Mourning and rejoicing after Notre Dame burned

“We are gathered in the Mother Church of the Diocese of Paris, Notre-Dame Cathedral, which rises in the heart of the city as a living sign of God’s presence in our midst.  My predecessor, Pope Alexander III, laid its first stone, and Popes Pius VII and John Paul II honoured it by their presence.  I am happy to follow in their footsteps, a quarter of a century after coming here to offer a conference on catechesis.  It is hard not to give thanks to the Creator of both matter and spirit for the beauty of this edifice.  The Christians of Lutetia had originally built a cathedral dedicated to Saint Stephen, the first martyr; as time went on it became too small, and was gradually replaced, between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, by the great building we admire today.  The faith of the Middle Ages built the cathedrals, and here your ancestors came to praise God, to entrust to him their hopes and to express their love for him.  Great religious and civil events took place in this shrine, where architects, painters, sculptors and musicians have given the best of themselves.  We need but recall, among so many others, the architect Jean de Chelles, the painter Charles Le Brun, the sculptor Nicolas Coustou and the organists Louis Vierne and Pierre Cochereau.  Art, as a pathway to God, and choral prayer, the Church’s praise of the Creator, helped Paul Claudel, who attended Vespers here on Christmas Day 1886, to find the way to a personal experience of God.  It is significant that God filled his soul with light during the chanting of the Magnificat, in which the Church listens to the song of the Virgin Mary, the Patroness of this church, who reminds the world that the Almighty has lifted up the lowly (cf. Lk 1:52).  As the scene of other conversions, less celebrated but no less real, and as the pulpit from which preachers of the Gospel like Fathers Lacordaire, Monsabré and Samson transmitted the flame of their passion to the most varied congregations, Notre-Dame Cathedral rightly remains one of the most celebrated monuments of your country’s heritage.  Following a tradition dating back to the time of Saint Louis, I have just venerated the relics of the True Cross and the Crown of Thorns, which have now found a worthy home here, a true offering of the human spirit to the power of creative Love.”

Pope Benedict XVI, 12 September 2008, at Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

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Last night, Notre Dame burned. This morning, we find that more than we could have hoped for was spared of its interior. The roof and spire may be gone, and soot may cover the walls and mangled debris may have reached the floor, but Notre Dame still stands.

And most important of all, the reason of its existence still remains: the presence of the Lord, Jesus Christ under the appearance of bread and wine, the sacraments given to us who wish to follow Him, as well as some of the symbols of the salvation He wrought for us.

Notre Dame is a historical building which has a special place in the hearts and minds of many, first of all the Parisians and the French, but also those millions, including yours truly, who had the chance to visit her, however briefly.*

But more than a monument to history and the civilisation in which we live, Notre Dame is a church. It is the home of God, a prefiguration of heaven, the place where we come to encounter Him as closely as we can. It manifests the presence of God in the heart of Paris, in the place where that great city began, and thus also in the heart of all the works and endeavours we undertake.

Last night’s fire and its timing, as Holy Week begins, can be understood symbolically, regardless of the cause of the fire. The scenes of people praying and singing as the cathedral burned give us hope and remind us that God hears us at the difficult times in our lives, but He remains present when things are going well and we tend to forget or ignore Him. Like Notre Dame, He is always there.

Today, we may mourn the damage done, but we may also rejoice in what remains. Notre Dame still stands. God is still with us.

*Last October, my wife and I had the chance to visit Notre Dame. By chance we participated in a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Aupetit and Bishop Freddy Fuenmayor Suárez of Los Teques, Venezuela, who gifted an icon of the Blessed Virgin to Notre Dame. The cathedral was filled to capacity and the mood was celebratory. The joy of the Hispanic community was palpable and infectuous. A fond memory, which made yesterday’s developments all the more painful.

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How God left the Netherlands – or is it the other way around?

Lots of news on social media today about the latest edition of the five-yearly poll on the faith of the Dutch. In short, the trend is as expected: fewer people who call themselves Christians, who believe in the existence of God, or go to any church. At the same time, and this is perhaps surprising, fewer people call themselves generally spiritual (this despite the apparently steady popularity of vaguely spiritual magazines, websites and television programs).

Among Catholics the trend is largely similar to the overal picture: fewer people remain members of the Catholic Church, and of those who do, fewer are active in the Church. Some numbers: 13% believes in the existence of heaven, and 17% in a personal God. Only one-third of the Dutch Catholics prays every day and less than half believe that Jesus is the Son of God or was sent by Him (in comparison, among Protestants 77% believes that Christ is God). Disconcerting numbers, to be sure. These are essential elements of the Christian faith, but apparently there are many Catholics who see no apparent problem in denying them and continuing to consider themselves Christian.

Does the root of the problem lie in a serious failure of the Church to communicate the faith? Perhaps in part: the Church has become marginalised over the past decades, by forces outside of her control, but also by a creeping fear of being too visibly Christian in society. Many Catholic communities, in my opinion, are content to keep their faith indoors, and when they do make it visible, it is in the form of charitable and social activities, which are laudable in their own right, but not exclusive to churches and faith communities. Another element, I think, is the extreme individualism prevalent in Dutch society. Certainly, society is still social, but when it comes to religion, the general idea is that people have to make up their own minds, and that means figuring it all out for themselves. For those many people who call themselves atheist, agnostic or vaguely spiritual, the decision to become Christian would be a personal one and one that must not be influenced by what others say, or else the individual’s freedom becomes curtailed. Others see religion is essentially curtailing freedom, but they are often blind to the fact that any life philosophy, including their own, is equally or even more curtailing. The moment one makes a choice or a decision, other options become impossible, and so the freedom to choose it has vanished. Lastly, an increasing number of people see no need to believe in God. They get along fine in society, and even if they don’t, they do not see how faith will change any of that. The value and need for faith is invisible, and so is the distinction between the various religions. What does it matter if you are Catholic or Protestant, Jew of Buddhist, if it works for you and it all boils down to being nice to each other? Here lies perhaps the hardest challenge for us: how to show the value of faith.

There is, however, always hope. Catholics under 40 are generally more orthodox in faith and practice, and that is a new trend. New and young Catholics do not want mere general sentiments of being nice. They can get that anywhere. They want a solid body of faith and philosophy, teaching and action. And the Catholic Church has that aplenty. It’s a shame that that is too often hidden.

Should we be overly worried about these developments? Of course, we are talking about increasing numbers of people who do not know about the truth of their existence. That is a concern. But God does not depend on popularity. He does not abandon His people, not even in the Netherlands. Let these numbers be an incentive for us, as Catholics, not to hide behind the doors of our churces, to take the faith out into the Streets, show its value and invite others in.

Bound for Heaven or for Hell?

pope francis massPope Francis’ recent homily about salvation, and even more so Father Thomas Rosica’s comments about it, has led to much speculation, confusion and even anger about one of the most essential questions in the faith: the question of who goes to Heaven and who goes to Hell. Maybe it’s good to shine a small light on this difficult theological topic.

First of all, let’s  start with the words that Pope Francis spoke in his homily of 22 May:

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all!”

The Church has always upheld the universality of redemption in contrast to some Protestant communities, who have limited it to a certain group of predestined faithful. A glance on the Catholic Encyclopedia page about this topic points our attention to some Scripture passages which bear this out. I’ll quote a few, but do read the link above especially the subsection titled ‘Universality of Redemption’, to get an idea of traditional Catholic teaching about this subject.

1 John 2:2: “He is the sacrifice to expiate our sins, and not only ours, but also those of the whole world.”

1 Timothy 2:4: “he wants everyone to be saved and reach full knowledge of the truth.”

1 Timothy 4:10: “he is the Saviour of the whole human race but particularly of all believers.”

2 Corinthians 5:19: “I mean, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not holding anyone’s faults against them, but entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”

Christ crucifiedChrist’s sacrifice on the Cross, by which He brought about redemption for humanity, was not in any way limited. It’s target audience, so to speak, included every human being in past, present and future. But in order to properly understand this, we must try and understand how redemption works.

Perhaps it can be best likened, for the purpose of this blog post, to some form of medication, a pill perhaps, which works for everyone. It can relieve everyone of the pain of some illness. But it doesn’t do so automatically: we must take the pill for it to work. It is no different in the case of redemption. In order for it to work in us, we must make the conscious decision to accept it. That is once again perfectly in accordance with the free will that God has created us with and which He always respects.

So, yes, Pope Francis is correct and in full agreement with Catholic teaching when he says that Christ also redeemed atheists. However, as is sort of their job description, they haven’t accepted it yet. They haven’t yet taken their medication, so it can’t do its work. But unlike a pill, redemption has no sell-by date. It doesn’t go bad if left on the shelf for too long.

rosicaFather Thomas Rosica, who is not the press chief of the Vatican as some media would have it, offers some answers to questions about the Pope’s homily. He does not relegate all atheists to Hell (nor to Heaven, for that matter), but presents some much-needed nuance to the discussion, based on several passages from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Most important is that Christ is the final Judge: He will decide on the fate of everyone, based on how they have lived (and in that matter there can be no opposition between faith and works, as both are integral parts of a person’s life).

Also important in the discussion above is Paragraph 171 of the Catechism, which asks “What is the meaning of the affirmation “Outside the Church there is no salvation”?”

This means that all salvation comes from Christ, the Head, through the Church which is his body. Hence they cannot be saved who, knowing the Church as founded by Christ and necessary for salvation, would refuse to enter her or remain in her. At the same time, thanks to Christ and to his Church, those who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ and his Church but sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, try to do his will as it is known through the dictates of conscience can attain eternal salvation.

In short, if a person knows that the Church that Christ founded is necessary for salvation, and nonetheless refuses to be part of her, he or she can not be saved. So, is this true for atheists, then? I would say that it isn’t for the vast majority of them. Many people are atheist or agnostic out of ignorance, and generally not wilfully so. They do not know the Church as necessary for salvation, so it can’t be held against them if they refuse to be part of her.

In his homily of last Wednesday, Pope Francis spoke much about “good works”. This lines up well with the above quote from the Catechism: “those who … sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, try to do his will as it is known through the dictates of conscience can attain eternal salvation.”

There is much more that may be said about this, but the post is getting overly long anyway, so I’ll leave it at this. But I will add an addendum:

Fr. Rosica’s explanations (and those of others) do not contradict what Pope Francis has said, and nor do they indicate some division in the Vatican between the Pope and the Curia. That many media do choose to present it as such, should serve as a warning to us to always remain vigilant when reading or hearing someone’s interpretation of Church affairs and teaching.