole, I must say that I'm very impressed (as always) by Benedict's ability to present some fairly meaty theological ideas in simple and accessible terms. A theological background is not required to enjoy and appreciate this book.
It is fascinating to see the diverse sources that Pope Benedict draws on in this work. He certainly makes use of modern biblical scholarship and the results of archaeological investigations (in Qumran, for example), but also draws on the liturgy and the Church’s iconographic tradition in order to explain the deeper meaning of the information which historical research throws up. He is remaining true to his method, namely the use of historical-critical scholarship in the context of a more broadly based theological reading of the text in harmony with the Church’s tradition.
What then does he say about the baptism? The following quotation reflects part of what Pope Benedict has to share with us:
Descending into the water, those baptised recognized their own sins and sought to free themselves from the weight of being oppressed by sin. What did Jesus do? Luke, who throughout his gospel pays particular attention to the prayer of Jesus, and constantly presents Him as the One who prays - in dialogue with the Father - tells us that Jesus was at prayer after being baptised. Because of the cross and resurrection it becomes clear to Christians what had occurred: Jesus took on his shoulders the weight of the sin of all humanity; he took it with him into the Jordan. From the beginning of his activity he takes the place of sinners. There begins the anticipation of the cross. He is, so to say, the true Jonah who said to the sailors: take me and throw me into the sea. (Jonah 1:12) The full meaning of the baptism of Jesus, his fulfilment of “all righteousness” (cf Matt 3:15) reviews itself only in the cross: the baptism is the acceptance of death for the sins of humanity, and the voice from heaven "This is my beloved Son” is the anticipated reference to the resurrection. Thus one understands the reason why in his own discourses Jesus uses the word baptism to refer to his own death. (Matt 10:38; Luke 12:50) [p 38]

Note how Scripture is being understood as a whole, both in terms of the Old and New Testament illuminating each other, and in terms of the whole of Christ's life being understandable in the light of the Paschal mystery. There is a sensitivity to the differences in the evangelists’ presentations, but no desire to dissect Scripture in such a way that it cannot be put back together again.
In this chapter, the Pope also reflects on the continuity of John the Baptist and Christ with the Jewish tradition, but also shows how they are presenting something wholly new that surpasses anything expected by Judaism. The universality of their respective missions is just as crucial a key to understanding them. (Thus, he contrasts the genealogy of Christ in Matthew which concerns itself with Christ's Davidic descent and that of Luke who traces Christ's origin back to Adam, the father of all mankind.)
As I mentioned before, one of the particularly interesting things the Pope Benedict does is that he draws on the Eastern iconographic tradition to flesh out our understanding of the baptism in the Jordan. He notes that the Eastern icon of the baptism portrays the Jordan as being a ‘liquid sepulchre’ which highlights the link between this act of baptism and Christ's descent into hell. Those who have been following the recent debate about von Balthasar’s theology of the descent will find what Pope Benedict does this particular dimension fascinating. He doesn't present this descent in terms of Balthasar’s passive descent into Sheol – indeed, the focus is much more on Christ’s triumphant defeat of the devil in his descent into Hell - but there are decided echoes of Balthasar in Benedict’s description of the baptismal descent. By his baptism Christ “can take upon himself all the sin of the world and exhaust it, suffering to the utmost - leaving behind nothing in the descent into the identity of those who are fallen."
There is much more to say about Benedict's treatment of the baptism in the Jordan - the link he makes between this baptism and St Paul’s theology of baptism is fascinating, especially as St Paul never made explicit reference to the baptism of the Jordan. What we have is a blend of Benedict's fidelity to the tradition and his authentic theological creativity.
Finally, he is insistent that modern scholarship should support the Church’s reading of the Bible and repeatedly affirms the value of what might be thought of as as the ‘plain man’s reading’ of the Gospels. The picture presented by the texts themselves is plausible and logical and need not be supplanted by a more ‘scientific’ vision of ‘what really happened:
A broad current of liberal theology has interpreted the baptism of Jesus as a vocational experience: that He, who until this moment lived a totally normal life in the province of Galilee, had a disturbing experience; He came to the awareness of a special relationship with God and of his religious mission, and made sure awareness based on the expectations which were then present in Israel (to which John the Baptist had given new form) thanks to personal upset caused in Him by the event of baptism. But none of this is found in the texts. No matter how learned the clothes one can put on this theory, it ultimately owes more to the genre of a novel about Jesus, than to the true interpretation of the texts. These texts do not permit us to see inside Jesus. He is above our psychologies. (Romano Guardini) Rather, they let us know what relationship there is between Jesus and “ Moses and the Prophets”. They let us know the intimate unity of His journey from the first moment of his life until his cross and resurrection. Jesus does not appear as a kindly man with his emotions, failures and successes - in other words, as an individual of a past historical era He would remain irreducibility distant from us. Rather, he is put in front of us as the “Beloved Son”, when one hand is totally Other, and because of this he can also become contemporary to all of us, for each one of us he can be closer to us than we can be to ourselves. (Cf St Augustine, Confessions, 3.6.11) [p 44-45]

[That last point is pure Ratzinger. He points out that Christ can be closer to us than we can imagine, precisely because he is so unlike us. The Holy Father has a taste for the striking paradoxes of our faith, and yet is sufficiently sensitive to their meaning to resist the temptation to reduce them to confusing or meaningless dialectic. (Again, another Augustinian dimension to his thought - Erich Pryzwara identified this quasi-dialectic aspect of Augustine's thought as one of the reasons for his eternal relevance - his thought never grows stale)]

Monday, April 16, 2007

Jesus at Prayer: A brief extract from the 'Introduction' of Jesus of Nazareth

Apologies for the slight 'clunkiness' of the translation - Italian sentence structure and idiom does not always transfer smoothly into English. I shudder to think how this extract will compare with the professional English translation from the German. Ambiguities and infelicities of expression are, in all probability my fault, rather than that of the Holy Father:

To understand Jesus the recurring instances when He withdraws "to a mountain" and prays for entire nights "alone" with the Father are essential. These brief references disperse a little the veil of the mystery and allow us to cast a glance into the filial existence of Jesus, to discern the wellspring of his actions, his teaching and his suffering. This "praying" of Jesus is the conversation of the Son with the Father in which are involved the human knowledge and will i.e. the human soul of Jesus, so that the "prayer" of the man can become participation in the communion of the Son with the Father.

The famous affirmation of Adolf von Harnack that the message of Jesus was a message about the Father, of which the proclamation of the Son didn't have a part - is therefore a Christology which does not belong to the message of Jesus - it is a thesis which refutes itself. Jesus can speak about the Father as he does, only because he is the Son and lives in filial communion with the Father. The Christological dimension, that is the mystery of the Son as the revealer of the Father, namely “Christology” is present in all the discourses and all the actions of Jesus. This makes clear another important point. We have already said that in the act of prayer the human soul of Jesus is involved in the filial communion of Jesus with the Father. (See John 14:9) The disciple who walks with Jesus, in this way, is involved together with Him in communion with God. And it is this which truly saves; namely transcending the limits of being human; a step which man by means of his likeness to God is already predisposed, as something desired and as a possibility right from the moment of his creation. (pp 27-28)
Points of interest:
1. Note that the Holy Father is pretty explicit about this book being based around the idea of a Christology 'from above'. The starting point is the acceptance of Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and this allows the details of his earthly existence to fall into place and make sense. It's very much a case of 'credo ut intelligam' - I believe so that I might understand.
2. That doesn't mean that the full humanity of Christ is neglected. The Pope makes a very clear reference to the human soul of Christ and tries to help us understand what His Divine Sonship might mean in terms of the human operations of His soul... without engaging in any imprudent and ultimately fruitless speculations that say too much about the human conciousness of Christ.
3. This leads us to, what seems to me, a very Augustinian understanding of Christ - namely the One who is both God and Man, and therefore is the one and only Mediator between God and Man. Thus, closeness to Jesus allows the prayer of the disciple to also share in the communion which Christ has with the Father by virtue of His Divine Sonship.
4. Finally, we have a reference to man's openness to communion with God. Without suggesting anything as explicit or as technical as De Lubac's fashionable (but flawed) theory of a natural desire for the supernatural, or proposing some form of the Thomistic 'capax Dei', Pope Benedict again expresses himself in a simpler, and what I would regard as a fundamentally Augustinian way. Man is said to have some kind of predisposition towards this incredible step towards communion with God (which happens through Christ the mediator) right from His creation - a decided echo of St Augustine's You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.
5. All in all, the Holy Father is presenting some fairly profound ideas, but with the simplicity and lightness of touch of one who has a keen existential and intellectual grasp of what he's talking about.
6. This section of the introduction is preceded by a fascinating reflection on Christ as the new Moses, something I may blog about tomorrow. That's an interesting theme, and a fascinating way to begin a book which is primarily about the Christ of the Gospels. Ratzinger is remaining very true to one of the fundamental truths which the Church teaches about Scripture, and which modern exegesis frequently overlooks. The Old Testament is a genuine preparation for the New Testament; the New Testament is the complete fulfilment of the Old. Thus, the Old Testament doesn't merely provide a historical background for the events of the New Testament, but in the figure of Moses and the promise of a successor who would be greater than Him, we see a genuine preparation for and pre-announcement of Jesus Christ. I suspect that some of my readers know more about this than I do, but the figure of Moses himself as a pre-figurement of Christ does not strike me as being one of the more common themes of patristic exegesis. Certainly, we have St Gregory of Nyssa's Life of Moses, but in general, the Fathers seemed to focus on particular events in Moses's life as foreshadowing details in the life of Christ rather than as presenting Christ as the New Moses. If I'm correct on this point, then the use of Moses as the point of departure for the Holy Father's analysis is a wonderful example of authentic theological creativity which is thoroughly sympathetic to the tradition, yet presents things in a new and striking manner.

Jesus of Nazareth - Initial Thoughts

As I mentioned previously, this morning I bought a copy of the Italian translation of the Pope's new book Gesù di Nazaret. In as much as time permits me (and I make no promises) I hope that I would have the opportunity to share a few of my observations as I read this book.
Some Initial Observations
The first thing I notice that this Italian edition was edited by Ingrid Stampa (of whom we haven’t heard much recently) and Elio Guerriero. Flicking through, one notes that this book is very much more evidently directed at the general public than Ratzinger's previous volumes; in particular I note the absence of the footnotes which normally abound in theological works. I remember a scientist once telling me that the inclusion of a single mathematical equation in a book probably halves its sales. I suspect that footnotes have the same effect for many people. A theologian of my acquaintance (who received an advance copy some time ago - lucky sod! ;) ) suggested that it's pitched at such a level that it should be accessible to anyone with a decent high school education.
Turning to the index of names at the back it's surprising to note that despite being a noted Augustinian thinker, there are only three page references to St Augustine as opposed to eight for St Cyprian. Apart from the various biblical and historical figures, one notes that Joachim Jerimias, Rudolf Schnackenburg, Jacob Neusner (a Jewish rabbi!), Adolf von Harnack and Rudolf Bultmann seemed to be the most frequently cited ‘dialogue partners’ in this investigation of the person of Jesus of Nazareth. It should be noted that all four figures take very differing and very distinctive approaches to the person of Christ, and it should be fascinating to see how the Pope engages with each one.
There is also a list of citations from magisterial documents at the back of the book - one reference each from Divino afflante spiritu (Pius XII’s great Biblical encyclical) and Dei Verbum 12 (Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation), and one reference each from two relatively recent documents of the Pontifical Biblical Commission: The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church and The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible.
The list of biblical citations is also interesting -- the most cited gospel is that of John, with more or less equal attention being given to each of the three synoptic Gospels.
Reading the Preface
In his preface or ‘premessa’ (premise), Pope Benedict explains that this book is the result of "a long interior journey."
The Division between the Christ of Faith and of History
He recalls that in his youth (the 1930s and 1940s) there flourished theological books about Jesus which drew heavily on the Gospels written by the likes of Karl Adam, Romano Guardini and so on. However, from the 1950s there has been a greater separation between "the historical Jesus" and "the Christ of faith." One of the results of historical-critical research is an increasing distinction between the levels of tradition present in the Scriptures, with the result that the figure of Jesus himself has become less clearly apprehended. The various attempts to reconstruct "the historical Jesus" have produced an ever greater a variety of contrasting figures and the figures of Jesus therefore seems more and more distant from us. We are left with the impression that we know very little about Jesus, and the idea that the belief in his divinity has caused his image to be reshaped has profoundly penetrated the mind of Christianity. This has the very serious consequence of making the fundamental point of reference of our faith uncertain, namely intimate friendship with Jesus.
Schnackenburg's Attempted Solution
This problem was tackled by Schnackenburg (perhaps the most important German-language Catholic exegete of the 2nd half of the 20th century) who tried to present believers with a reliable picture of Christ, albeit even Schnackenburg was not immune to the shortcomings of his method. The Pope accepts Schnackenburg’s statement about the Gospels, namely “the historical foundation is presupposed, but overtaken by the vision of faith of the evangelists" but we are left with the question of how to arrive at this "historical foundation." (It should be noted that Schnackenburg makes the decisive historical point of Christ's divinity.)
The Pope makes this latter point on which his book will rest, namely the consideration of Jesus starting with his communion with the Father. This is the true centre of his personality and without understanding this one cannot understand Jesus.
Moving beyond Schnackenburg
Benedict proposes moving beyond Schnackenburg. He selects the following phrase from Schnackenburg’s work as being central to its shortcomings: “ the Gospels wish to reclothe with flesh the mysterious Son of God who appeared on earth.” The Pope notes that the evangelists had no need to reclothe the Son of God with flesh, because he really took flesh. But can we reach this flesh through the jungles of traditions?
Principles of Biblical Interpretation
The Pope accepts the validity of the historical-critical method, but also insists that biblical faith has as its foundation real historical events, in the Bible cannot be reduced to symbols. The historical fact is indispensable, because God took flesh and entered history. If we put aside the historical reality, we are replacing Christianity with some other religion. The fact that we are dealing with a historical fact means that Christian faith is accessible to the historical method, and indeed Christian faith demands it. Dei Verbum 12 outlines how this is done, and specifies concrete methodological points which must be kept present in reading the scriptures.
However, even though the historical-critical method is indispensable, it still forms only a part of our understanding of how to read the Bible. Its limits must be recognized, namely that it treats the words of Scripture as belonging purely to the past, an approach which is in adequate in isolation. The Bible must also be understood, not only as individual books written in particular historical contexts, but as the whole which we call Scripture (canonical criticism). The Pope adds that we must also bear in mind the instruction of Dei Verbum 12 that: “Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which it was written, no less serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly worked out. The living tradition of the whole Church must be taken into account along with the harmony which exists between elements of the faith.”
The Ecclesial Dimension of Scripture
Benedict also insists on the ecclesial dimension of the Scriptures. Scripture emerged for and from the "living subject of the People of God." Initially we have a single author or a group of authors to whom we attribute a particular book. However, these are not autonomous writers in the modern sense of the word, but rather belong to the common subject of the People of God. They speak from and to this People, to the extent that at a deeper level the People is an author of Scripture. However, this People is not self-sufficient, but is guided and directed by God himself who speaks to men in their humanity. Therefore, the relationship between the Church and the Scriptures is essential. The Bible is the criterium which comes from God to guide this People, and lives only within this People.
In summary, Benedict explains that on the basis of these methodological indications, he trusts the Gospels in their picture of Jesus. Whilst accepting the fruits of modern biblical scholarship, he intends to present the "Jesus of the Gospels" as the real Jesus, that is the "historical Jesus in the real and proper sense." He is convinced that this Jesus is more historically convincing and logical than the various reconstructions which have been offered in previous decades. Only if something extraordinary happened can we understand the figure and words of Jesus in all their efficacy. The question is posed how we can explain the early history of the Church in any other way. In presenting things like this, Benedict is aware of that he is going beyond much of what contemporary exegesis says. However, he asks that it be understood not as written in opposition to modern exegesis, but rather with recognition of the many things that this form of exegesis continues to offer. The Pope explains that moving beyond mere historical-critical interpretation, he has sought to apply new methodological criteria which allow for a properly theological reading of the Bible, which demands faith, without wishing to or being able renounce historical seriousness.
The Necessary Disclaimer
Pope Benedict explains that he offers this book, not as a magisterial act, but has an expression of his personal search for the face of the Lord.
My Initial Assessment
That, in summary is what the foreword of the book has to say. It is interesting to note what exactly the Pope is doing here. Firstly, the fact that he decided to publish a book like this whilst Pope indicates something about his understanding of the Church's teaching mission. One can hardly doubt that Pope Benedict appreciates the magisterium’s authority to definitively set forth dogma and to define it in such a way that the Church can bind the intellect of the faithful and propose unalterable truths. However, this does not exhaust the teaching office of the Church, and as we have seen from his preaching, he sees that it is also essential that the Church be convincing in her teaching. He has faith in the strength of Christ's Gospel to convince and convert the minds and hearts of men, if only it is preached with clarity and authenticity.
Secondly, in his outline of the method that he employs, he is providing us with an example of what Vatican II sets out as being authentic biblical interpretation. He makes use of the best scientific research, without allowing himself to become so fascinated by it that he cannot see beyond it. The historical nature of Christianity means that we have nothing to fear from authentic historical and textual research, as long as it is understood within the context of the faith of the Church. Historical-critical exegesis is indispensable, but only in the context of a broader understanding of biblical interpretation that takes the tradition of the Church, the magisterium, the unity of the Scriptures and other methods of exegesis into account.
Thirdly, in his desire to present us with Jesus as the Gospels show him, Pope Benedict is making a statement in favour of the faith of the ordinary Christian. The truth about Christ is not confined to those who share in the gnosis of biblical criticism, but is accessible to the ordinary believer who (with the guidance of the Church) takes up the Gospels in good faith.
Finally, the book very obviously promises to be an expression of the centrality of Jesus Christ in the thought and life of Joseph Ratzinger.

From the Telegraph

From the Telegraph:
The Pope thanked God for a long life and paid tribute to his family yesterday as at least 100,000 wellwishers gathered to wish him a happy 80th birthday in the Vatican.
The Pope, dressed in his bright red robes, was joined by the college of cardinals also resplendent in their crimson vestments for the Mass, led by cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state.

Also from the Telegraph:

A picture of His Holiness wearing his 'bright red robes' (sic).
St Ignatius of Loyola once wrote:
To be right in everything, we ought always to hold that the white which I see, is black, if the Hierarchical Church so decides it, believing that between Christ our Lord, the Bridegroom, and the Church, His Bride, there is the same Spirit which governs and directs us for the salvation of our souls. Because by the same Spirit and our Lord Who gave the ten Commandments, our holy Mother the Church is directed and governed.
Thankfully, we don't have to believe the Daily Telegraph when it tells us that white is red.


Expect some initial comments some time this (Roman) afternoon.
Edited to add: My Initial Thoughts

Buon Compleanno, Santo Padre!

Gerald Augustinus has some wonderful photos from yesterday.
And Amy Welborn neatly skewers some of the misguided journalistic comment about the Pope. (BTW, I have to say that Amy is probably the most reasonable, rational and sane voice in the Catholic blogosphere - and by that, I mean that I rarely or ever disagree with anything she has to say! ;) )


It'll be in about mid-day...
I was a little surprised that I wasn't the only one who showed up at the local bookstore to get a copy of the Pope's new book. Alas, it's not been delivered to the bookstores yet.

Sunday, April 15, 2007


A number of weeks ago, a very kind friend sent me this volume of Rilke's poetry which I am enjoying immensely. I've been meaning to post a couple of extracts and have finally got them transcribed:
Moses’s Death

None of the angels, but the dark and fallen one
was willing; took up arms and with deadly intent
approached the one to whom he had been sent.
But again he rattled away, backwards, and up
to the heavens he screamed: I can't.

For nonchalantly through the heavy brow
Moses had seen him coming and continued to write:
words of blessing and the everlasting name.
And his eye was pure to the depth of his core.

Thus, the Lord himself, carrying along half the heavens
came down and removed the covers of the hill like a bed;
placed the old man there. And from this well-ordered house,
he called the soul forth to rise, up! to recount
the many common things of a friendship deeply laid.

And in the end, the soul had enough, was satisfied,
and said this much. Then, the ancient God
bent toward the old man His old face and took
life with a kiss out of him into His own,
the older one. And with the hands of creation
He covered the mountain so as to disguise
it as one among many others
and to keep it from being recognized.

Extract From: Death of Mary

Who would have thought that until her coming
the entire heavens were incomplete?
The risen one had taken his seat,
but next to him, for twenty-four years,
the seat had been empty. And they had begun
to get used to the vacancy,
which seemed to have closed up and healed;
the son with his radiant gleaming had it filled

Thus, not even she who stepped into heaven
walked toward him, despite his pleas;
there was no room, only he was there
with the radiance that stung with its gleam.
But when she, the gentle figure,
sought to blend with other newcomers there
and sidled with them inconspicuously,
there broke from her such sheen
of such might, that the angel next to her
blinded by it, cried: Who is she?
There was surprise. Then they saw
how the Father in heaven implored our Lord
so that caressed by a mild dawn
the empty spot emerged like a small wound,
like a trace of loneliness,
like something he still endured,
a residue of earthly time, a dry compress-.

And they looked at her; and she, afraid,
leaned forward as if to say: I am
his most enduring pain-: and fell suddenly
forward. But the angels caught her and braced
her fall and happily, for the final stretch,
carried her in.
I wish my German was sufficent to properly appreciate the original poetry.

St Thomas

Don Marco blogs about the finger of St Thomas; I went to S. Croce today to venerate this relic as we hear the story of St Thomas's incredulity in today's Gospel. Then I went to the Lateran to re-visit one of my favourite statues - that of St Thomas...

... easily identified by his extended finger. I overheard one Italian explain to a group that it was a statue of St Thomas Aquinas. *sigh*

Vaisakhi - The Sikh New Year

I was strolling near S. Maria Maggiore today, and came across a most colourful and rather noisy procession. Men in turbans were handing out refreshments and there was quite the party atmosphere. It seems that Rome's Sikh community was celebrating their New Year's Day which fell yesterday.

At the vanguard of the procession came a truck spraying water onto the street, followed by a small army of sweepers...

... because some of those marching in the procession were barefoot.

After them came these impressive fellows.

Sure, we have the fullness of faith, but I think we do have something to learn from our Sikh brethren... We Catholics should consider the greater liturgical use of swords.

Next came this float.

and after the float, these Sikh women in colourful dress.

Anyone out there knowing anything about Sikhism is welcome to comment on the significance of the various costumes, etc...

Rome Photos

Check out the Closed Cafeteria 'blog - the author is in Rome at the moment and is taking some marvellous pictures.

Friday, April 13, 2007

The Harrowing of Hell

The Icon of the Anastasis (Resurrection) at the Monastery of Chora in Constantinople.
This is said to be the finest example of the traditional Eastern depiction of the Resurrection. Dating from the 14th Century, it is somewhat unusual in that it shows Christ taking Eve as well as Adam by the wrist (where one feels for a pulse as an indication of life!) and raises them to new life. Beneath the feet of the vigorous and victorious Christ are the remains of the gates of death. Looking on are various prophets and patriarchs, including John the Baptist, Abel the Just (with the shepherd's crook) and Kings Solomon & David.

From Pope Benedict's Homily for the Easter Vigil:
Let us return once more to the night of Holy Saturday. In the Creed we say about Christ’s journey that he “descended into hell.” What happened then? Since we have no knowledge of the world of death, we can only imagine his triumph over death with the help of images which remain very inadequate. Yet, inadequate as they are, they can help us to understand something of the mystery. The liturgy applies to Jesus’ descent into the night of death the words of Psalm 23[24]: “Lift up your heads, O gates; be lifted up, O ancient doors!” The gates of death are closed, no one can return from there. There is no key for those iron doors. But Christ has the key. His Cross opens wide the gates of death, the stern doors. They are barred no longer. His Cross, his radical love, is the key that opens them. The love of the One who, though God, became man in order to die – this love has the power to open those doors. This love is stronger than death. The Easter icons of the Oriental Church show how Christ enters the world of the dead. He is clothed with light, for God is light. “The night is bright as the day, the darkness is as light” (cf. Ps 138[139]12). Entering the world of the dead, Jesus bears the stigmata, the signs of his passion: his wounds, his suffering, have become power: they are love that conquers death. He meets Adam and all the men and women waiting in the night of death. As we look at them, we can hear an echo of the prayer of Jonah: “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice” (Jn 2:2). In the incarnation, the Son of God became one with human beings – with Adam. But only at this moment, when he accomplishes the supreme act of love by descending into the night of death, does he bring the journey of the incarnation to its completion. By his death he now clasps the hand of Adam, of every man and woman who awaits him, and brings them to the light.
But we may ask: what is the meaning of all this imagery? What was truly new in what happened on account of Christ? The human soul was created immortal – what exactly did Christ bring that was new? The soul is indeed immortal, because man in a unique way remains in God’s memory and love, even after his fall. But his own powers are insufficient to lift him up to God. We lack the wings needed to carry us to those heights. And yet, nothing else can satisfy man eternally, except being with God. An eternity without this union with God would be a punishment. Man cannot attain those heights on his own, yet he yearns for them. “Out of the depths I cry to you…” Only the Risen Christ can bring us to complete union with God, to the place where our own powers are unable to bring us. Truly Christ puts the lost sheep upon his shoulders and carries it home. Clinging to his Body we have life, and in communion with his Body we reach the very heart of God. Only thus is death conquered, we are set free and our life is hope.

A Book Recommendation: Alyssa Lyra Pitstick - Light in Darkness : Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Catholic Doctrine of Christ's Descent into Hell
This book deserves a more detailed review, but I haven't time at the moment, so I'll just pass a few comments. Firstly, I must confess that this wasn't precisely the book I thought it would be. I was hoping that it would deal with the Catholic doctrine of the Descent into Hell in much more detail than it actually does. Dr Pitstick devotes 70 or 80 pages to outlining the traditional Catholic doctrine and ultimately, this does not prove to be enough. There's certainly nothing wrong with her presentation of the doctrine, but to bear the weight of her assault on von Balthasar's interpretation of the doctrine and in order to dispel any lingering doubts about whether her reading of the tradition is too simplistic an extra 50 or 60 pages on the doctrine itself would have been most welcome and would, I think, make her case much stronger.
Secondly, it would be mistaken to think that her work confines itself to dealing specifically with von Balthasar's doctrine of the Descent. Despite being focused around von Balthasar's treatment of the Descent, the core of the work is a through critique of von Balthasar's theology in general - in particular, shortcomings in his Christology and Trinitarian theology which are a result of, or are thrown into relief by his treatment of the Descent. Indeed, again I think the book would have been stronger if she had written at more length about precisely how von Balthasar re-reads the tradition and the effect this has had on posterior theology.
Despite these criticisms, however, (and is it really a criticism to wish that a theology book was longer?) I think this book is very significant and worthwhile. Pitstick has been derisively accused of 'Baltimore Catechism Catholicism'. This is unfair. What she actually presents is a meticulous criticism of von Balthasar's theology written from a Thomistic point of view which demonstrates very clearly the genuine shortcomings of von Balthasar's writings in terms of some pretty basic aspects of theological doctrine. One does not need to be a Thomist to appreciate the fact that Pitstick's careful approach is a fruitful way of highlighting the weaknesses of some dimensions of modern theological though. Indeed, I must confess to a certain intellectual glee at seeing her perform her carefully documented and clearly argued dissection.
Does she treat von Balthasar fairly? That's not a question I can answer, as I am not sufficiently familiar with his work to tell whether she has read him correctly or not. As de Lubac demonstrates in his 'Augustinianism in Modern Theology' it is very possible to misread theological works in the wrong spirit and derive heresy even by repeating verbatim the very words of the great Bishop of Hippo out of their correct context and spirit. I suspect that the accusation will be made that Pitstick has misread von Balthasar. That, I suspect, will be a matter for continued debate. At the very least, however, she had demonstrated beyond a doubt that von Balthasar's works are exceptionally susceptible to a reading that leads to some very questionable results on some very basic theological issues. What little von Balthasar I have read in the past has, on the whole, tended to unsettle me. I'm somewhat gratified that Pitstick has given a much more rigorous form to concerns I've previously felt about his 'Mission Christology', for example.
This is a book worthy of attention and a pleasure to read. It is very much a 'Case on behalf of the prosecution' and I suspect that it will be subject to some manner of a response from von Balthasar's supporters. One hopes that it will be a more measured response than the occasionally hysterical reply of the otherwise seemingly respectable Edward T Oakes in the pages of First Things. Ultimately, I can't pass judgement on her charges against von Balthasar - however, she has certainly put him in the dock and has presented a case that raises very serious question concerning von Balthasar's standing vis-a-vis Catholic doctrine.
It's interesting to note how many points of Pitstick's critique of von Balthasar could also be applied to the theology of Origen. As I read the book, I kept finding myself scribbling the word 'Origen' in the margin as various quotations of von Balthasar reminded me of Origen's theology.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Photo-morphin' fun.

I'm afraid I've wasted an awful lot of time on this excellent photo-morphing site courtesy of the University of St Andrews.