lumen fidei

benedictfrancisOriginally intended for publication earlier this year as Pope Benedict’s fourth encyclical and the final in a trilogy on the theological virtues, Lumen Fidei (‘The Light of Faith’) was promulgated this past Friday in the name of Pope Francis.

In the same way as Benedict’s first encyclical in 2005, Deus Caritas Est, brought to completion the unfinished writings of John Paul II, so Francis’ inaugural encyclical represents to a significant degree the thought of his German predecessor on the meaning and implications of Christian faith. This inheritance and continuity between recent papal documents aligns well with Benedict’s own remarks, just days before his abdication, on the writings of ‘Peter’:

Peter was not alone in writing [his] Letter but it expresses the faith of a Church . . . He does not write alone, as an isolated individual; he writes with the assistance of the Church, of people who help him to deepen the faith, to enter into the depths of his thought, of his rationality, of his profundity. And this is very important: Peter is not speaking as an individual, he is speaking ex persona Ecclesiae, he is speaking as a man of the Church.

Likewise, Francis’ encyclical is received not as the word of a private individual apart from or above the Church but an expression of the faith of the communion of which he is called, in his person as ‘Peter‘, to be witness and shepherd.

The Possibility of Faith

lumenfideiLumen Fidei begins by addressing the very dilemma of faith in the contemporary world. Christian faith is so often seen by many as contrary to reason, not as a light that opens up the world but a darkness which stifles and even represses human creativity and the quest for knowledge. Even those who have sought to make room for faith have undermined it by promoting faith, erroneously, as a ‘leap in the dark’ driven by blind emotion. Others who champion autonomous reason as the answer to humanity’s future have often realised that their questions remain unanswered and this has led to an abandonment of the very search for truth itself in favour of “smaller lights which illumine the fleeting moment yet prove incapable of showing the way” (LF 3). Humanity remains hungry for a firm ground on which to stand and hence remains unfulfilled as it experiences the darkness and insufficiency of the world and itself.

On reading these opening remarks, the influence of Benedict stands out. His 1968 work Introduction to Christianity begins with this same confrontation of the very possibility of belief in the world of today. Indeed, the same temptations for the believer and unbeliever alluded to in Lumen Fidei (that of fideism or refuge in rationalism in the face of life’s questions) are raised by the early Ratzinger as prompts toward a fuller understanding of the ‘openness’ of faith, “Just as the believer knows himself to be constantly threatened by unbelief, which he must experience as a continual temptation, so for the unbeliever faith remains a temptation and a threat to his permanently closed world” (Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 45). The recurring challenge of human finality and the quest for human understanding rescues both the believer and unbeliever from being shut up in their own worlds, resisting any tendency to self-satisfaction and urging humanity onwards in the search for truth.

9954008Lumen Fidei seeks to propose the light of faith as the guide to this truth that we seek, a light that illumines all aspects of our existence in illuminating God as one who addresses us personally. It notes that the word of God that called Abraham, ‘our father in faith’, is not alien to human experience but always present at the core of our being. It follows that Abraham’s response to that divine calling, Abraham’s faith, “sheds light on the depths of his being, it enables him to acknowledge the wellspring of goodness at the origin of all things and to realise that his life is not the product of non-being or chance, but the fruit of a personal call and a personal love” (LF 11). Faith in God, then, as one who creates and calls is not an extrinsic act or a merely ‘religious’ commitment but an integral and humanising project and gift which, when received, unveils our true vocation in the life of God himself.

The faith of Israel that would follow Abraham further reveals faith as a summons to a pilgrimage with the Lord that calls through the concrete events of our life. The history of Israel also sounds a note of warning, that of idolatry which reveals our own tendency toward control and vanity, as Lumen Fidei makes clear, “Idols exist, we begin to see, as a pretext for setting ourselves at the centre of reality and worshipping the work of our own hands” (LF 13). While commentators have seen in this discussion of idolatry the hand of Pope Francis, it is one that was certainly shared by his predecessor in his writings on the liturgy among others (see Ratzinger, Spirit of the Liturgy, 22f). The overall thrust of the text is to underline the paradox of faith, that is, as in all loving relationship, by our constant turn towards the one beyond our control, and by the surrender to what we did not initiate, we become more and not less ourselves, freed from the slavery of our own self-absorption and insecurities.

Ultimately, it is in Christ Jesus that the total manifestation of God’s faithfulness arrives in history, the crucifixion of Christ being the “culmination of the gaze of faith; in that hour the depth and breadth of God’s love shone forth” (LF 16). It is a total gift of self that precedes us and allows one to entrust themselves completely to the utter reliability of God’s love, manifest not only in this death-in-love but in his rising in love, a “tangible and powerful love which really does act in history and determines its final destiny, a love that can be encountered” (LF 17). It echoes the thought of Ratzinger for he affirms elsewhere, “Christian faith is more than the option of a spiritual ground to the world; its central formula is not ‘I believe in something’ but ‘I believe in you’. It is in the encounter with the man Jesus, and in this encounter it experiences the meaning of the world as a person.” (Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 79).

After a brief word on the ecclesial form of faith, perhaps surprisingly brief given the demise of the Church’s credibility in the wake of the abuse scandal, the encyclical turns to the relation of faith to the truth which human beings seek (the theme of the Church is picked up again in Chapter 3 of Lumen Fidei though, again, without any theological treatment of sinfulness within the Church).

A Reasonable Faith

fidesEngaging an epistemology that may not be accessible to all, Lumen Fidei then goes on to underline the significance of truth for faith. Without truth, faith remains only “a beautiful story, the projection of our deep yearning for happiness, something capable of satisfying us to the extent that we are willing to deceive ourselves” (LF 24). Knowledge of the truth, Lumen Fidei asserts, is to be found in love which cannot be reduced to ephemeral emotion but is, most deeply understood, union with the Other. Without this love, “truth becomes cold, impersonal and oppressive for people’s day-to-day lives”; without truth, love becomes mere sentimentality, a fleeting emotion and cannot be a ground on which a future can be sustained. Love without truth “cannot stand the test of time” (LF 27). It is this discovery of love as a source of knowledge, as an interpersonal communion built upon truth that is capable of pointing us toward our ultimate fulfilment, that finds expression in the biblical understanding of “faith” (LF 28).

Returning to the concern of the opening paragraphs, Lumen Fidei then turns to the dialogue between faith and reason, drawing on the insights of John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio and also St Augustine, a perennial influence in Benedict’s own thought. As in the writing of John Paul II, faith and reason are presented not as opposed – as if faith were an irrational undertaking or that reason leaves behind the necessity of faith – but are recognised as having the same end or finality which is to know the truth. The reception of divine revelation and the ongoing human question for meaning, or philosophy, are not exterior to one another but intrinsically linked as Lumen Fidei seeks to show by the example of scientific inquiry,

The light of faith is an incarnate light radiating from the luminous life of Jesus. It also illumines the material world, trusts its inherent order and knows that is calls us to an ever widening path of harmony and understanding. The gaze of science thus benefits from faith: faith encourages the scientist to remain constantly open to reality in all its inexhaustible richness. Faith awakens the critical sense by preventing research from being satisfied with its own formulae and helps it to realize that nature is always greater. By stimulating wonder before the profound mystery of creation, faith broadens the horizons of reason to shed greater light on the world which discloses itself to scientific investigation (LF 34).

popejohnpauliiAs Fides et Ratio affirmed for philosophers so it may be said for the scientist, “it is necessary not to abandon the passion for ultimate truth, the eagerness to search for it or the audacity to forge new paths in the search. It is faith which stirs reason to move beyond all isolation and willingly to run risks so that it may attain whatever is beautiful, good and true. Faith thus becomes the convinced and convincing advocate of reason” (FR 56). As it has been said, it is faith that challenges reason to more audacious undertakings.

An Ecclesial Faith

The third and penultimate chapter of Lumen Fidei expands on the ecclesial context of faith that is only touched upon at the end of Chapter One (LF 22). Addressing the maternity of the Church, as one who brings about the birth of Christ in the believer, the encyclical draws attention to the living tradition of the Church.

The Church passes on the light of faith through the generations, “just as one candle is lighted from another”, an image that certainly recalls Pope Francis’ preaching style. Raising the question of the verification of knowledge, the encyclical underlines the relational way in which knowledge is transmitted, “Language itself, the words by which we make sense of our lives and the world around us, comes to us from others, preserved in the living memory of others. Self-knowledge is only possible when we share in a greater memory” (LF 38).

This sociological reality illuminates the theological significance of the Church as a “remembering subject” for it is this living communion that precedes us, and into which we are baptised, that teaches us the very language of faith. In plain terms, the Church came before us and rather than stifling our personal engagement with God in Christ, this very fact makes possible our personal faith with all the riches and insights of those that preceded us.

noahangbaptismP_041In faith, we respond to a word which did not originate with us – in the language of Lumen Fidei, “Our belief is expressed in response to an invitation, to a word which must be heard and which is now my own; it exists as part of a dialogue and cannot be merely a profession originating in an individual” (LF 39). Ratzinger’s earlier text makes the point in a similar way, “Faith comes to man from outside. . . [It is] not something thought up by myself; it is something said to me . . . This double structure of ‘Do you believe? – I do believe!’, this form of call from outside and the reply to it is fundamental to it” (Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 91-2).

The ecclesial form of faith also expresses itself in the Church’s sacraments which “communicate an incarnate memory” (LF 40). Lumen Fidei even intimates the sacramental structure of faith itself for “the awakening of faith is linked to the dawning of a new sacramental sense in our lives as human beings and as Christians, in which visible and material realities are seen to point beyond themselves to the mystery of the eternal” (LF 40). Following this there is catechesis on the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, the creed, the Decalogue and prayer before the fourth chapter turns to the social consequences of the nature of faith outlined.

An Incarnate Faith

In continuity with Pope Francis’ preaching on the sociality of faith and the Church’s mission, the encyclical concludes by relating faith to the common good, affirming faith not as a privatised journey of introspection or pious isolation but a “process of building, the preparing of a place in which human beings can dwell together with one another” (LF 50). Faith does not only provide interior firmness, it also allows the believer to see others in their inherent dignity and vocation, born of love for union with God’s own self. Faith, because it is loving, does not draw believers away from the world but ever deeper into the concrete concerns of the men and women of our time. Families and the young are called to be bearers of faith in the midst of the world (LF 52-53) while faith brings as well a respect for creation as a gift for which all are indebted.

woodencrossA powerful section of Lumen Fidei is its treatment of human suffering in which it recognises human pain, hunger and loss is not at all extinguished by faith but placed in a new context of meaning. The encyclical affirms in this regard, “Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey. To those who suffer, God does not provide arguments which explain everything; rather, his response is that of an accompanying presence, a history of goodness which touches every story of suffering and opens up a ray of light” (LF 57). Pope Francis reminds us that it is Christ who has occupied the place of suffering, in the Gethsemane Garden and on the Cross, and as the endurer of humanity’s suffering he will be “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2) (LF 57).

As is tradition, Lumen Fidei concludes with an affirmation of the ‘Marian profile’ of faith for it is Mary who demonstrates the fruitfulness of faith from the Annunciation to the Cross. As figure of the Church and as one whose motherhood extends to each of his disciples, Mary leads us always and only to the blessing of faith which is her Son.

Conclusion

LUMEN FIDEI encyclical provisional cover_ B 13.inddLumen Fidei is a timely encyclical for a challenging moment in the Church’s history, calling for a return to the purity and plenitude of the faith that we have received and are called to live in the present. As this most recent teaching is received and settles within the tradition of the Church (and it calls for future reading together with its forebears Deus Caritas Est and Spe Salvi), many more insights and implications will no doubt come to light. What is obvious by its absence is significant reference to the “new evangelisation” as another manifestation of the Church’s self-understanding (with the exception of LF 42). We might hope that a future exhortation on this subject will build connections and so further expand the implications of faith for the Church’s mission in a new time, in the context of a globalised church and with a variety of ad intra and ad extra influences impacting on the Church’s relation to the world.

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the great hope of Pope Francis

popefrancisSome eight hundred years ago a young soldier reposed in prayer at a wayside chapel on the outskirts of Assisi. It was there that the young man, named Francis, heard and heeded the divine will of God, ‘Go, repair my house which as you see is falling into ruin.’ This moment of great faith and also of intense tribulation for the Church of Christ provides a fitting backdrop to the announcement of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s election as the 266th Bishop of Rome, with the appellation of Pope Francis.

Bergoglio, until this morning the Jesuit Archbishop of Buenos Aires, presents as an ideal candidate to renew the Church in the present, beset as it is by the ongoing scandal of the sexual abuse crisis and an accompanying collapse of credibility in the public square, widespread persecution in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, the challenge of rapid and aggressive secularisation in the West, and significant issues of church governance that, it must be admitted, have hindered the ability of the Church to respond effectively to these concerns as well as the broader needs of human culture and society.

archbergoglioOf course, it is naïve to assume that any one figure can bring about the conversion that remains the responsibility of the whole body of the Catholic faithful and it can be too easy to either acclaim or criticise those called to a service of leadership from afar while one sits comfortably on their hide. Naïve it would be, too, to assume a simply address of Church structures will provide the necessary medicine for the afflictions suffered by the Church on account of its members who, like the first disciples, know their poverty of spirit all too well.

Nevertheless, it is true that ‘leadership matters’ and it arrives with the responsibility to take up these great challenges with courage and the conviction that the current woes of the Catholic Church are not a fulfilment of its nature but a contradiction to its mission as the ‘universal sacrament of salvation’ (Lumen Gentium 48). In other words, leadership brings with it the demands and gift of hope, a hope that brings the future into the present and affirms that this moment of history, filled as it may be with trial and tribulation, does not exhaust all possibilities.

Doubtless much ink will be spilt about Pope Francis and his capacity to realise these possibilities in the years ahead. Already there has been a positive assessment for his acute concern for the poor, a virtue that is indeed evident throughout his episcopal career in Latin America, and for his prayerful acceptance of the responsibilities of the Petrine Office. The inspiration of Bergoglio’s papal name in the mendicant saint of Assisi augurs well for a pontificate marked by a focus on a renewed mission of evangelisation which responds to the poor, to poverty in its social and spiritual dimensions.

Who are these ‘poor’? There are those poor in spirit who have yet to hear the Good News of the Risen Jesus, sent from the Father and encountered in the Spirit; there are the poor in discipleship who have heard but not received this living Word within the depths of their life; there are the poor in circumstance who cry out for the bare necessities of life and who make a claim on the Church’s faith, and there is the poverty of the Church itself which remains ever incomplete in its human dimension, in need of conversion to the source of its life.

BergoglioThe credentials of Pope Francis to take on this missionary enterprise are certainly in evidence. In an interview with Vatican Insider, a media service run by the daily newspaper La Stampa, Bergoglio called the Church to return to its foundational ‘memory’, the memory of Christ and the urgency of his Gospel message. Reflecting on the current Year of Faith, the then-Archbishop reminded his audience that faith is not given to us for our own consolation or comfort but as a gift for others:

Benedict XVI has insisted on the renewal of faith being a priority and presents faith as a gift that must be passed on, a gift to be offered to others and to be shared as a gratuitous act. It is not a possession, but a mission. This priority indicated by the Pope has a commemorative purpose: through the Year of Faith we remember the gift we have received. And there are three pillars to this: the memory of having been chosen, the memory of the promise that was made to us and the alliance that God has forged with us. We are called to renew this alliance, our belonging to the community of God’s faithful.

It is memory of our election, the promises of God and our communion with Him that reminds us who we as Church. Like those who suffer amnesia, the Church, without this fundamental threefold memory, loses its sense of self, its very identity, and so its purpose. The Archbishop went on to remark,

We need to avoid the spiritual sickness of a Church that is wrapped up in its own world: when a Church becomes like this, it grows sick. It is true that going out onto the street implies the risk of accidents happening, as they would to any ordinary man or woman. But if the Church stays wrapped up in itself, it will age. And if I had to choose between a wounded Church that goes out onto the streets and a sick withdrawn Church, I would definitely choose the first . . .

Bergoglio identifies the need of the Church to resist insularity, to move from ecclesiolatry to a new evangelisation, from fear of the world’s unknown dimensions to an embrace of Gospel life within its very domain. This is the path of conversion that will bring renewed vitality and hope to the Church catholic. It is ‘on the street’ and in the public square that the Church will regain its innocence and vigour; it is in world-engaging mission that the Church grows young.

conclave2013Finally, the election of a Latin American to the papacy, the first non-European pope for twelve centuries, recalls for the Church its essential universality, a ‘Pentecostal’ breadth and diversity that implies a universality of mission, a mission not only to the West but ad gentes, to the East and global south. While differing in specific contexts, there is a continuity of global need that must enliven the Church’s faith: pressing issues of social and economic injustice, including gross exploitation of women and children, the endangered rights of the unborn and the voiceless, the victims of war and poverty, the spiritual imprisonment of those without hope.

As shepherd and teacher, leader and servant of the Church’s faith, we pray that Pope Francis will be given the courage and succour of the Holy Spirit to fulfil his great responsibilities. As Easter approaches may he, like the first Peter, grow firmly in his role as witness and messenger of Easter faith and proclaim Christ as Risen in humble service of the Church and to the world.

Peter among the Apostles

papal-conclaveWith the imminent election of a new pope, the role of the Bishop of Rome has come into focus in popular and religious media. It struck me that the many formalities and traditions that accompany a papal election, as interesting as they might be, have had the effect of putting into the shade the bases of the papacy in Catholic faith. This seems a lost opportunity to provide ‘reasons for our hope’ (1 Pet. 3:15)

In short, little attention has been given to the ‘why’ of the papacy, a ‘why’ which is significant not only for Catholic believers in their own understanding of the Church but also for non-Catholic Christians who are often, and it must be said not always unreasonably, ‘put off’ by an apparent obsession with ceremonial fanfare over and above the simplicity of biblical discipleship.

Indeed, Paul VI lamented in 1967 that ‘the Pope . . . is undoubtedly the most serious obstacle on the path to ecumenism’. His eventual successor, John Paul II, was to take a more positive view in regards to the ecumenical significance of the papacy, asking how the Petrine Office could accomplish a service of love and unity recognised by all. As the Oxford theologian Fergus Kerr notes, the Polish pontiff even appealed to Christians who are not now, and perhaps never likely to be in full communion with Rome, to help in reshaping the papal ministry (see Ut Unum Sint 4). This recognised not only the possibility of papal reform but situated the task of the papacy within an ecumenical context, within a communion of faith that was ‘already but not yet’.

peter-iconFor Catholics, of course, the pope is understood to be the successor of the apostle Peter and so has ‘full, immediate, ordinary and general jurisdiction’ or primacy over the college of bishops and indeed over the whole Church. What does this rather foreboding statement mean? It means he has a distinct, ecclesial responsibility to proclaim and preserve the faith in its purity and plenitude as well as uphold the unity of the communion of faith, with personal, and not merely delegated, authority to intervene in the workings of another bishop and local churches in service of that ecclesial communion.

Contrary to ‘ultramontanists’ who confuse the papacy with the Church, it should be kept in view that the pope is not the only principle of the Church’s unity (lest we forget the Holy Spirit, for one, and the worldwide episcopate to name another). The Petrine Office is firmly embedded within the Church, in service of the Church’s unity and not above it.

Put in terms of an ecclesiology of communion, the pope is for Catholic faith the visible point of communion of the local churches and cannot, and should not, act as an absolute monarch. Why? This is because it is the college of bishops as a whole that is understood to be of divine law (ius divinum), a college that the pope could never abolish or do away with and of which he remains a member. So the Pope is a head of a college of bishops, belonging wholly to this college while never being simply its delegate. ‘Peter’ remains an ‘apostle’ while the ‘apostles’ do have Peter as their head. Indeed, ‘papal infallibility’, that ability of the pope to proclaim what the faith is, cannot be understood apart from the faith of the college of bishops and so is intrinsically linked to the faith of the whole Church (and anything but an autonomous or private opinion).

greekorthWhat do other denominations make of all of this? Many non-Catholic Christians reject the entire notion of the papacy and its theological or biblical foundations. Closer to home, the Orthodox – whose bishops the Catholic Church does recognise as legitimate, sacramental bishops, of genuine apostolic succession – while not strictly or necessarily objecting to a place of honour for the Bishop of Rome among the world’s bishops, do not believe that the Bishop of Rome should have any juridical claim over a local bishop. In other words, they reject the idea that the Bishop of Rome can actually interfere with another bishop in the governance of his own diocese.

johnsgospelSo, to return to what I think has been a missed opportunity in recent weeks, what are the bases of the papacy in Catholic faith? The most basic approach is to reflect on the biblical warrant for the Petrine Office and to offer this in conversation to other Christians of goodwill. Specifically, how might we understand Peter’s role among the apostles, a role in the primitive Church that underpins, at least in part, Catholic faith on this subject?

The biblical and theological literature concerning Peter’s role in the early Christian community is vast and includes important contributions by Rudolf Pesch, Martin Hengel, Christian Grappe, Raymond Brown and the Australian theologian Gerald O’Collins.

The classic Scriptural texts which have been understood to establish Peter’s primacy among the apostles are well-known and have been well covered in apologetic debates. They are:

  • Matthew 16:18-19 (‘And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven) Note to conclave enthusiasts: This passage is traditionally read to the newly-elected Pope and cardinal-electors prior to the pontiff’s first appearance at the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica;
  • Luke 22:31-32 (‘Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers’)
  • John 21:15-18 (detailing Jesus’ repeated command to Peter, ‘feed my sheep’).

However, beyond these familiar texts, there are others which I think disclose Peter’s distinctive role and authority within the first community of disciples. We know, for one, that the Gospel of Mark was written not long after Peter’s martyrdom in Rome (c.60-70) and that it transmits the witness of Peter himself to Jesus’ life and ministry. This testifies to the importance of Peter’s witness for the early Church community.

Peter_the_apostleAs Gerald O’Collins avers, Peter stands out as well among the apostles as the first witness to the resurrection, and therefore one whose Easter faith and proclamation of that event is central to the Church’s life. This witness to the Risen Jesus is, as O’Collins points out, a much neglected dimension of the figure of Peter.

I suspect many Catholics would be surprised by this claim and would more likely name ‘Mary Magdalene’ as the first witness to the Risen Jesus and for good reason. After all, in all four Gospels she is present at the empty tomb. However, an empty tomb is not Jesus himself and Mary Magdalene is named as first witness to the Risen Jesus only in Matthew 28:1-10 and John 20:11-18.

The alternate, and likely earlier, tradition names Peter as the first witness to the Resurrection and can be found in St Paul’s writings which, of course, pre-date the four Gospels. In one of Paul’s letters to the community at Corinth we find an ancient formula (perhaps creed) which names Peter as first witness to Jesus risen from the dead. Paul writes,

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accord with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Cor. 15:3-8)   [My emphases]

Paul is clearly transmitting an already-existing tradition. This same Petrine tradition can be detected in Luke’s Gospel, on the road to Emmaus, where the evangelist emphasises that this ‘Emmaus’ encounter with the Risen Jesus is not the primary one. Luke writes of the disciples on the road,

That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon (Peter)!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he has been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.   [My emphases]

It becomes apparent from such New Testament texts, in addition to reference to the ‘keys to the Kingdom’, Peter as shepherd of the flock and as the ‘rock’ on which the Church’s life will be supported, that ‘the fisherman from Bethsaida’ assumes a special leadership role among the apostles that was actual, grounded in his primary role as witness and messenger of Easter faith, and subsequently recognised in the writings of the early community of faith, that is, in its Scriptures as such.

sanpietropenitenteIt is interesting to note, as a final remark, that Peter’s leadership of the apostolic community is as a repentant sinner (cf. Luke 5:8, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord’). Peter, of course, would go on to deny Jesus three times, a betrayal foretold. However, this ‘shadow side’ of Peter does not rule out his leadership but grounds his task of leadership in his own conversion and in service and proclamation of God’s love and compassion to others. Again, we hear Jesus’ words in Luke’s Gospel, expressing this exemplary role that Peter is to play in service of the Church’s faith as a whole, ‘I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers’ (Lk 22:32). St Peter emerges, as ever, an unworthy servant, entrusted to proclaim the plenitude and unity of faith in Him who first showed him mercy.

While the papacy has been subject to reform throughout the centuries, shaped not only by internal factors but also by the dramatic circumstances of the world, the continuity between the role of Peter among the apostles and the Pope among the college of bishops and the universal Church is a most positive and biblically-shaped principle of Catholic faith. While the reports on the conclave continue to roll in and as the announcement of a new ‘Peter’ looms, we remember the first Peter as leader, teacher, witness of Easter faith, repentant sinner, evangeliser and, above all, disciple to Christ who alone can ‘make all things’, including his Church, anew (Rev. 21:5).

the Spirit of the conclave

With the collegeofcardinalsconclave set to begin tomorrow (12 March), it is worth reflecting on one of the underlying themes of these past weeks, or one of the ‘issues under the issues’ as the historian John W. O’Malley would put it.

The  issue is the role of the Holy Spirit in the life and renewal of the Church. Of course, following Pope Benedict XVI’s abdication, it is the Spirit’s guidance of the Church in the election of a new pontiff that is at the heart of our prayer at present and for good reason.

As a religious and political institution, the papacy has shaped and re-shaped human history in innumerable ways both positive and notorious (compare the papacy of Gregory the Great in the sixth century and his historic mission to the people of Anglo-Saxon England, worshipping as they were ‘stocks and stones at the edge of the world’ to that of Benedict IX in the eleventh century whose election, the result of systematic bribery on the part of his father, brought only violence, debauchery and shame to the See of Peter).

This uneven history of the papacy and its influence on both the Church and world underlines the importance of the upcoming conclave and the Spirit-led discernment that calls to be exercised by the cardinalate.

The new pontiff will not only need to meet the challenge of the sexual abuse crisis, a scandal that continues to raze the credibility and mission of the Church globally, but also the plight of persecuted Christians in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, the yet-incomplete articulation and direction of ‘the new evangelisation’ aimed principally at the West, and the abiding issues of internal reform, including that of the Roman Curia, that call for address.

While it would be comforting and reassuring to assume that the Spirit’s direction will, and has been, a full triumph in the Church, history has told us otherwise. Indeed, on the subject of papal elections, the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger made the following, now widely-publicised, remarks on the influence of the Spirit on such an occasion:

I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus the Spirit’s role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined . . .

The Cardinal went on to conclude with stark realism,

There are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit obviously would not have picked!

Erroneous decisions on the part of the Church, certainly not restricted to the realm of candidates for the Petrine Office, raise the question of the precise nature of the Spirit’s role in ecclesial discernment and decision-making for while Scripture affirms that the Spirit will indeed ‘guide us into all the truth’ (Jn 16:13) it ostensibly does not offer the community of disciples immunity from mediocrity or even calamity.

NTChurchCertainly, in the Acts of the Apostles the Spirit does appear to intervene at chosen moments in an immediate and decisive manner, leading the nascent Church towards what it should be and what it should do. For instance, we witness the power of the Spirit at Pentecost to bring about a reconciled diversity among Jesus’ disciples and later it is the Spirit who guides the Church into an embrace of the Gentiles, a decision which the apostles and elders attest as having ‘seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’ (Acts 15:28). For Luke, the author of Acts, the power of the Spirit is at work, guiding and directing the early Church to its destination.

However, other New Testament texts, the dramatic history of the Church and our own personal experience suggest that the voice of the Spirit is not always so clear. The diverse manifestations of the Spirit as expressed in the New Testament communities (1 Cor. 12:28-31, Eph. 4:11-13, Rom. 12:6-8), while a profound gift to the Church, indubitably shape the later Johannine emphasis on the need of discernment to ensure that what has been received, experienced or testified is indeed truly of God. The First Letter of John, clearly acquainted with the experience of community discord, warns, ‘Beloved, do not believe every spirit but test the spirits . . . from this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error’ (1 John 4:1,6).

rubleviconIndeed, it is ironic that the subject of the Spirit, which ecumenical theology affirms as the principal of unity within the Church, has been at the root of some of the most significant divisions in the history of Christianity – the split of the East and West over the Spirit’s procession from the Father and/or the Son, and the Spirit’s relation to Scripture, tradition, and the sacraments including hierarchical ministry so bitterly contested at the Reformation.

What we can draw from this mixed history and the necessity of the Spirit’s discernment is that the gift of the Spirit – in all of its ‘elasticity’ as Cardinal Ratzinger puts it – does not so overwhelm the Christian that it alleviates or excuses them of the responsibility to evaluate, reflect and decide in faith but rather invites and even necessitates their active participation in that process of decision. This much is clear from the story of the primitive Church as described above (to open the Gospel of Christ to the Gentiles or to restrict proclamation of the Messiah to the House of Israel?)

In other words, the gift of the Spirit needs to be actively and constantly received by the community of the Church as it pilgrims through history, a ‘reception’ that involves the activities of listening, understanding, applying, and so truly ‘making one’s own’ the Spirit of faith and grace so that the community can be faithful to the person and message of Jesus.

The necessity of active human involvement in the Spirit-led decisions of the Church explains not only the emphasis of our tradition on being ‘docile’ to the Spirit (a spiritual tenet emphasised by Benedict XVI himself in his farewell address to the College of Cardinals) but also opens the real possibility for the non-reception of the Spirit by the Church community. This failure to heed the Spirit is evidenced not only in the grand crises and scandals of the past and recent history of the Church but also in the more ‘ordinary’, everyday failing of Christians to live the full meaning of their God-given discipleship.

The Australian theologian Ormond Rush concludes of the Church and the Spirit, ‘the human receivers of revelation are to be portrayed as active participants in discerning the way forward, co-deciders with God’s Spirit’ (cf. Rush, Still Interpreting Vatican II, 87). This ‘co-decision’ with God’s Spirit is a capacity and responsibility not simply of those who exercise authority in the Church but for the whole ecclesial body which shares the task of receiving the one Spirit, the ‘Spirit of Christ’ himself (Rom. 8:9), into its life, structures and decision-making.

CardinalsReturning to the impending conclave, though the abiding presence of the Spirit in the Church is that which ensures the Church a future as the ‘pillar and bulwark of the truth’ (1 Tim. 3:15), it remains the task of the cardinal-electors, as individuals and as a college, to be open and receptive of the Spirit’s promptings in selecting ‘the first among the successors of the apostles’ to guide the Church into this future.

As for each and every Christian, what is essential to the cardinal’s reception of the Spirit is their own conversion for it is only in holiness that one can recognise the Spirit who is holy. There can be, then, no naïve self-complacency about those Spirit-led decisions which shape our life of faith, whether they are made in the splendour of the Sistine Chapel or the more familiar surrounds of our own dioceses and parishes with their own intimate concerns and hopes for the future. It is only our conversion that enables authentic discernment, a faithful recognition, of the Spirit of Truth as it calls us to respond. As the 14th century theologian Gregory of Sinai concludes, ‘the understanding of truth is given to those who have become participants in the truth – who have tasted it through living.’ We pray that the cardinal-electors will choose well and in good faith.