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At a recent meeting with Italian physicians, Pope Francis offered some words which, unlike many of his statements, will probably not be featured in many headlines. They are nonetheless an invaluable reminder that in our modern society, there is no greater gift and responsibility than life. This is the ultimate gift from God, granted to us but never ours to possess.
“The dominant thinking sometimes suggests a “false compassion”, that which believes that it is: helpful to women to promote abortion; an act of dignity to obtain euthanasia; a scientific breakthrough to “produce” a child and to consider it to be a right rather than a gift to welcome; or to use human lives as guinea pigs presumably to save others. Instead, the compassion of the Gospel is that which accompanies in times of need, that is, the compassion of the Good Samaritan, who “sees”, “has compassion”, approaches and provides concrete help (cf. Lk 10:33). Your mission as doctors puts you in daily contact with many forms of suffering. I encourage you to take them on as “Good Samaritans”, caring in a special way for the elderly, the infirm and the disabled. Fidelity to the Gospel of life and respect for life as a gift from God sometimes require choices that are courageous and go against the current, which in particular circumstances, may become points of conscientious objection. And this fidelity entails many social consequences. We are living in a time of experimentation with life. But a bad experiment. Making children rather than accepting them as a gift, as I said. Playing with life. Be careful, because this is a sin against the Creator: against God the Creator, who created things this way. When so many times in my life as a priest I have heard objections: “But tell me, why the Church is opposed to abortion, for example? Is it a religious problem?” No, no. It is not a religious problem. “Is it a philosophical problem?” No, it is not a philosophical problem. It’s a scientific problem, because there is a human life there, and it is not lawful to take out a human life to solve a problem. “But no, modern thought…” But, listen, in ancient thought and modern thought, the word “kill” means the same thing. The same evaluation applies to euthanasia: we all know that with so many old people, in this culture of waste, there is this hidden euthanasia. But there is also the other. And this is to say to God, “No, I will accomplish the end of life, as I will.” A sin against God the Creator! Think hard about this.
The Friday sessions, presided over by Cardinal Robles Ortega, of the Synod started normal enough, with a series of interventions by 23 Synod fathers.
Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, Major Archbishop of Kyiv-Halyc and head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, suggested that the effectiveness of homilies be made a topic for a future assembly of the Synod. Before him, Bishop Javier Echeverría Rodríguez of Opus Dei had also mentioned the need for this, and suggested that could be achieved by the homilist directing is word also to himself, to lead by example, so to speak.
Cardinal Ravasi spoke, among others, about the tensions between science and faith:
“The incompatibility between science and faith and the prevarications of one against the other and vice versa, as has occurred in the past and continues to occur, should be replaced by mutual recognition of the dignity of their respective epistemological statuses: science is dedicated to the “scene”, that is the phenomenon, while theology and philosophy look to the “foundation”. A distinction, but not of separateness to the point of reciprocal exclusion, since they have a single common object, that is, being and existence. It is therefore comprehensible that overlaps and tensions occur, especially in the field of bioethics.
Dialogue is therefore indispensable, without arrogance and without confusion linked to specific levels and approaches. As John Paul II indicated in 1988, “it is absolutely important that each discipline continues to enrich, nurture and provoke the other to be more fully what it should be and to contribute to our vision of what we are and where we are going”. The great scientist Max Planck, father of quantum theory, also confirmed this: “Every serious and reflective person realizes… there can never be any real opposition between religion and science; for the one is the complement of the other”.
Archbishop Józef Michalik, of Przemysl, Poland, reminded the Synod that we can’t lay the blame for the current crisis of faith merely with others:
“If the faith of today becomes ever weaker, we must not only blame others, but rather ourselves. If the message of faith is not interesting or attractive – this is perhaps the case because that same message is no longer interesting or attractive to us, because it does not excite us, because we do not preach Christ to our families or on the streets of our cities.”
In the afternoon, Pope Benedict XVI hosted the Synod fathers, together with Patriarch Bartholomaois I of Constantinople and Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, for a lunch in the Paul VI Hall. He followed the “lovely tradition initiated by Pope John Paul II to crown the Synod with a shared meal.” He likened the Synod experience to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Jesus “lit up their hearts and illuminated their minds” allowing them to recognise Him at supper.
“Thus in the Synod we are walking together with our contemporaries. We pray to the Lord that He may illuminate us, that He may light up our hearts so they may become prophetic, that He may illuminate our minds; and we pray that at supper, in the Eucharistic communion, we can really be open, see Him and thus also light up the world and give His light to this world of ours.”
The evening session, the Eighth General Congregation began later, as the Holy Father had already suggested during the lunch. First up was an intervention by Professor Werner Arber, professor of microbiology and President of the Pontifical Academy for Sciences. He gave a “Reflection on the relations between the sciences and religious faith”.
Following this, the members of the Commission for the Message were announced. Four of these, including the president, Cardinal Betori, and the Vice President, Archbishop Tagle, were appointed by the pope, while the remaining eight were elected by the Synod fathers. The members, tasked with composing the pastorl message related to the topic of the Synod, are:
Giuseppe Cardinal Betori, Archbishop of Florence, Italy
Archbishop Luis Tagle, Archbishop of Manila, Philippines
Polycarp Cardinal Pengo, Archbishop of Dar-Es-Salaam, Tanzania
Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, Austria
Gianfranco Cardinal Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture
George Cardinal Alencherry, Major Archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly of the Syro-Malabars, India
Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York, United States
Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard, Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, Belgium
Archbishop John Atcherley Dew, Archbishop of Wellington, New Zealand
Archbishop Sérgio Da Rocha, Archbishop of Brasilia, Brazil
Archbishop Socrates Villegas, Archbishop of Lingayen-Dagupan
Father Adolfo Nicolás Pachón, Superior General of the Society of Jesus
Photo credit:  Bishop Gerald Kicanas
And once more the number 120 takes a step closer. Swiss Cardinal Henri Schwery turns 80 today and so makes the number of cardinal electors drop to 121.
Born as the last of eleven children in a small village near the city of Sion in Switzerland, Henri Schwery was proficient student, studying at seminaries in Sion and Rome. After his ordination in 1957, Father Schwery studied mathematics and physics at Fribourg, and then went to work as a teacher and chaplain to both the Catholic Action of Young students and the children’s choir of Our Lady of Sion. He was also a military chaplain.
Father Schwery become the director of the major seminary of Sion in 1968, a function he would hold until 1972, after which he was rector of the College in Sion until 1977. In that year, on 22 July, Father Schwery was appointed as bishop of Sion, one of Switzerland’s oldest dioceses. Bishop Schwery was consecrated on 17 September 1977. In 1978 he became a member of the Congregation for Catholic Education. He was active in the fields of evangelisation and vocation, and took his previous experience as chaplain of various institutions and groups to further their religious identity throughout Europe.
Created a cardinal in the consistory of 28 June 1991, Cardinal Schwery holds the title church of Santi Protomartiri a Via Aurelia Antica. In April of 1995 he resigned as Bishop of Sion, and today he also takes leave from his remaining duties as a member of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints.
A new month, and new stats. March has again been good for the blog, although it got of to a slow start. And that’s equally due to few news item as my own output. All in all we saw 7,757 visits, slightly fewer than in February. But, then again, we had no consistory this time around. But there were a few big news items, and the top 10 has a distinct Lenten flavour.
1: Seventh Station: Jesus Falls for the Second Time 268
2: The Stations of the Cross 149
3: Coptic ‘Papa Abba’ Shenouda III passes away 71
4: Another horrible page 65
5: Giving no quarter: Cardinal Eijk on the offensive 56
6: Adoro te devote, two versions and a translation 53
7: Het probleem Medjugorje 50
8: The great artificial conflict – science versus faith 45
9: Happy feast day of Saint Joseph! 44
10: Stability – Cardinal Martini on same-sex relationships 42
Yesterday I was able to attend the showing of a movie about the story of the creation as we find in it in chapter 1 of Genesis. With a voice over reading the various verses from that story, we were treated to all kinds of footage illustrating what we heard. Some lovely scenes of nature and the world wrapped in about an hour. Perhaps it dragged a bit here and there, but in the end there was little to complain about. But there was also nothing remarkable either – we see much the same footage daily on Discovery Channel, for example, albeit without the Biblical narration.
Before the showing of the movie, titled ‘De Schepping – de aarde is getuige’ (Creation – the world is a witness), we were treated to a taped presentation in German by South African Professor Walter Veith. Professor Veith – a highly dubious person, as a quick Google search reveals – spoke about how faith and evolution were in conflict, how anyone who professed faith in God had no business taking the theory of evolution seriously. His was a rather rambling talk without much focus, and therefore hard to follow, but the gist of it was what I outlined above. Professor Veith showed a rather dubious grasp of such sciences as genetics and biology (something my girlfriend, who happens to be a biologist, confirmed) and most significantly failed to communicate what the theory of evolution is actually about. For someone who claims to be a scientist, these are serious mistakes. His unspoken but very clear argument that all evolutionist are basically clones of Richard Dawkins didn’t help either.
Sadly, his words were lapped up by the 1,400 spectators. Not barred by much scientific knowledge, as some overheard conversations revealed, many happily denounced anything approaching science in favour of a faith in something that I would like to call a magician God.
The creationist agenda, which was obviously heavily pushed last night, creates, if you’ll pardon a pun, a conflict where none exists. It treats science as the great enemy, which is out to establish a world without God or any religious faith. The theory of evolution, which obviously plays a major part in this argument, is presented as a life philosophy, a faith if you will. Evolution, creationists say, is out to destroy the world that God created, since it has no focus on an ultimate destination. This, Professor Veith says, is because Charles Darwin had an unhealthy focus on death. That is obviously hogwash as any reading of Darwin’s letters and books will show. The fact that he struggled to understand the existence of the death and decay he saw on his travels in the light of loving and benevolent God is not the same as being obsessed with death. Darwin’s writings instead show a man with a keen interest in the natural world and a desire of understanding it, coupled with a great admiration of its workings.
Like other scientific theories, whether they be well-established or only recently formulated, the theory of evolution describes processes and visible phenomena. Over the course of more than 150 years, it has come up with a very good description of how and why organisms develop the way they do. The survival of the fittest and adaptation to the environment are key elements in that, and later the science of genetics played a major part in that. The fact that creatures change and different genes work at different times in an organism’s life is obviously not in conflict with those organisms being the result of a creative action by God.
The Bible tells us two different creation stories, but none of these are to be taken as literal accounts.We can’t take both literally, not least because they contradict each other. What we can take from the stories in Genesis is the knowledge that God created this earth and all the organisms in it, that each being has its place in it, that man has a special role of responsibility for creation, and that we are created in God’s likeness. Genesis does not tell us exactly how God did all this and how much time He took. The seven days mentioned must be read within the strong numerological tradition of the Jewish author(s), where the number seven indicates the special truth and completeness of the statements made.
Faith and science are not in conflict as truth and truth are not in conflict. Science lets us understand the world that we live in and, through the theory of evolution and the sciences of geology and paleontology we can find out much about the processes of the past, in organisms and the planet, that led to the world we see around us today. This, for me at least, is not in conflict with a Creator God who has a purpose with this world. To pretend otherwise is irresponsible.
For some there’s a minefield where faith meets science, but in reality that minefield is largely imaginary. Pope Benedict XVI proved as much when he spoke at an international Conference on adult stem cell research. Rapidly becoming a theme in his pontificate, the Holy Father once again presents ethics, justice and properly formed conscience as the foundations of all human effort. The address, given this past weekend in Rome, also offers an introduction to the two pillars of “the integral good of the human person and the common good of society.” It’s a good read for anyone interested in the dynamic between faith and science.
Read my translation here.
Photo credit: AP Photo/Osservatore Romano
After a state visit which was also a pastoral visit and an opportunity to address issues in both Church and state, during which protesters – once again – failed to leave much of an actual impression (despite media efforts to place them firmly center stage) and politicians who stayed away out of protest made a right fool of themselves, it’s perhaps best to focus on what the pope came to say. The texts of the various addresses and homilies are online, and I have paid attention to a mere two of these.
Here is my selection of the most interesting and important passages from the texts, all according to me, of course. It’s by no means complete, and I recommend reading the full texts to get a sense of context and further development of the points touched upon.
On being part of the Church
“I would say it is important to know that being in the Church is not like being in some association, but it is being in the net of the Lord, with which he draws good fish and bad fish from the waters of death to the land of life. It is possible that I might be alongside bad fish in this net and I sense this, but it remains true that I am in it neither for the former nor for the latter but because it is the Lord’s net; it is something different from all human associations, a reality that touches the very heart of my being.” [Interview during the flight to Berlin, 22 September]
The link between freedom and religion
“Freedom requires a primordial link to a higher instance. The fact that there are values which are not absolutely open to manipulation is the true guarantee of our freedom. The man who feels a duty to truth and goodness will immediately agree with this: freedom develops only in responsibility to a greater good. Such a good exists only for all of us together; therefore I must always be concerned for my neighbours. Freedom cannot be lived in the absence of relationships.” [Welcome ceremony in Berlin, 22 September]
The pope’s responsibility
“[T]he invitation to give this address was extended to me as Pope, as the Bishop of Rome, who bears the highest responsibility for Catholic Christianity.” (Address to the Bundestag, 22 September]
On what should ultimately matter for a politician
“His fundamental criterion and the motivation for his work as a politician must not be success, and certainly not material gain. Politics must be a striving for justice, and hence it has to establish the fundamental preconditions for peace. Naturally a politician will seek success, without which he would have no opportunity for effective political action at all. Yet success is subordinated to the criterion of justice, to the will to do what is right, and to the understanding of what is right. Success can also be seductive and thus can open up the path towards the falsification of what is right, towards the destruction of justice. “Without justice – what else is the State but a great band of robbers?”, as Saint Augustine once said.” [idem]
The limitations of the majority vote
“For most of the matters that need to be regulated by law, the support of the majority can serve as a sufficient criterion. Yet it is evident that for the fundamental issues of law, in which the dignity of man and of humanity is at stake, the majority principle is not enough: everyone in a position of responsibility must personally seek out the criteria to be followed when framing laws.” [idem]
The limitations and dangers of positivism
“A positivist conception of nature as purely functional, as the natural sciences consider it to be, is incapable of producing any bridge to ethics and law, but once again yields only functional answers. The same also applies to reason, according to the positivist understanding that is widely held to be the only genuinely scientific one. Anything that is not verifiable or falsifiable, according to this understanding, does not belong to the realm of reason strictly understood. Hence ethics and religion must be assigned to the subjective field, and they remain extraneous to the realm of reason in the strict sense of the word. Where positivist reason dominates the field to the exclusion of all else – and that is broadly the case in our public mindset – then the classical sources of knowledge for ethics and law are excluded.
“In its self-proclaimed exclusivity, the positivist reason which recognizes nothing beyond mere functionality resembles a concrete bunker with no windows, in which we ourselves provide lighting and atmospheric conditions, being no longer willing to obtain either from God’s wide world. And yet we cannot hide from ourselves the fact that even in this artificial world, we are still covertly drawing upon God’s raw materials, which we refashion into our own products. The windows must be flung open again, we must see the wide world, the sky and the earth once more and learn to make proper use of all this.”[idem]
A strong condemnation of Nazism
“The Nazi reign of terror was based on a racist myth, part of which was the rejection of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Jesus Christ and of all who believe in him. The supposedly “almighty” Adolf Hitler was a pagan idol, who wanted to take the place of the biblical God, the Creator and Father of all men. Refusal to heed this one God always makes people heedless of human dignity as well. What man is capable of when he rejects God, and what the face of a people can look like when it denies this God, the terrible images from the concentration camps at the end of the war showed.” [Meeting with Jewish community representatives, 22 September]
The relationship between Judaism and Christianity
“For Christians, there can be no rupture in salvation history. Salvation comes from the Jews (cf. Jn 4:22). When Jesus’ conflict with the Judaism of his time is superficially interpreted as a breach with the Old Covenant, it tends to be reduced to the idea of a liberation that mistakenly views the Torah merely as a slavish enactment of rituals and outward observances. Yet in actual fact, the Sermon on the Mount does not abolish the Mosaic Law, but reveals its hidden possibilities and allows more radical demands to emerge. It points us towards the deepest source of human action, the heart, where choices are made between what is pure and what is impure, where faith, hope and love blossom forth.” [idem]
Jersus’ identification with the oppressed Church
“On the road to Damascus, Christ himself asked Saul, the persecutor of the Church: “Why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). With these words the Lord expresses the common destiny that arises from his Church’s inner communion of life with himself, the risen one. He continues to live in his Church in this world. He is present among us, and we with him. “Why do you persecute me?” It is ultimately at Jesus that persecution of his Church is directed. At the same time, this means that when we are oppressed for the sake of our faith, we are not alone: Jesus Christ is beside us and with us.” [Homily during Mass at the Olympic Stadium, 22 September]
Christ takes our suffering on His shoulders
“Christ himself came into this world through his incarnation, to be our root. Whatever hardship or drought befall us, he is the source that offers us the water of life, that feeds and strengthens us. He takes upon himself all our sins, anxieties and sufferings and he purifies and transforms us, in a way that is ultimately mysterious, into good branches that produce good wine. In such times of hardship we can sometimes feel as if we ourselves were in the wine-press, like grapes being utterly crushed. But we know that if we are joined to Christ we become mature wine. God can transform into love even the burdensome and oppressive aspects of our lives. It is important that we “abide” in Christ, in the vine.” [idem]
God’s most beautiful gift
“The Church, as the herald of God’s word and dispenser of the sacraments, joins us to Christ, the true vine. The Church as “fullness and completion of the Redeemer”, as Pius XII expressed it (Pius XII, Mystici Corporis, AAS 35  p. 230: “plenitudo et complementum Redemptoris”), is to us a pledge of divine life and mediator of those fruits of which the parable of the vine speaks. Thus the Church is God’s most beautiful gift.” [idem]
Evil is no trivial matter
“[I]nsofar as people believe in an afterlife and a divine judgement at all, nearly everyone presumes for all practical purposes that God is bound to be magnanimous and that ultimately he mercifully overlooks our small failings. The question no longer troubles us. But are they really so small, our failings? Is not the world laid waste through the corruption of the great, but also of the small, who think only of their own advantage? Is it not laid waste through the power of drugs, which thrives on the one hand on greed and avarice, and on the other hand on the craving for pleasure of those who become addicted? Is the world not threatened by the growing readiness to use violence, frequently masking itself with claims to religious motivation? Could hunger and poverty so devastate parts of the world if love for God and godly love of neighbour – of his creatures, of men and women – were more alive in us? I could go on. No, evil is no small matter.” [Meeting with the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, 23 September]
The development of a shallow Christianity
“Faced with a new form of Christianity, which is spreading with overpowering missionary dynamism, sometimes in frightening ways, the mainstream Christian denominations often seem at a loss. This is a form of Christianity with little institutional depth, little rationality and even less dogmatic content, and with little stability. This worldwide phenomenon – that bishops from all over the world are constantly telling me about – poses a question to us all: what is this new form of Christianity saying to us, for better and for worse? In any event, it raises afresh the question about what has enduring validity and what can or must be changed – the question of our fundamental faith choice.” [idem]
In the face of secularisation
“Naturally faith today has to be thought out afresh, and above all lived afresh, so that it is suited to the present day. Yet it is not by watering the faith down, but by living it today in its fullness that we achieve this. This is a key ecumenical task in which we have to help one another: developing a deeper and livelier faith. It is not strategy that saves us and saves Christianity, but faith – thought out and lived afresh; through such faith, Christ enters this world of ours, and with him, the living God.” [idem]
The fundamental unity of Christians
“Our fundamental unity comes from the fact that we believe in God, the Father Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth. And that we confess that he is the triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The highest unity is not the solitude of a nomad, but rather a unity born of love. We believe in God – the real God. We believe that God spoke to us and became one of us. To bear witness to this living God is our common task at the present time.” [Address during the ecumenical prayer service, 23 September]
Man’s need of God
“Does man need God, or can we do quite well without him? When, in the first phase of God’s absence, his light continues to illumine and sustain the order of human existence, it appears that things can also function quite well without God. But the more the world withdraws from God, the clearer it becomes that man, in his hubris of power, in his emptiness of heart and in his longing for satisfaction and happiness, increasingly loses his life. A thirst for the infinite is indelibly present in human beings. Man was created to have a relationship with God; we need him.” [idem]
Why faith is not subject to negotiations
“A self-made faith is worthless. Faith is not something we work out intellectually and negotiate between us.” [idem]
Mary, our mother
“When Christians of all times and places turn to Mary, they are acting on the spontaneous conviction that Jesus cannot refuse his mother what she asks; and they are relying on the unshakable trust that Mary is also our mother – a mother who has experienced the greatest of all sorrows, who feels all our griefs with us and ponders in a maternal way how to overcome them.” [Marian Vespers, 23 September]
Mary as a channel of grace
“Looking down from the Cross, from the throne of grace and salvation, Jesus gave us his mother Mary to be our mother. At the moment of his self-offering for mankind, he makes Mary as it were the channel of the rivers of grace that flow from the Cross. At the foot of the Cross, Mary becomes our fellow traveller and protector on life’s journey. “By her motherly love she cares for her son’s sisters and brothers who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and difficulties, until they are led into their blessed home,” as the Second Vatican Council expressed it (Lumen Gentium, 62). Yes indeed, in life we pass through high-points and low-points, but Mary intercedes for us with her Son and helps us to discover the power of his divine love, and to open ourselves to that love.” [idem]
The quality of the saints
“Still today Christ comes towards us, he speaks to every individual, just as he did in the Gospel, and invites every one of us to listen to him, to come to understand him and to follow him. This summons and this opportunity the saints acted on, they recognized the living God, they saw him, they listened to him and they went towards him, they travelled with him; they so to speak “caught” his contagious presence, they reached out to him in the ongoing dialogue of prayer, and in return they received from him the light that shows where true life is to be found.” [Homily during Mass in Erfurt, 24 September]
“Faith always includes as an essential element the fact that it is shared with others. No one can believe alone. We receive the faith – as Saint Paul tells us – through hearing, and hearing is part of being together, in spirit and in body. Only within this great assembly of believers of all times, who found Christ and were found by him, am I able to believe. In the first place I have God to thank for the fact that I can believe, for God approaches me and so to speak “ignites” my faith. But on a practical level, I have my fellow human beings to thank for my faith, those who believed before me and who believe with me. This great “with”, apart from which there can be no personal faith, is the Church. And this Church does not stop at national borders.” [idem]
The hope of union with our closest brothers
“[A]mong Christian Churches and communities, it is undoubtedly the Orthodox who are theologically closest to us; Catholics and Orthodox have maintained the same basic structure inherited from the ancient Church; in this sense we are all the early Church that is still present and new. And so we dare to hope, even if humanly speaking constantly new difficulties arise, that the day may still be not too far away when we may once again celebrate the Eucharist together (cf. Light of the World. A Conversation with Peter Seewald, p. 86).” [Meeting with representatives of Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Church, 24 September]
What the seminary is for
“As Saint Bonaventure once said: the angels, wherever they go, however far away, always move within the inner being of God. This is also the case here: as priests we must go out onto the many different streets, where we find people whom we should invite to his wedding feast. But we can only do this if in the process we always remain with him. And learning this: this combination of, on the one hand, going out on mission, and on the other hand being with him, remaining with him, is – I believe – precisely what we have to learn in the seminary.” [Meeting with seminarians, 24 September]
Learning about the present from the past
“In exegesis we learn much about the past: what happened, what sources there are, what communities there were, and so on. This is also important. But more important still is that from the past we should learn about the present, we should learn that he is speaking these words now, and that they all carry their present within them, and that over and above the historical circumstances in which they arose, they contain a fullness which speaks to all times. And it is important to learn this present-day aspect of his word – to learn to listen out for it – and thus to be able to speak of it to others.” [idem]
“Faith comes from hearing”
I sometimes say that Saint Paul wrote: “Faith comes from hearing” – not from reading. It needs reading as well, but it comes from hearing, that is to say from the living word, addressed to me by the other, whom I can hear, addressed to me by the Church throughout the ages, from her contemporary word, spoken to me the priests, bishops and my fellow believers. Faith must include a “you” and it must include a “we”. [idem]
Faith in a scientific world
“Our world today is a rationalist and thoroughly scientific world, albeit often somewhat pseudo-scientific. But this scientific spirit, this spirit of understanding, explaining, know-how, rejection of the irrational, is dominant in our time. There is a good side to this, even if it often conceals much arrogance and nonsense. The faith is not a parallel world of feelings that we can still afford to hold on to, rather it is the key that encompasses everything, gives it meaning, interprets it and also provides its inner ethical orientation: making clear that it is to be understood and lived as tending towards God and proceeding from God.” [idem]
The light of Christ
“While all around us there may be darkness and gloom, yet we see a light: a small, tiny flame that is stronger than the seemingly powerful and invincible darkness. Christ, risen from the dead, shines in this world and he does so most brightly in those places where, in human terms, everything is sombre and hopeless. He has conquered death – he is alive – and faith in him, like a small light, cuts through all that is dark and threatening. To be sure, those who believe in Jesus do not lead lives of perpetual sunshine, as though they could be spared suffering and hardship, but there is always a bright glimmer there, lighting up the path that leads to fullness of life (cf. Jn 10:10). The eyes of those who believe in Christ see light even amid the darkest night and they already see the dawning of a new day.” [Vigil with young people, 24 September]
“Dear friends, Christ is not so much interested in how often in our lives we stumble and fall, as in how often with his help we pick ourselves up again. He does not demand glittering achievements, but he wants his light to shine in you. He does not call you because you are good and perfect, but because he is good and he wants to make you his friends. Yes, you are the light of the world because Jesus is your light. You are Christians – not because you do special and extraordinary things, but because he, Christ, is your life, our life. You are holy, we are holy, if we allow his grace to work in us.” [idem]
Power and freedom
“There are theologians who, in the face of all the terrible things that happen in the world today, say that God cannot possibly be all-powerful. In response to this we profess God, the all-powerful Creator of heaven and earth. And we are glad and thankful that God is all-powerful. At the same time, we have to be aware that he exercises his power differently from the way we normally do. He has placed a limit on his power, by recognizing the freedom of his creatures. We are glad and thankful for the gift of freedom. However, when we see the terrible things that happen as a result of it, we are frightened. Let us put our trust in God, whose power manifests itself above all in mercy and forgiveness. Let us be certain, dear faithful, that God desires the salvation of his people. He desires our salvation, my salvation, the salvation of every single person. He is always close to us, especially in times of danger and radical change, and his heart aches for us, he reaches out to us. We need to open ourselves to him so that the power of his mercy can touch our hearts. We have to be ready freely to abandon evil, to raise ourselves from indifference and make room for his word. God respects our freedom. He does not constrain us. He is waiting for us to say “yes”, he as it were begs us to say “yes”.” [Homily during the Mass in Freiburg, 25 September]
Our personal relationship with God
“So let us ask ourselves, in the light of today’s Gospel, how is my personal relationship with God: in prayer, in participation at Sunday Mass, in exploring my faith through meditation on sacred Scripture and study of the Catechism of the Catholic Church? Dear friends, in the last analysis, the renewal of the Church will only come about through openness to conversion and through renewed faith.” [idem]
The exchange between God and man
“The Fathers explain it in this way: we have nothing to give God, we have only our sin to place before him. And this he receives and makes his own, while in return he gives us himself and his glory: a truly unequal exchange, which is brought to completion in the life and passion of Christ. He becomes, as it were, a “sinner”, he takes sin upon himself, takes what is ours and gives us what is his. But as the Church continued to reflect upon and live the faith, it became clear that we not only give him our sin, but that he has empowered us, from deep within he gives us the power, to offer him something positive as well: our love – to offer him humanity in the positive sense. Clearly, it is only through God’s generosity that man, the beggar, who receives a wealth of divine gifts, is yet able to offer something to God as well; that God makes it possible for us to accept his gift, by making us capable of becoming givers ourselves in his regard.” [Meeting with active Catholics, 25 September]
Detaching the Church from the world
“[I]t is time once again to discover the right form of detachment from the world, to move resolutely away from the Church’s worldliness. This does not, of course, mean withdrawing from the world: quite the contrary. A Church relieved of the burden of worldliness is in a position, not least through her charitable activities, to mediate the life-giving strength of the Christian faith to those in need, to sufferers and to their carers.” [idem]
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The rumours of Bishop Léonard of Namur succeeding Cardinal Danneels have become more certain today. The VRT reports that the Belgian bishops were informed yesterday, but the Archdiocese immediately stated that no news would be forthcoming until Monday. The media however, speculate heartily about the pros and cons of an Archbishop Léonard, but it is perhaps much more interesting to see who this man is.
In 2006, news outlet Knack interviewed Bishop Léonard. It is pretty thorough and portrays Msgr. Léonard as an eloquent, educated and orthodox man.
“The Belgian Church has been too passive”
“We all live off the faith,” he says. “There are few things we can control ourselves. For example, I believe that my car works . I put my faith in the people who designed and built my car. And that faith is justified. Likewise I can have good reasons to believe in other people, in people who are believable.”
He smiles. “If I wanted to get to know you, I can collect all kinds of information about your person. I can talk with people who know you personally. But I’ll get the most reliable information when you sit across from me, when you reveal yourself to me. If you’re believable I will accept that revelation in faith. That is also how my faith in God works. I put my trust in the word of God who revealed himself to us.”
André-Mutien Léonard is not only tipped as successor to Cardinal Danneels, but also portrayed as his complete opposite. The conservative bishop of Namur caused a stir recently because he questioned scientific research into embryonic stem cells. In his position on euthanasia or homosexuality he point-blank follows the strict teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
But let’s start at the beginning. At the foundation of his concept of man. “You must excuse me if I sometimes formulate things a bit philosophically,” he begins. “I have taught philosophy for more than 20 years, first in Louvain, later in Louvain-la-Neuve. I prefer to answer thoroughly. What is your first question?”
ANDRÉ-MUTIEN LÉONARD: The great Greek philosopher Aristotle already said that man is an animal in possession of logos, reason. Of course, as humans, we are also conditioned by our bodies, by our connection to physical nature. But yet we are also capable of distancing ourselves from that nature, from that environment. That is characteristic of man. He is, to use the famous words of Blaise Pascal, a thinking reed. In a way man is insignificant compared to the immensity of the universe. But if the universe would squash man tomorrow, it would not be aware of that, but man will.
Other animals also have a form of consciousness.
LÉONARD: Of course. Animals also respond in an adapted manner to their surrounding, but they are not aware of the deeper meaning of those responses. They also do not develop strategies to fundamentally change their environment. That is why animals have no history, no culture. A modern cat leads roughly the same life as a cat in ancient Egypt. Only man has the capacity to change his environment. Animals respond to what is, man can also consider that which is not. And so he has the pretense to say: things are not as they should be. And so man is an animal that creates values and norms. Animals do not do that.
It didn’t make us really happy, did it?
LÉONARD: (laughs) Exactly, that is precisely it. I used to give this example to my students: give a cat a tomcat, some kittens, a ball of wool, some milk and a basket to sleep in. I don’t think that a cat in those circumstances would long for a different world. That is totally different for humans. Give someone as much money and fun as he can handle and he still won’t be happy. That is because man is not just attuned to those who are, to paraphrase Heidegger, but also on Being itself. Man transcends this world.
What do you mean with ‘transcend’?
LÉONARD: Let me give you an example. When I ask a student to prove that the sum of the three angles of an euclidean triangle is 180 degrees, he will make a few diagrams. Everything that happens there, happens in accordance with the laws of nature. Neurological reactions in the student’s brain, chemical reaction, and so on. But at the same time something more happens. Namely the thoughts, the reflection of that student. We can’t reduce that to exclusively chemical, biological and physical reactions.
Not reduce, but explain by.
LÉONARD: Partially, but not completely. The operation of my brain cells is not enough to explain why I can think, desire and love… There is something else at work in the development of our human capacities.
You mean God?
LÉONARD: (laughs) It is interesting that you now suddenly mention God, and not I. I don’t like it when people want to introduce God prematurely into science of philosophy. Everything in its place. The question of God comes later. I just want to emphasise the fact that our thinking can not be reduced to the infrastructure of thought. By the way, there is something else which should be mentioned in this context. Why is the sum of the three angles of an euclidean triangle 180 degrees? Not because of the chemical reactions on the student’s brain, is it? Not because he has proven it is so? No, it is true because it is an eternal truth. Mathematical truths can also not be reduced to the structure of our thoughts.
Then who or what is God for you?
LÉONARD: (bracing himself) The first important question is: where does the information come from that precedes us and that works in the world? We know by now that matter is able to organise itself. But some information must be available before that. Elemental particles already contain some information. Where does that come from?
LÉONARD: But everyone wonders. There are two possible answers. Either matter has no beginning and is therefore eternal. But there is a problem with that. In our experience information is always preceded by thought. Information can never exist by itself. But it is clear that humans are not at the source of information. That is why there is a second possibility: at the origin of matter is a thought, a desire. Not ours, but a different thought, a different desire. Namely, Gods.
How do you picture that God?
LÉONARD: It is a personal God. If I were to believe in an impersonal God, God would be a sort of anonymous energy without consciousness. While I do have that. But I can certainly not be greater than God. So I picture God als someone who is also able to think and want. Another way to consider God is through Liebniz’s question: why is there something and not nothing? Why does something exist? That is also a way to God. Not just to God as the architect of those who are, but as creater of Being.
How do you see man? Optimistic or pessimistic?
LÉONARD: Both. It is typically Catholic to have a rather optimistic concept of humanity. As opposed to Luther, for example. He was convinced that human nature is thoroughly rotten. The Catholic Church has a more humanist vision. We’ll never say that man is totally rotten, but we will claim that human nature is damaged. That is what we mean by original sin. We have a deep desire for good, but also have the urge to act selfishly.
Did God want that?
LÉONARD: No, this world is not necessarily in accordance with the wishes of the creator. In the Christian faith we have an historical approach to reality. There is an original situation before man, so before sin. There is the current situation. And there are the new heaven and the new earth, which have already been announced by the resurrection of Christ.
Is it our duty to fulfill this world? Or will God do that?
LÉONARD: It is our responsibility to improve the current state of the world, knowing that we will never make it into a paradise. We can improve a lot, but we can also destroy much – but the final change will come from above. Everything we do to improve the world is like a foretaste of what is to come. Just like the miracles of Jesus in the gospel: those were also not definitive solutions. All the people that Jesus healed, fell ill again later. And the people he brought back to life, did not stay alive forever.
So Lazarus died twice.
LÉONARD: And they had to pay for his funeral twice. (laughs) Those miracles of Jesus were no definitive solutions. But they were signs, a promise, a prophecy. The message is that humanity is not created to suffer and to die.
What do you say then to people who suffer and lose their faith because of that?
LÉONARD: That I understand them. I detest it when I hear that people in the Church tone down the unacceptable character of evil. We can never say that evil is not so bad, as certain theologians do. That God created the world out of a certain didactic concern, to teach us how to fulfill this world. I don’t believe that. But a God who reasons like that would be a sadistic God. Of course fighting the troubles of life is a way to grow. But suffering can never be explained by that. I’d rather become an atheist myself.
What is your explanation of evil then? That God wanted it?
LÉONARD: No, certainly not! If I may use a philosphical term, I’d call evil contingent – something that exists, but does not necessarily have to exist. It exists, but could just as easily not have existed at all. That is why I think it is so important that we keep interpreting the original sin as a spoiling of the world, not as a required element of it.
Where does that spoiling come from?
LÉONARD: It is made possible because of the freedom of creatures. I find it normal that we were not created as creatures who perceive God’s majesty from the very start. There would not have been any room for free choice. And it is part of the dignity of man that he can choose his first steps of his existence himself. With all their conseuqences, because it also means that man can place himself above his creator. The origin of evil lies in the freedom of man.
Good comes from God, evil from what we do ourselves?
LÉONARD: Yes, that is our reasoning. The modern world, in which evil is so prominently present, is not part of the original intention of the creator. God is not content with the current situation. God has no sympathy for evil.
Why doesn’t he intervene?
LÉONARD: (sighs) That is the hardest question there is. And it is difficult to answer in words. Someone suffering does not want to hear an intellectual explanation. You could say that their decline and death are in accordance to the laws of nature. And that’s good, because life would be horrible if we lived eternally, biologically speaking. Imagine if we lived forever, who would want to be in charge of pensions? (laughs) Who would dare to promise to be faithful to his partner? A hundred years? Five hundred years? A thousand years? Admit it, it would be unbearable.
Death makes life bearable?
LÉONARD: It does. (Suddenly serious) But that message will not comfort a mother who has lost her child. That is impossible. A possible answer can be found in the death of Christ on the cross and his exclamation of “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (silent) I find that extraordinary. It is more than an answer. Right now, as we are talking here, there are people who ask: where is God? Well, Jesus died with that question on his lips.
Is there an answer yet?
LÉONARD: There is no immediate answer, no. But the fact that Jesus asked that question means that God is solidary with what we go through and experience here on earth. Therefore we are not alone in our misery. That is still not a satisfactory explanation, but it is something. God does not agree with evil. And it will end. The current world is not the pinnacle of God’s creation.
Don’t you ever doubt your faith?
LÉONARD: Not doubt, no. I do ask myself questions, yes. That’s very normal. I sometimes wonder if I didn’t base my entire life on an illusion. (silence) But a few seconds later I have both feet on the ground again: the figure of Christ in the gospel is so convincing that I give him back my faith immediately.
You have three brothers, who all became priests as well. What did your parents add to the food, if I may be so bold?
LÉONARD: (amused) That is rather unusual, I know. And that’s good, or our birth rate would never rise again. You know, I never knew my father. I was born on 6 May 1940 and baptised on 10 May, the day the war started. My father died on 16 May. He was mobilised to work on telephone connections and was killed during one of the first bombings. In his diary I later read that he used to dream of becoming a priest as a boy. But he couldn’t because he didn’t take humanities in school. My mother was a simple and devout woman, like most women in those days. We prayed at home, but not excessively much or anything. But when I was five I already knew for certain that I wanted to be a priest.
Why such a young vocation?
LÉONARD: I don’t know. I felt it. I thought the liturgy was beautiful, even though I didn’t understand it. I liked the prayer. Of course I didn’t know what it meant to be a priest, but I wanted to be with the Lord. At my first Communion, in 1946, I told Jesus: I want to be a priest. But my mother was unaware. When I was seven my first brother left for seminary. Two or three years later my second brother followed, and later my third brother did. And when I was eighteen, I told my mother I would also go to seminary.
Didn’t your mother tell you to choose a different profession?
LÉONARD: (laughs) No. She didn’t encourage us, but wasn’t opposed to it either. When I told her she only said that she already know I would become a priest as well.
How do you think the Church should get more vocations?
LÉONARD: When the Church no longer believes in it herself, when she given the impression that priest are no longer really necessary… well, no one is going to want to be a priest anymore. That is why it’s so interesting to be a little conservative. By that I mean: wanting to keep the things that are truly of great value.
What is your first question to a candidate priest?
LÉONARD: I must verify if that person wants to be a priest to serve the Lord and the Church and the people. Not because he has nowhere else to go. I must also verify if he is balanced, if his vocation is not a dream or an illusion.
Must you also ask if he is homosexual?
LÉONARD: That is indeed an important point. It is very meaningful for a priest that he is a man. Why don’t we ordain women? Not because they’re not capable. On the contrary. But a priest is someone who acts in the person of Christ. And theologically speaking, Christ is the bridegroom of the Church. Who does the Church symbolise? A woman: Mary. And who represent Christ as the bridegroom of the Church? Men. (shows his ring) That is why the bishop is a man and wears a ring. The ring symbolises that I must love my diocese and my people as a man loves his wife.
Why not like a man loves his husband?
LÉONARD: Since a priest must be a man, he must also be at peace with his manhood.
Homosexuals are, aren’t they?
LÉONARD: The fact that we are men and women is very meaningful. Sexuality comes from Latin: secare, to cut. Sexuality has to do with the difference between man and woman. If someone has evolved that he feels no normal attraction to the other sex, than something is wrong.
There isn’t. Homosexuality is perfectly natural.
LÉONARD: But the difference between man and woman is part of our essence. Not just our biological essence, but also our philosophical essence. Living according to our man- or womanhood is to me different than living according to only our biological nature.
Do you understand that a lot of people think the Catholic position on homosexuality is unacceptable?
LÉONARD: If you think that my position is connected to the Catholic faith, you should read Freud on homosexuality.
Freud was scientifically inconsequential.
LÉONARD: (sighs) It is an interesting problem, but I don’t think we can resolve it in a few minutes. You know my answer. By the way, my position on homosexuality is connected to a great respect for homosexuals. We may never confuse a judegment of homosexuality with a judgement of the homosexuals.
Another controversial topic is the research into embryonic stem cells. Aren’t you a member of the board of the Université Catholique de Louvain and yet you had requested a report on scientific research at that university.
LÉONARD: People want to turn that into a sort of Watergate now. But what is really going on? A friend proposed to make an inventory of the research involving embryos at the UCL. Based on public data. It has nothing to do with espionage and secrecy. And it was certainly not my intention to send everything on to Rome. They are very well aware of what happens here, by the way.
It is said you wanted to make a good impression in Rome, because you want to succeed Cardinal Danneels in 2008.
LÉONARD: (laughs) I can’t forbid anyone from thinking or writing that. But is not correct. I am not concerned with the succession of Cardinal Danneels. I don’t control it, so it’s not my problem.
What is the problem of embryonic research?
LÉONARD: Us having the pleasure of talking with each other here, is due to the fact that were respected in the past, as embryos. Across the world, there are milions of embryos confined to an absurd fate, being stuck in freezers. They remain frozen, or are destroyed, or are used for scientific research. That is all unacceptable.
Do you consider embryos full-fledged human life?
LÉONARD: Of course. There is no discontinuity bertween the embryo and the person who is born. And the embryo is the most vulnerable creature on earth. We’ve all been embryos, in our mother’s womb. No, such research is not acceptable to me. And there are scientific alternatives, such as adult stem cells.
Do you think that the Belgian Church has been too quiet in the last years on important ethical topics?
LÉONARD: I think it is painful that there hasn’t been a bigger reaction to the euthanasia laws in Belgium, for example. We are too passive. The reactions from the Church and the people is much more intense in France, Italy, Spain and even Germany. (silence) In our society we do so much to make death possible, that we eventually don’t put any effort into life.
If I ask for euthanasia, am I doing something wrong?
LÉONARD: Yes, you are doing something wrong. In the first place because it is not necessary. These days, palliative care is very effective in 98 percent of cases, allowing us to die in human dignity, without unbearable suffering.
And if I am among those two percent?
LÉONARD: Then there is still the option of sedation, eliminating consciousness. But the second and much more important reason that you are doing something wrong, is that death is never a totally private affair, but also affects the general wellbeing. I may have the idea that euthanasia is the ideal solution for you in your specific situation. But that assumes the presence of doctors and nurses and chemists who are going to help with that. In favour of your personal solution you have to demand a change in the profession of the doctor. He no longer exists to heal people, but also to let people die.
And if we define a doctor as someone who relieves suffering by healing are by letting people die with dignity?
LÉONARD: Helping to die can have a positive meaning. But our society knows a fundamental prohibition: Thou shalt not kill. When we do that anyway, it is a significant danger. And there is something else. If you use euthanasia like this, you may spread this attitude to other people who lose faith. It can lead to a certain dejection in society. I consider the problem of euthanasia to be very characteristic of our society, where individualism is always given priority. Everyone does things their way and we lose sight of the general wellbeing.
In the action for people without papers you have been getting a lot of respect from progressive circles. You have even housed people in your episcopal palace.
LÉONARD: Yes, ten people have stayed here, in a very pleasant atmosphere. These are people who speak our language, who are perfectly integrated, whose children have been going to school here for years. I think it is unacceptable that they live in uncertainty for so long. I know we can’t take care of all asylum seeker, but we need clear rules. It is my duty to help people. In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, Jesus says: “What you did for the least of my brothers, you did for me.”
In closing: what is the purpose of life, monsignor?
LÉONARD: The purpose of life is to prepare for a life that never perishes. We are on a launch platform, so to speak. We can use the years we spend here on earth to get to know God, so that we are not homeless when we come to Him later. The purpose of life, in other words, is to know the deeper meaning of our existence as well as possible. Why do I exist? What am I doing here? What is the ultimate goal of this existence? And I find all those answers thanks to my faith.
How can someone who lost it, rediscover his faith?
LÉONARD: By being open to the figure of Christ in the gospel. Or by getting in touch with people who witness of a deep faith. Or by doing what Charles de Foucauld did. He was a French soldier in the late nineteenth century who had lost his faith and led a very frivolous life. Looking for peace, he walked into a church and there he uttered a spontaneous and honest prayer. I have often recommended this prayer to my students in Louvain. Seigneur, mon Dieu, si vous existez, manifestez-vous à moi. God, if you really exist, reveal yourself to me. That is the only thing you can do, being willing to open your heart to God.
Joël De Ceulaer