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The Legacy of Benedict XVI

pbxviThere’s been all sorts of comments about Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy in the media and the social networks since he announced his decision to resign from the papacy.  Unsurprisingly, the secular media has focused upon the events that have grabbed global attention like the clerical abuse scandal, Vatileaks and the Regensburg address.  And equally unsurprisingly, the assessments of how well Benedict XVI dealt with these and similar issues have varied greatly.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to weigh Benedict’s handling of  these and other difficult matters that arose on his watch, but I also think that it is very easy to transpose a political view of leadership onto the papacy, and thus obscure the true nature of Benedict’s legacy.  For while we need the pope to be an effective leader of the global institution that is the Church, the pope’s primary role is to be a spiritual leader.  The pope is supposed to lead us  to God.

The origins of this mission lie in the very words of Jesus himself, who tells Peter that when he has turned (literally ‘converted’) he is to strengthen his fellow disciples (Luke 22:32).  This means that to understand Benedict’s legacy we need to look as much to his encyclicals and letters, to his homilies and weekly addresses, and to his apostolic visits to different countries as to his organizational management of the Church. And by that measure, BXVI seriously stacks up.

Again and again and again Benedict simply and eloquently pointed us to the heart of the Christian faith: to the encounter with Jesus Christ.  From his first encyclical:

Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.  (Deus Caritas Est #1)

And this encounter with Christ is at the one and the same time an encounter with the God who is love.  From one of Benedict’s Q and A sessions with  a group of priests:

 Christianity is not a highly complicated collection of so many dogmas that it is impossible for anyone to know them all; it is not something exclusively for academicians who can study these things, but it is something simple: God exists and God is close in Jesus Christ.

And again,

Christianity is not a new philosophy or new morality. We are Christians only if we encounter Christ… Only in this personal relationship with Christ, only in this encounter with the Risen One do we really become Christians… Therefore, let us pray to the Lord to enlighten us, so that, in our world, he will grant us the encounter with his presence, and thus give us a lively faith, an open heart, and great charity for all, capable of renewing the world.

And finally,

Many people perceive Christianity as something institutional — rather than as an encounter with Christ — which explains why they don’t see it as a source of joy.

Benedict XVI is one of the great theologians of the twentieth century, a truly great intellect capable of critically engaging with both sacred and secular currents of thought.  Without denying or dismissing his theological contribution for a moment, I think that Benedict XVI’s greatest legacy is that he has been a pastor and a missionary, a spiritual father.  And there is something about the simplicity with which this formidable theologian went about this that reminded us again and again that Christianity is Christ: that everything else that makes up the Catholic faith flows from our encounter with the Risen Lord.  And Benedict did not simply speak about these things, but truly embodied them. He was and is a wonderful witness to the joy that this encounter with Christ brings.

Thank  you Holy Father.

Pub Talk: “When Beauty Hides no Longer: Exploring Grace, the Cross and the Glory of it all”

This is the podcast of a pub  talk I gave at “Truth on Tap”, in the Broken Bay Diocese earlier in the year.  You can listen to it at the XT3 website here:   You can also download the podcast from the XT3 site.

The basic thrust of the talk is this: that faith is the result of an encounter with Christ the Beautiful One. Christians are fundamentally lovers of Beauty. It examines the difference between a theoretical or purely conceptual encounter with Christ, and the actual encounter with Christ. Christ is beautiful, even and especially as the Crucified. These topics are explored through the story of one young man’s encounter with Christ.

The talk draws upon the theological project of  Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Faith and Postmodernism in the Pub

Last night I gave a talk at the young adults event Theology at the Pub in Melbourne, which was more or less a repeat of a talk I had given in May at Guinness and God in Canberra.  The talk was called ‘Faith in a Postmodern World: Insights from Benedict XVI’.  The talk looks at modernity, Jean-Francois Lyotard’s critique of modernity’s concept of knowledge, and some of Benedict XVI’s seminal ideas about the narrative structure of faith, beauty and the encounter with the God of love.

I was trying to offer a logic for faith in a world that remains suspicious of claims to knowledge that lie beyond the scientific method.

My analysis of Lyotard owes a lot to James K. A. Smith’s clever book, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault to Church. Thanks to everyone who came out for the talks, and thanks especially to Daniel who allowed me to quote part of our email conversation about atheism in the talk.  Here’s the video of the Canberra talk (with thanks to CatholicLIFE and ACU):

What Would Thomas Merton Have Thought of Facebook? On Being Unplugged in a Digital Age

I would have really liked to have gone to the recent Catholic Media Conference which took place in Sydney last week, but a few different commitments made that impossible.  I’ve heard a few reports from friends who went, which were largely very positive.  And it got me thinking…

As a Catholic priest who blogs regularly (well, semi-regularly) I am clearly an advocate of the Church’s presence in the new(-ish) world of social media.  To say that the Church shouldn’t be a presence on the Web is to turn our back on one of the key places that people gather today.  As Pope Benedict XVI has pointed out, the new means of social communication are one of the new areopagi – one of the new sectors of society – that ought to be the focus of the Church’s new evangelisation.  We don’t want to disregard the potential of a wonderful tool for the communication of the Gospel.  In fact, the Church simply cannot ignore these new means of communication, because like it or not, this is the way people today will want to communicate with us.

At the same time, we cannot afford to be naive about the various concerns and questions raised by the new media, including matters of privacy and safety and the narrowing sources of our information as we are increasingly selective about what and who we read.  I’d also like to highlight a different concern.

In a world where everyone is always online and always connected, the Church may be, in fact needs to be, a ‘place’ where people are able to experience community ‘unplugged’.  I’m reminded of a comment by Thomas Merton, who suggested that watching television was the antithesis of contemplation. The gaze that the television produces is the polar opposite of the contemplative gaze.  What would Merton have made of Facebook?  I cannot help think that he would have thought that  it was an ersatz form of the community that is produced by the contemplative gaze.  Connecting all the time with friends on Facebook is like people forced to drink chicory in deprived, post-World War Europe.  Sure it’s a drink, but it isn’t really coffee.  Facebook isn’t a substitute for embodied relationship, or what we simply used to call friendship and community before the advent of ‘friends’ whom you never see face to face.

The link between contemplation and genuine community is critical, and being online for hours on end militates against both.  And without wanting to deny the human being’s virtually endless capacity for distraction (I’m recalling Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death here) I truly believe that the ersatz form of community to be found online will ultimately prove to be as unsatisfying for people as chicory substitutes for coffee.  Which brings us to a magnificent opportunity for the Church… to be the Church.  To be a ‘place’ which provides a space for genuine contemplation and which produces genuine community.  Our necessary presence on the web can and must meet people in their ‘world’, but it needs to invite them into a different one: the world that is opened up by the Gospel, that is incarnated especially in liturgy, and which produces an alternative and distinctive way of being human.  I’m completely aware of the apparent irony of using a blog to make this argument, but it is only an apparent irony.  It actually reinforces my point that we should make extensive use of the new media in order to connect with people, but we will do that in order to direct them to the contemplative and embodied community of the Church.

In particular, this means that we need to be careful of uncritically importing the practices of the new media into our lives and into the Church’s life.  Let me offer one example: the Facebook timeline encourages us to offer a chronology of our lives online in words and pictures going right back to the moment of our birth.  I am sure there are parents who are even now diligently adding to their infant’s Facebook page, getting them ready to present to their child when they are old enough to read or even see the pictures.  The timeline concept clearly raises questions about privacy, but the deeper reality is that it is also a liturgical practice in which we tell ourselves who we are – we form our own identity – through what we post about ourselves.  The Church offers another kind of liturgy, which cannot compete with the Facebook timeline for being slick, glossy or initially attractive.  But the liturgy of the Church and the other practices of faith like contemplative prayer offer a different account of who we are: that our deepest identity is that we are the beloved of God.

This does not mean dispensing with the exciting avenues that the new media offer for proclaiming the Gospel.  It means recognising that these avenues are subordinate to the Gospel and not the other way round. The evangelical task for the Church is not to mimic the practices of the new media, but to be authentic to her own identity as the community that is formed by gazing at the face of Christ, who is the face of God.

The Divinity of Christ, the Papacy, and 1.5 million young people

Photo from S+L Media

Like all Catholics and indeed most Christians all over the world, the 1.5 million young people who gathered with the Pope for World Youth Day in Madrid listened to the Gospel passage from Matthew 16:13-20.

The story begins with Jesus asking the disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’  The disciples tell Jesus that others are calling him John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets.  If we were to ask people in 2011 in Australia, Spain, or perhaps any other country in the Western world, the actual answers would be different but the sentiment would be basically the same: popular opinion now as then considers Jesus to be a wise figure, a guru, a noble  teacher – and that’s all.

In fact, as I listen to people today the most common position is probably summed up by the title of Philip Pullman’s book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ:  Jesus was a good guy, noble, nice and now very dead.  As far as Pullman and indeed many of our contemporaries are concerned, the divinity of Jesus is a fantasy dreamt up by the Church at  a much later date and a terrible distortion of what the ‘real’ Jesus was on about.

In the Gospel though Jesus is not content with popular opinion.  He wants an answer from the people who have walked with him, from those he has chosen and called to follow him.  And so he asks the disciples, ‘Who do you say I am?’.  We’re told that Peter then spoke up.  I think that implies a deathly silence after Jesus asked the question.  No one was game to speak for a moment or two.  And then Peter declared, ‘you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’

It would be a mistake to think that Peter’s profession of faith here means that he understood precisely what Son of God meant in the technical language that would be used in the 4th century to define Jesus’ divinity.  It’s anachronistic to think that Peter had access to language that the bishops at the Council of Nicaea employed to unequivocally affirm the divinity of Christ in AD 325 in the statement popularly known as the Nicene Creed.  But that’s precisely the point: the bishops at Nicaea weren’t saying something new about Jesus when they declared that Jesus is ‘the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages’.  They were expressing the consistent faith of Christians from Peter down to their own time.

What the bishops were trying to do in AD 325 was to clearly articulate the Church’s belief in Jesus’ divinity because a man named Arius had denied it, and so the Church needed to re-state what Christians had always believed.  As a consequence they came up with the statement above and the following to describe what Christians believe about Jesus:

God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.

From Peter to Nicaea to our own time: to be a Christian is to believe that Jesus is the Son of God.  It means that in the man Jesus of Nazareth God is completely and uniquely present.  Our faith hangs on this, because our faith is based not simply on Jesus’ teaching, but on who he is.  If Jesus is only a human being, then what he says might be interesting, it might be profound, but his teaching can be no more important than the legacy of any other teacher, leader or prophet.  But if Jesus really is divine, then his teaching is universally valid and relevant for every human being.  More than that, if Jesus really is divine then it is through him that we are able to share in the very life of God.

Many of Peter’s contemporaries found this to be a scandalous claim.  People today find it scandalous too.  It is the ‘scandal’ at the heart of the Christian faith.  But as the encounter between Peter and Jesus tells us, to believe that Jesus is the Son of God is ultimately the result of God’s revelation, of God’s self-giving communication that resounds in the hearts of those who are open to it.

What has this got to do with a gathering of 1.5 million young people in Madrid this weekend?  Simply this: that in Benedict XVI the successor of Peter is still speaking up, still declaring, in spite of many voices that ridicule and deride him for doing so, that Jesus is divine.  This is the deepest purpose of the papacy: to profess, in continuity with Peter’s declaration, that Jesus is the Son of  God… and to invite others to do the same.

Responding to Phillip Adams

Phillip Adams’ column in The Weekend Australian this weekend warrants a response.  It’s entitled Killers for Christ and contains a litany of instances of violence perpetrated by Christians.  Adams then (rightly in my opinion) points out that Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik’s links with ‘historic’ and ‘contemporary Christian fundamentalism’ are irrefutable.  Adams’ column finishes with this sentence:

We cannot be surprised if, once in a while, an individual, or an entire nation, see Christianity in the militant terms of Onward Christian Soldiers and massacre or invasion as their sacred duty. Christians must speak out against such madness. Jesus would want it.

No argument from me there, Phillip, I completely agree.  Murder in the name of Christ is always a reprehensible betrayal of Christ’s message, and Christians have at times dramatically failed throughout history to be faithful to their Master’s teaching on this matter.

But the implication of Adams’ column is that Christians might find speaking out against violence and massacres difficult to do.  Just to reassure those who think this might be true, here is a line from Pope Benedict XVI’s statement at the news of the Norwegian atrocity:

Let us pray for the victims, for the wounded and for their loved ones. To all, I wish to repeat the urgent call to abandon the way of hate forever and to flee from the logic of evil.

A couple of other points really do need to be made.  Firstly, I don’t think that Christians should ever attempt the indefensible, and it is undeniable that Christians throughout history have been guilty of murder and violence.  And it is also true that at various points in history, that violence has been sanctioned by the leadership of the Church rather than condemned.  These are all shameful episodes in the Church’s history.

Adams notes that Christians worked for the abolition of slavery and the end to apartheid.  What he fails to mention is that church leaders also roundly condemned the invasion of Iraq, and that Christians also denounced the Holocaust and the conflict in Northern Ireland.

The tenor of Adams’ article is that Christianity is somehow a religion of violence rather than of peace.  Adams states,

the religion based on the peaceful, forgiving teaching of Jesus has been, and remains, more militant than Islam. For millennia Christians have been slaughtering Jews, Muslims, Hindus and each other – in the millions.

I think that attempting to compare whether atheistic regimes, Muslims or Christians have been guilty of more atrocities is macabre. The truth of the matter is that people have been slaughtering each other for millennia, and the perpetrators have been people of every religion and those professing no religion.  To argue that the faith with the smallest body count against its name is somehow superior is an abhorrent conversation.

Violence in the name of Christianity will always be contrary to Christian faith, and a betrayal of the message of Jesus.  While I would want to strongly affirm that millions of Muslims are peaceful, good people who would repudiate violence as firmly as I would, it is a matter of historical record that Muhammad had recourse to violence to further his religious goals.  While the majority of atheists no doubt similarly reject violence the major proponents of atheistic regimes in the twentieth century also possess blood-stained hands.

I think Adams is right: due to some of the regrettable episodes in history we sadly cannot be surprised if an individual chooses to draw upon those episodes to cast Christianity in militant terms.  But to draw such a conclusion will always involve a misinterpretation of Christianity.  Christians have no trouble rejecting such recourse to violence, and we have no trouble saying so.

WYD08 – 3 Years on

Today marks the third anniversary of World Youth Day 08 in Sydney.  For me, as for most I suppose, it seems like those three years have flown by.  I get asked fairly regularly about what I think WYD08 achieved, especially for the Church in Australia, and I think there are plenty of possible answers to that question.  I’d like to highlight just one central point for us to give thanks to God for on this anniversary.  It might also help to explain why WYD continues to matter to young Australian Catholics as many young pilgrims make their final preparations to attend the next World Youth Day in Madrid.

You have probably noticed that it’s not all that easy to be a young Catholic in Australia at the moment.  The truth is, it never really has been.  The first young Catholics in this country were Irish convicts, victims of repressive measures in their homeland.  And for the first half of the twentieth century to be Catholic was to be a member of a vilified minority.  In the early part of the twenty-first century young Catholics do not suffer outright persecution, but are all too often easily ridiculed, dismissed or mocked for their religious beliefs.

It is important to ‘read’ WYD08 against this cultural backdrop.  World Youth Day was far from being a dramatic ‘in your face’ sort of challenge to the mockers and scorners, a sort of victory by sheer overwhelming mass of numbers.  This wasn’t a moment of revived triumphalism where we stood down our detractors and got a bit of our own back.  WYD08 was a moment where we recognised and celebrated, in large, loud and highly symbolic terms, that we are part of the Church universal.  Again, this meant more than simply meeting pilgrims from other countries or simply being part of the largest Catholic crowd this country has ever seen.  It wasn’t about safety in numbers, but was rather a reminder that here in Australia, we are not alone, but are part of something bigger.

More than that, World Youth Day helped to connect us to the universal Church not simply in space but also in time.  We are a young Church here in Australia, and unable to trace our Christian roots directly back through several hundred much less a thousand years.  But three years ago today we were made vividly aware through the identifying characteristics of our faith – such as the proclamation of the Word of God, the Eucharist, the presence of the successor of Peter, and the presence of peoples from lands that have an ancient Christian heritage – that our faith is not something that we hold alone, but something we hold with others across the world and in union with others who have gone before us.

For that week it was transparently clear that being a Catholic does not always mean feeling foolish or dismissed or rejected.  Here was a moment where we belonged, where we were reminded that we share in a rich and substantial tradition, where people helped us to understand the rich intellectual vigour of our faith and where we deepened in our love for the Lord Jesus and his Church.  It is not too trite to say that WYD08 encouraged us – it literally gave us new heart in our faith as Catholics as we were reminded that we are part of the Church of Jesus Christ.  May the memory of that week in July 2008 give us renewed strength to give others a reason for the hope that we have.

As Madrid draws near I pray that the pilgrims attending this next World Youth Day will similarly find that their faith is richly confirmed.  And I pray that those of us who were present at Sydney might also be reminded of Pope Benedict’s challenge to us:

Do not be afraid to say “yes” to Jesus, to find your joy in doing his will, giving yourself completely to the pursuit of holiness, and using all your talents in the service of others!

PS I know the photo is of Barangaroo and not Randwick. It’s just too good a photo not too share!

Reasons to Believe

I leave tomorrow for a parish mission in Holy Spirit parish, Sandy Bay- Taroona in the Archdiocese of Hobart.  There are twelve of us going from Melbourne for the mission: myself and three of the MGL brothers in formation for the priesthood, two of the MGL sisters, four single men and women and a married couple from Disciples of Jesus Community.  The mission begins on Sunday July 10 and finishes on Sunday July 17.

The first event for the mission is a pub talk that we have called “Questions of Faith, Reasons to Believe.”  In the talk I am going to try to tackle some common objections to belief in God today, such as:
Can I really believe in a God who I can not see, cannot touch?
Have scientific discoveries like evolution disproved Christianity?
Isn’t ‘God’ the projection of my fantasies onto an imaginary super-being?
How can I believe in God when in the past it has led to the oppression of those who have disagreed with the Church?
How can a loving and all-powerful God allow evil in the world and the suffering of innocent people?
Is Jesus the only way to God?

It is a Q and A session though, so the night will go where the questions lead!

One of my main aims in the talk will be to demonstrate the intellectual credibility of the Catholic faith, in order to show that belief in God does not require jettisoning one’s mind.  At the same time, I also hope to at least hint at the truth that the heart of the Catholic faith is not a great idea, but an encounter with Jesus Christ:

Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est

Pope Benedict XVI’s message for World Youth Day 2011 – Xt3 Library

This is the audio for a short talk I gave to WYD pilgrimage leaders on Pope Benedict’s message for WYD.  One of the things that really struck me about the letter was the way in which Benedict unpacks the kerygma or basic proclamation of the Gospel.  Thanks XT3 for the audio.  Stay tuned for more WYD posts as Madrid draws near.

Fr Chris Ryan Breaks open Pope Benedict XVI’s message for World Youth Day 2011 – Xt3 Library.

World Youth Day 09 Catechesis in the Cathedral

This is the audio of a catechesis for young people that I gave at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne for the first anniversary of World Youth Day 08.  It’s about Christian hope.

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