Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Brief Reflection on the Work and Ministry of the Catholic Theologian, on the Solemnity of Pentecost


On the 9th of October 1958, having heard of the death of Pope Pius XII, a man  by the name of Angelo Guiseppe Roncalli, found himself writing these lines in his journal: “We are not on earth as museum-keepers, but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life and to prepare for the church a glorious future”. Three weeks later, on the 28th of the same month, he was elected to succeed Pius XII, and took the name John XXIII.

Four years later, John XXIII would open what is undeniably one of the most significant events in the history of Roman Catholicism since the Catholic Reformation, the Second Vatican Council - an event which has so changed the face of the church, it has, despite the many challenges that came afterwards, become more equipped to face the challenges of the contemporary world, and a little more assured of its continuation into the third millenium.

A ‘garden’, not so much a ‘museum’—Blessed John XXIII could not have used more appropriate imagery to convey the idea of what he believed the church should be primarily. A garden is a place where growth is always present, where there is freshness and the promise of continuous renewal. Leaves whither, flowers fade, branches dry up, but only to spring forth and give way to life reborn, more beautiful, more alluring, ready once again to join in the endless cycle of God's creative work.

How apt to describe the life of the church in this way! John XXIII was a genius in his own right. He saw that there was a real danger that the church would not be well equipped to face the challenges presented by the swift pace of change in the world, and that instead of making the most of its being in the world, it would set up a massive fortress around itself, protecting itself in fear of the unknown dangers that lie outside its thick walls.

During his address to the bishops  at the opening of the great council, Pope John reminded them that while there is an undeniable need to safeguard the ‘deposit of faith’ as this has been handed down to us by the Tradition of the Church, there is an equally pressing need to always present this ‘deposit’ in a form understandable to the men and women of the age, and in a manner that speaks not only to their heads, but to their hearts and hands as well.

The pope who would ‘open wide the windows’ of the church, would have none of the closure and fear that beset the hearts of many even today. For these only serve to stifle the Spirit of God already at work in the world in which the church finds itself immersed. Instead, the church is to discern the movement and action of this Spirit within the world itself. It is to hear the voice of God spoken through lips of ordinary men and women who yearn to live godly lives. It is to see the face of God in ordinary individuals, but most especially in the poor and the downtrodden. It is to live the life of Christ amidst the day to day experiences of the people of this age. Finally, it is to discover God where he disguises himself—veiled in the very trappings of frail humanity.

Today's solemnity is a celebration of the continuing work of this same Spirit, the Spirit that emboldened John XXIII and the men and women of that great council whose work we continue today. It is this same Spirit that Jesus Christ breathed on his disciples two thousand years ago and sent upon them on Pentecost, enlightening their minds and inflaming their hearts with zeal for the gospel.The flames ignited by that initial outpouring continue in the dynamism of the church, now in its third millenium. Today, my thoughts focus in a very special way, on the fire of the calling awakened by the Spirit in the life, work, and service of the theologian whose role is the pursuit of an ever deepening understanding of the Word of God found in Scriptures and handed on by the living Tradition of the Church. I have had the opportunity to meet some of these men and women who labor in this particular ministry in the church. As a student in Louvain, I was privileged to listen to the likes of Cardinals Avery Dulles, Walter Kasper, Leo Suenens, and several other eminent theologians, clergy and laity alike. 

Saint Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians speaks of the variety of gifts bestowed by the Spirit on the community of believers. It is a variety of gifts that manifests itself in many forms of ministry and service to the Body of Christ. The ministry and service of the theologian in particular is one that is done in loving communion, not only with the Magisterium which has been charged with the responsibility of preserving the deposit of faith, but with the entire community of believers whose life and struggles both theologian and Magisterium must embrace. 

For it is the task of those whose calling is to form and inform the hearts of men and women to draw from their life and struggle—as these are embedded in their culture and history—those elements which will allow for the better illumination of one or another dimension of the mysteries of faith. This is by no means an easy task. Rather it is arduous and fraught with risk, but it is legitimate in itself and hence must be encouraged, for as the good Pope John had so brilliantly seen, this endeavor to bind the mind, heart, and hands of God’s people, difficult as it may be at the outset, can only lead to a deepening of the loving communion which must define the life of the church as a community of faith.

It is from out of such loving communion that theological study and reflection arise. And it is from such loving communion as well that the theologian must draw his strength and nourishment in his pursuit of obedience to the impulse of truth and its clear articulation. Such obedience is the reason why a theologian must be attentive to the requirements of his discipline, to the demands of rigorous critical standards, and hence to a rational verification of each stage of his or her research.

Nevertheless, this obligation to be critical should not be identified with a critical spirit that is born of mere feeling or whim, or simple prejudice. This is why the theologian must discern in himself or herself the origin and motivation for his critical attitude and allow his gaze to be purified by the light of faith. This is also the reason why commitment to the scientific study of theology must go hand in hand with a spiritual effort to grow in virtue and holiness.

The theologian is therefore called to deepen his own life of faith and continuously unite his scientific research with prayer and a continuous openness to the promptings and directions of God’s Spirit. In this way, he will become more open to the supernatural sense of faith upon which he depends. And it will disclose itself to him as a sure guide for his reflections and a dependable aid in his assessment of the correctness of his conclusions.

For the theologian must never forget that he is a member of the Church, the People of God, and as such he must foster respect for them and be committed to offering them a teaching which, while challenging them at times to reconsider the expressions of their faith, does no harm to the sacredness and integrity of this faith. The theologian too, when approaching the faith of another, must take off his sandals, for the ground on which he treads is holy ground and God has been there, long before he has set his discerning gaze.

Hence, the freedom proper to theological research is always to be exercised within the domain of the Church’s faith and conscious at all times of this faith’s integrity. While the theologian therefore might often feel the urge to be daring in his work, he must remember that this will not bear fruit or “edify” unless it is coupled with that patience which allows for genuine maturation of insight to take place. New proposals for articulating the faith and making it more understandable to men and women of every age, while definitely encouraging as signs of growth and renewal, remain but an ‘offering’ made to the People of God.

Continuous broadening of perspectives, nuancing of concepts, and even modifications within the context of brotherly dialogue may be necessary prior to the moment when the whole Church can accept the fruits of theological research. In line with this, the freedom of research, which the academic community rightly holds and must therefore cherish as precious, must be regarded as signifying an openness to the acceptance of truth that emerges at the end of a rigorous and often painstaking investigation.

The task of theology is one of service to the faith; and the task of the theologian is one of loving and committed service to God’s faithful. The two paradigms do not merely go hand in hand; they are dynamically entwined. For ‘faith’ is not a mere abstraction, distinct and isolated from the ‘community of faith’, rather faith and its articulation find their ‘origin’ as well as their ‘point’ in the living, growing, maturing and journeying community. It is in this sense that we who receive the sacred task of ministering as theologians and teachers of the faith are truly, in the words of Pope John, “gardeners” and not merely “museum-keepers”. What is entrusted to us is the furthering, the extending, and the enkindling of the fire of God’s Spirit that swept the hearts, minds, and souls of the disciples on that glorious day, in that upper room, on the first Pentecost.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)