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“I believe that it is important to reaffirm respect for this principle as an essential condition, accepted by both, for the restoration of full communion, which does not signify the submission of one to the other, or assimilation. Rather, it means welcoming all the gifts that God has given to each, thus demonstrating to the entire world the great mystery of salvation accomplished by Christ the Lord through the Holy Spirit. I want to assure each one of you here that, to reach the desired goal of full unity, the Catholic Church does not intend to impose any conditions except that of the shared profession of faith.”
This passage from Pope Francis’ message to Patriarch Bartholomew I today struck me as a very happy and hopeful one. The Orthodox Churches are so close to us in faith, sacraments and apostolic succession that the most immediate hope for full unity, the goal of ecumenism, is with them. And they have much to give us: a sense of mysticism that we have sometimes lost, especially in the west; of sacramentality and new ways of considering the Divine and how we relate to God in our worship and daily life.
The principle that Pope Francis refers to at the start of passage regards Unitatis Redintegratio, the Vatican II Decree on Christian Unity, and specifically the 15th and 16th chapters thereof. The conclusion of Chapter 15 summarises the principle that is deemed so essential for full communion:
“The very rich liturgical and spiritual heritage of the Eastern Churches should be known, venerated, preserved and cherished by all. They must recognize that this is of supreme importance for the faithful preservation of the fullness of Christian tradition, and for bringing about reconciliation between Eastern and Western Christians.”
Chapter 16 adds to that the importance of the laws and customs of the Orthodox Churches:
“Far from being an obstacle to the Church’s unity, a certain diversity of customs and observances only adds to her splendor, and is of great help in carrying out her mission, as has already been stated. To remove, then, all shadow of doubt, this holy Council solemnly declares that the Churches of the East, while remembering the necessary unity of the whole Church, have the power to govern themselves according to the disciplines proper to them, since these are better suited to the character of their faithful, and more for the good of their souls.”
The liturgical and spiritual heritage of the Orthodox Churches, as well as their laws and customs are no obstacle for full unity. Indeed, they are essential for the further purpose of that unity: the fullness of Christian tradition, worship and evangelisation. The word of God will resound all the stronger.
Photo credit: CNS photo/Paul Haring
Bishop Gerard de Korte looks back on the Synod:
“Pope Francis’ thinking is process-oriented. The Synod (‘journeying together’) which has now ended was a moment on the way. The Church is on her way to a new Synod in October of 2015. In the meanwhile the thinking about sexuality, marriage and family continues in the worldwide community of faith.
Building bridges, not destroying them, as Church is in the spirit of Pope Francis and the Synod. Personally I advocate a ‘ministry of encounter’.
We can’t kick people with marriage problems or other relational worries when they’re down, but we should stand with and help them. In that way we follow in the footsteps of Christ who, as the Good Samaritan, seeks out and heals people who lie wounded on the side of the way of life. Catholic ministry will not repel or write off people but try and meet them in the places where they are. In that, the Catholic shepherd is called to manifest God’s unconditional love for imperfect people.
Media report that the Church wants to be more merciful but that doctrine is unchangeable. I think that is too simplistic. Life means growth and change. That is also true for the life of the Church. Christian teaching knows development (Cardinal John Henry Newman). When our thinking is historical-organical it becomes clear how important the hermeneutic questions are. The doctrine of the Church must continuously be interpreted and communicated. Of course, the spirit of the times can never be a deciding factor in that. He who marries the spirit of the times, is soon widowed. But we should wonder of we have sufficiently probed the wealth of Scripture and Catholic Tradition (Cardinal Reinhard Marx). In that sense the doctrine of the Church must always be actualised to stay close to life.
Going towards the Synod of October 2015, there are important questions on the Church’s agenda. How can we help young people to grow towards the sacrament of marriage? How do we help couples to strengthen and deepen their marriage bond? How do we stand with people who failed and were unable to fulfill their word of faithfulness?
An important questions, it seems to me, is also how love, friendship and affection can take shape for people who do not live within the bond of marriage. In our country millions of people live outside of marriage. The Church traditionally asks them to live in abstinence. But what does this mean in real situations, certainly when we realise that celibate life is a charisma, a gift from God, which few people receive. When we acknowledge that the questions of relationship ‘within the boundaries of Catholic morality become all the more exiting. In short, there is much work to do for the faith community.
Msgr. Dr. Gerard de Korte”
The bishop raises good questions, ones that certainly need answering. But not just theoretical answers. These questions instead need practical solutions, they need to become visible in how the Church acts and speaks, not just how she thinks. That’s what the Synod is about, too: the question of how teachings become reality for people living in the world.
The doctrine of the Church, the rich body of faith that she protects and communicates, is neither completely solid nor completely fluid. Comments about doctrine continuously needing to be interpreted, as made by Bishop de Korte above, are often understood to mean that what the Church once believed to be true, need not be believed anymore (not that am I saying that the bishop holds to this). That is quite simply wrong.
In his most recent blog post, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York writes:
“We Catholics pledge allegiance to what is called a “revealed religion”. That simply means that we believe that God has told us (“revealed”) certain things about Himself and ourselves through the Bible, through our own nature, especially through His Son, all celebrated and taught by His Church.”
We find this everywhere in the Bible. God reveals Himself to people and over the course of history we get to know Him more and more, and our relationship with Him develops. But at the start, there are certain truths which we know because they have been revealed. These divine truths are unchangeable, as they exist independent of us. So when we say that we must interpret or develop doctrine, we always have these revealed truths as our solid basis. Does that limit us? Perhaps it does, but only because it’s not only about us. God is the other party in the relationship and His contributions, His truth about Himself, creation and human nature and purpose, must equally be acknowledged.
Developing doctrine must be understood as increasing our knowledge and understanding of it, building on what we already know. That deeper understanding is one step, the communication and manifestation of it is another. And that, again, is what the Synod is intended to encourage.
But, as a final aside, not every doctrine is dogmatic (ie. held to be absolutely and unchanging true). Non-dogmatic teachings and practices, such as certain rituals and traditions of the Church, can certainly change. But if we want to change them, we must always ask ourselves: why do want them to change, and why do we have them in the first place? Perhaps then we’ll find that it is sometimes better to hold onto teachings, instead of doing away with them.
The comments by Cardinal Eijk on the Council of Trent continue to cause a stir, chiefly in Protestant circles, but also among Catholics. Accusations that Trent was centuries ago and that times have changed are mostly heard, but these ignore that the cardinal was not speaking about current affairs. He spoke out of the assumption – which is the general Catholic one – that the dogmatic statements of a Council remain so, even as time passes. The implementation and even need of specific statements may change, and so there are texts which came out of Trent which are interesting, but no longer of much use beyond the theoretical study of them.
Cardinal Eijk spoke about the validity of – especially – the anathemas decreed at Trent, aimed at those who wilfully, freely and in full knowledge that they were doing so proclaimed untruths, even heresies, against the faith as taught by the Church. He also emphasised that people who today have a different image of God or understanding of the faith can’t be blamed for that: upbringing and tradition are not a reason to declare anyone cursed in the sight of God. That judgement, as the cardinal also said, lies with God anyway. The Church here on earth, however, can and should underline the faith she teaches and point out when someone is in error. That is what Trent did: she emphasised the truths of the faith and put an end to certain practices which were in contradiction to that, such as the trade in indulgences.
But that is not the level on which the debate is taking place. There is no discussion about the reason, mistakes or truths about what the Church teaches or what was decided and done at the Council of Trent. This was what Cardinal Eijk was talking about, but his critics focus on something else altogether: the tone.
Today the secretary of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands, Arjan Plaisier, wrote an open letter to Cardinal Eijk asking him certain questions about his comments. Below are these questions, translated into English:
“Firstly: Is it in order to let tradition speak in such a way, outside the context of any ecumenical conversation or encounter? Does it fit in a time when much has taken place in the field of ecumenism, to make such a statement “about you, without you”? Isn’t this a denial of an ecumenical history which we have gone through together? Does this not block any further dialogue about fundamental faith topics which we can have, unilaterally or in the context of the Council of Churches?”
The progress of ecumenical relations does not take place in changing teachings or traditions (the latter word will have a rather different meaning for Catholics and Protestants anyway). Ecumenism is relational, a tool for increased understanding, not of abandoning truths. Whether the cardinal’s comments would block any further dialogue is not up to him. It is up to our ecumenical partners, who deserve to know what the Church teaches, in plain sight, not hidden under a blanket of “being nice to each other”. Sure, we should strive for cordial relations, but that can not be the final goal of ecumenism. It should be noted, in this context, that Cardinal Eijk has stated that he is fully behind ecumenism and agrees with Pope Francis on this topic.
The letter continues:
“Secondly: Do you have the opinion that the fundamental differences that exist between the Church of Rome and the Protestants, still need to be condemned in terms of “cursed” and “banned”?”
The cardinal never said anything of the kind. There are differences, and these must be addressed and named, but modern Protestants and the faith the proclaim are not addressed by Trent.
“Paul addressed that curse to the proclamation of a different Gospel, namely different than the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Crucified. Various dialogues between Rome and the Reformation have concluded that we recognise and acknowledge each other in this Gospel. That recognition has everything to do what the patient and honest efforts to better understand each other in this. Fundamental differences remain, especially concerning ecclesiology. But is it in order, especially in light of the recognition mentioned above, to speak about these differences in the language of “cursing”? How, by the way, is this related to the mutual recognition of the others Baptism?”
The fact is that the various Protestant churches have different teachings about certain matters related to the Gospel than the Catholic Church has. Does this mean that they follow a different Gospel? No, but there are differences. Acknowledging that both the Protestant churches and the Catholic Church follow Christ does not change anything about that. And once more, the anathemas of Trent, as the cardinal has said, do not automatically refer to modern Protestants and certainly not to persons. The Gospel text from St. Paul was not presented by Cardinal Eijk as a reason to curse anyone, but merely as a possible motivation for the work of the Council of Trent. What mutual recognition of Baptism has to do with that, is anyone’s guess. Recognising that the Church and the Protestant communities use the same valid means of Baptism is no reason to assume that they are the same in everything.
Secretary Plaisier invites Cardinal Eijk to discuss this further in a future meeting. Perhaps that would be a good opportunity to explain a few things. About Catholic tradition, the meaning of Councils, ecumenism, anathemas, identity and truth. This would be good, because the criticism has generally not yet transcended the level of emotion: it is not nice what the cardinal has said, so therefore we are hurt. That is an injustice to the cardinal and certainly also to the churches and faith of the critics themselves
Photo credit:  ANP
In an interview with Die Welt, published yesterday, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, retired ordinary of Freiburg im Breisgau and President of the German Bishops’ Conference, spoke, among other things, about the proposal to allow remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments. His answers are somewhat disconcerting.
On the question if the topic is now off the table, after Archbishop Müller’s opposition to the proposal which originated in Archbishop Zollitsch’s Archdiocese of Freiburg im Breisgau, the archbishop replied:
“How can this topic be off the table? 35 to 40 percent of marriages end in divorce these days. As Church we ask ourselves: How should we relate to those concerned? This is the question that our pastoral care office’s proposal asks. I feel much strengthened by Pope Francis, who has called his own Extraordinary Synod on Marriage and Family for October of 2014. There we want to present what we in Freiburg have drafted.”
Archbishop Zollitsch is of course correct when he says that the numbers call for us to be concerned about the large number of marriages, both sacramental and civil, which end prematurely. And in that sense his efforts to draft proposals to put that concern into practice are only to be lauded. But it is good te recall that Archbishop Müller did not nix the proposal. He told the German bishops to withdraw it and revise two points – that faithful can decide for themselves whether or not they should receive Communion, and that a sort of ‘pseudo-marriage rite’ may be celebrated in the church for people who enter into a second civil marriage – but he maintained that the proposal as a whole contains “very correct and important pastoral teachings”. The interviewer’s suggestion that Archbishop Müller wants the topic off the table, and Archbishop Zollitsch’s failure to correct this assessment, suggests a serious misrepresentation of the facts.
The interviewer continues:
Archbishop Müller has written to you that the draft should be “withdrawn and revised”.
“That is the judgement of the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Archbishop Müller’s position corresponds with the Tradition he represents. But the majority of people who have approached us were positive about the proposal. That tells me that we are pursuing an important issue and that it is important to find a viable solution. Pope Francis often speaks of being close to people. I think that that can be a good direction, also in dealing with civilly remarried.”
Here it gets more serious, as facts are more distorted. Yes, Archbishop Müller represents a Tradition, but this is not because of his position as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, but because of his identity as a Catholic Christian. That means, then, that we all represent that Tradition, which is the Church’s and which we all confess and reaffirm in every Mass. That many people are positive about the proposal means nothing in this case, as faith and Tradition are not decided by majority vote. Of course, the issue is important and a viable solution must be found. Not because many people want it, but because it is good for them.
Is your upcoming retirement or the general euphoria about Pope Francis the reason for being so relaxed about comments from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith?
“Neither. As President of the Bishops’ Conference I have, in recent years, after our spring and autumn meeting, travelled to Rome to explain our position. If a prefect of one the various Congregations would then oppose this position, I would think to go slowly. A Prefect is not the Pope. I look for dialogue, and for me that is the way of collegiality and the dialogue in the Church.”
So what Archbishop Zollitsch is saying here is that the opinions of Curial officials, who are tasked with specific duties in the Church (in the case of the Prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith this includes to make sure that the faith is represented completely and properly and shared in all its fullness), duties which come with the necessary amount of authority, do not matter? That it is simply a matter of diplomacy: Oh, if I can’t get my way like this, I’ll just try it like that? Ordinaries, of which Archbishop Zollitsch is one, have the same duty as I mentioned above for Archbishop Müller, but if they fail in performing them, corrections must come from a higher level: the Pope, who delegates some duties to those called to assist him in his. And among those are the members of the Curia. Simply saying, “a Prefect is not the Pope”, is tantamount to ignoring the entire existence, duty, authority and function of the Curia. And in this case, Archbishop Zollitsch also conveniently ignores the fact that Archbishop Müller clearly stated that he composed his article on the issue in L’Osservatore Romano, and the subsequent letter to the German bishops, after consultation with the Pope. It is therefore impossible to say that this Prefect is simply acting for himself. We can safely assume that Pope Francis is fully behind Archbishop Müller in this case.
Hiding behind bland statements like “collegiality” and “dialogue” (which are not meaningless in themselves, but they are as used here), is incredibly naive. Archbishop Müller, speaking after discussing hs beforehand with the Pope, has been very clear. He has the duty and authority to correct the German bishops. That is dialogue. Dialogue is not a collection of niceties without any consequences for anyone. It is the collegial correction of errors, which must be given and received in fraternity. Ignoring and pushing them aside as simple opinions of some Prefect who is just acting for himself is a distortion of facts, faith and duty.
In an address to the Pontifical Biblical Commission (of which Dutch Bishop Jan Liesen is a member), Pope Francis shone a light on the Catholic understanding of the Bible. This is an ever-necessary effort, as there is still much confusion and misunderstanding on exactly how the Bible fits in our faith and tradition.
In his address, the Holy Father explained:
“As we know, the Holy Scriptures are the testimony in written form of God’s Word, the canonical memorial that attests to the event of Revelation. The Word of God, therefore, precedes and exceeds the Bible. It is for this reason that the center of our faith is not only a book, but a history of salvation and especially a Person, Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh. Precisely because the Word of God embraces and extends beyond Scripture to understand it properly we need the constant presence of the Holy Spirit who “guide us to all truth” (Jn 16:13). It should be inserted within the current of the great Tradition which, through the assistance of the Holy Spirit and the guidance of the Magisterium, recognized the canonical writings as the Word addressed by God to His people who have never ceased to meditate and discover its inexhaustible riches. The Second Vatican Council has reiterated this with great clarity in the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum: “For all of what has been said about the way of interpreting Scripture is subject finally to the judgment of the Church, which carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God “(n. 12).”
What we may gather from this is that the Bible does not exist in isolation: it is not a book that came into being as we know it today. Instead, it grew, developed and exists not for its own purpose, but to communicate the Word of God. And a second important point is the role of Tradition, the magisterium, and – not least – the Holy Spirit, which act as interpreters of this Word.
We are a Religion of the Book, but our religion is not about the book. It is about what – who – the book is about. And that gives us a hint about how we should relate to the Bible. As Pope Francis explains later:
“The interpretation of the Holy Scriptures cannot be only an individual scientific effort, but must always confront itself with, be inserted within and authenticated by the living tradition of the Church. This norm is essential to specify the correct relationship between exegesis and the Magisterium of the Church. The texts inspired by God were entrusted to the Community of believers, the Church of Christ, to nourish the faith and guide the life of charity.”
The nature of the Bible tells us how it relates to us and the greater body of faith. We should receive it as it was given: the testimony of the Word of God for the community of faithful.
In an address to the International Theological Commission a few days ago, Pope Benedict XVI (pictured at left with Bishop Jan Liesen, one of the Commission’s members) spoke about a difficult but important topic: the sensus fidei. This religious sensibility is something that we must recognise and cultivate in order to recognise what is and what is not the truth that has been handed down through the Apostolic Tradition of the Church.
What is especially important today, the pope said, is “to clarify the criteria used to distinguish the authentic sensus fidelium from its counterfeits. In fact, it is not some kind of public opinion of the Church, and it is unthinkable to mention it in order to challenge the teachings of the Magisterium, this because the sensus fidei can not grow authentically in the believer except to the extent in which he or she fully participates in the life of the Church, and this requires a responsible adherence to her Magisterium.”
This passage says a lot about how we are called to live as faithful people, with an innate sensus fidei. In the first place, it is not an opinion. Secondly, it does not exists separately from the Church and the Magisterium which are equally given by God, like the sensus fidei. Thirdly, it can’t grow if we are not active participants to the fullest in the life of the Church.
But perhaps the most important lessons we can draw from this is that faith, our sense of it and therefore also our practice, is never solitary. We are never alone, but always live, act and believe with our fellow faithful. The Church is the combined body of those faithful, and that is why faith is lived with and in the Church, of which the Magisterium is an indispensable part. Just like the Apostles lived with Christ and according to His teachings, so we are called to live with our teachers and follow them in charity and obedience.
Photo credit: l’Osservatore Romano
They may conjure up images of medieval witch trials and whatnot, but heresies are really nothing to get into a fuzz about. Well, the specific heresies may be, but the fact that the Church calls certain beliefs and opinion heretical should not. A heresy is nothing more complicated than a teaching that undermines the faith in a grave enough manner that supporting, promoting or following it has a serious penalty as a consequence. And that because such a heresy endangers the souls of the faithful.
One such heresy that I came across today* has several names, but most people who know it, will know it as modalism or Sabellianism. A short definition would be that modalism holds that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are merely three ways, or modes, in which God has revealed Himself to people.
Why is this a heresy? Why can’t the Father, Son and Holy Spirit not be three forms in which God interacts with us? Well, for starters, it would make His own existence, as we have come to know it, a fake. Countless times do we read in the Gospels how Jesus prays to His Father. If both were just roles played by the one God, why would He do that? In the Prologue of the Gospel of John we read that the Word was God and was with God. The Word of God is Jesus, the Son, but why, if the Son and the Father are the same, would John tell us that the one was with the other? In Genesis, we read about the spirit of God hovering over the deep. Not God, but His Spirit. Why would God play a role before an empty deep?
There is one God in three Persons. These three Persons are not the same. They are separate and unique, but they are all equally God. This is a mystery of our faith, which means that it is something that goes beyond our understanding. It is good that some things are beyond our ken, because God is not limited to the understanding of his creatures. If He were, He would be limited. A two-dimensional creature has no way of understanding three or even four dimensions. We have no way of understanding or even imagining the five, six or more dimension that scientists say exist. And we have no way of grasping the Trinity, but that has no bearing on its reality.
Is the Trinity unlikely? Perhaps. But it is what God has taught us, through Jesus’ prayers, and through the work of the Holy Spirit.
In articles 253 to 255, the Catechism of the Catholic Church delves into the Trinity. It has this to say [emphasis mine, notes removed for ease of reading]:
253 The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons, the “consubstantial Trinity”. The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God whole and entire: “The Father is that which the Son is, the Son that which the Father is, the Father and the Son that which the Holy Spirit is, i.e. by nature one God.” In the words of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), “Each of the persons is that supreme reality, viz., the divine substance, essence or nature.”
254 The divine persons are really distinct from one another. “God is one but not solitary.” “Father”, “Son”, “Holy Spirit” are not simply names designating modalities of the divine being, for they are really distinct from one another: “He is not the Father who is the Son, nor is the Son he who is the Father, nor is the Holy Spirit he who is the Father or the Son.” They are distinct from one another in their relations of origin: “It is the Father who generates, the Son who is begotten, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds.” The divine Unity is Triune.
255 The divine persons are relative to one another. Because it does not divide the divine unity, the real distinction of the persons from one another resides solely in the relationships which relate them to one another: “In the relational names of the persons the Father is related to the Son, the Son to the Father, and the Holy Spirit to both. While they are called three persons in view of their relations, we believe in one nature or substance.” Indeed “everything (in them) is one where there is no opposition of relationship.” “Because of that unity the Father is wholly in the Son and wholly in the Holy Spirit; the Son is wholly in the Father and wholly in the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is wholly in the Father and wholly in the Son.”
But who’s to say that what the Church teaches through the Catechism is right? That belief, that trust in the dogmatic teachings of the Church flows directly from th words of Jesus and the belief in the Holy Spirit who guides us. If we express faith in His words to St. Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven: whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19), and in the Holy Spirit of Pentecost, we must als have faith in the Church that Christ established upon Peter, and the faith that she safeguards and communicates.
God is Triune: one Being in three Persons. This we know through Scripture, the Word of God, and the teachings of the Church of Christ. To say otherwise is a denial of God as He is. God does not pretend. He is who He says He is. He is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, who are all true Persons, not phantasms or roles He plays before us. Because He takes us seriously, He reveals Himself to us as He is.
*The source linked to above is a Dutch text, a reflection given by lay Dominican Leo de Jong on Trinity Sunday, at the nominally Catholic church ‘Het Steiger’ in Rotterdam. In this reflection, Mr. de Jong denounces our understanding of the Trinity as three separate divine Persons as nonsense. Instead, he says, these persons are three forms in which Gods allows Himself to be known. This misleading teaching, presented as profound knowledge, is in reality a centuries-old heresy.
For a further Biblical explanation of the Trinity, go here.
Art credit:  Pope St. Clement Adoring the Trinity, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1737-1738.
In a short message to the Pontifical Bible Commission (translation), Pope Benedict XVI addresses the topics of inspiration and truth in the Sacred Scriptures, and how both these elements are “constitutive characteristics of [their] nature”. He makes some very interesting points which we should keep in mind when reading the Bible and studying or applying the texts in it.
First, there is the following statement:
“[T]he topic of inspiration is decisive for the appropriate approach to the Sacred Scriptures. In fact, an interpretation of the sacred texts that neglects or forgets their inspiration does not take into account their most important and precious characteristic, that is, their provenance from God.”
Essentially, what the pope seems to be saying here, is that the inspiration of a Biblical text, that is its origin and source, as well as the process by how it came into being, should dictate how we read those texts. Sacred Scripture ultimately finds its source in God. That is not the same as saying that He personally dictated the words to whichever scribe first committed them to paper, but He is behind it, so to speak. His truth is in those words. They are His Word, written down by man. It is not a thesis by which someone tried to defend his position or ideas. It is not a human construct, and neither is it academic. The texts in the Bible are grounded in historical reality, a reality in which God played an important part. The texts, in their nature, are characterised by that reality.
“Because of the charism of inspiration, the books of Sacred Scripture have a direct and concrete force of appeal.”
Their inspiration gives the books of the Bible their living authority. The Holy Father writes that their relevance did not end at the death of the last Apostle, but it continued through the constant proclamation and interpretation through the ages.
“For this reason the Word of God fixed in the sacred texts is not an inert deposit inside the Church but becomes the supreme rule of her faith and power of life. The Tradition that draws its origin from the Apostles progresses with the assistance of the Holy Spirit and grows with the reflection and study of believers, with personal experience of the spiritual life and the preaching of Bishop.”
This process of interpretation occurred within the framework of the Tradition of the Church which, the Holy Father notes, has progressed with the assistance of the Holy Spirit given at Pentecost, and grows via four means: reflection, study, experience and preaching. ‘Reading the Bible’, then, engages the entire person, not just the intellect. We read or hear, we feel, think and, certainly not least, we experience.
The reference to “the preaching of the Bishop” is interesting in its own right. Just as the Apostles were the first to proclaim the Word of God in the Tradition that we still enjoy. This work was later performed by their successors: the bishops. Our Tradition is so much more than a collection of old habits and customs: it is a living organism built around the Word of God that we find in the Bible, but also in the Tradition, in its interpretation and truth.
“[I]t is essential and fundamental for the life and mission of the Church that the sacred texts are interpreted in keeping with their nature: Inspiration and Truth are constitutive characteristics of this nature.”
Photo credit: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images
The Eucharist and its celebration are the source and summit of our Christian life. It’s a line that has appeared time and again on this blog and in many other places. And while at times it may seem like a snappy sound bite or handy slogan, it is an essential truth that we need to understand and practice in order to live a proper Christian life. In His Son, God has come among us and given Himself to us. If we profess to follow Christ but ignore Him in his most vulnerable presence among us, we are missing the essential point.
Our faith is an Easter faith. The death and resurrection of Christ that we remember and celebrate at Easter permeates every day and everything we do as Christians. It is the foundation and seal of the new covenant that God has made with us. To pretend otherwise is a denial of what the Lord communicates to us in the Bible and sacred Tradition.
In a letter dated to Ash Wednesday, and sent to all priests, deacons, pastoral workers and caregivers in the country, the Dutch bishops seem to want to emphasise this. Starting with the Easter Triduum of 2013, they say, the focus of the communal celebrations must return to the Eucharist. Easter, they say, is after all “the feast of feasts”. What we remember and make present at Easter is, again, our covenant’s basis and seal.
The bishops write that, in every aspect, the Easter celebrations must be dignified. They are a celebration of God’s sacrifice, not merely one of human community. The celebrations must take place in cathedrals and parish churches, provided it can be done with dignity there. These locations allow the attendance of many faithful, servants and other volunteers and the singing of at least some parts of the liturgy. Small communities, special groups and societies are urged to join these celebrations, and what is interesting about that last point is the reason given by the bishops: it will allow the celebrations to be held in the best possible form. The focus is not first on the community of faithful, but on the celebration of the sacred mysteries. And rightly so, for we are a community through the Eucharist, through Christ’s sacrifice at Easter. We don’t make that community, God does.
Simplified or shortened celebrations are to be avoided. Celebrations on the various days of the Triduum have their own unique character and timing. The Easter vigil, for example, is celebrated after sunset, and not without reason. Afternoon vigils take away an essential element of the celebration and make it subordinate to our own limitations and wishes. It should, of course, be the other way around. The ‘complete’ celebration of the Church, the bishops write, takes precedence over that of the smaller local community (and the customs and deviations that have been allowed to develop in those smaller communities over time).
As Word and Communion celebrations by laity have steadily become more and more common, especially in those areas where priests are few, the bishops’ statement that it is “of the utmost importance that, during the Easter Triduum, the faithful indeed take part in the special liturgical celebrations led by a priest” is timely.
All celebrations during those days are to be led by a priest. Other forms are not allowed. Every diocese will point out specific churches where the celebrations will be offered in their fullness, and smaller communities and new movement are expressly invited to join these celebrations.
Lastly, the bishops urge all the faithful to receive Communion at Easter, preceded by Confession.
Fifteen years ago, such a letter would have been unheard of, and if it was released then, very few faithful and clergy would have taken it seriously. I am not saying that every lay faithful, deacon or priest will happily accept it today, but it is a step in the right direction. In the western world, in western Europe especially, we must combat the individualistic life philosophies which teach us that things are good as long as they feel good, that no one has a right to tell me what to do, and that the only truth that exists is the truth that I make for myself. These trends are no less visible in the Church. By refocusing at least the Easter celebrations on their contents instead of on the superficial feelings and perceived rights of the faithful, we may begin to counter the dictatorship of relativism.
Yesterday, Pope Benedict XVI addressed members of the Pontifical Liturgical Institute St. Anselm, meeting for their ninth International Liturgy Congress. Among other things, he addressed the still-sensitive topic of the reforms of Vatican II. He writes:
“Not infrequently tradition and progress are clumsily opposed. In reality, the two concepts are integrated: tradition is a living reality, which because of this includes in itself the principle of development, of progress. It is as if saying that the river of tradition has its source in itself and flows toward the outlet.”
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