Christian witness in a secular world

Christian witness in a secular world

Fr Paul Rowse OP

This is a shortened version of the address given by Fr Rowse at the recent Australian Catholic Students' Association Conference in Albury (6 July 2014). Fr Rowse is coordinator of vocations promotion for the Dominican friars in Australia and New Zealand, Chaplain to ACSA, and lectures at Catholic Theological College, Melbourne.

I have been asked to speak on the Church as the Bride of Christ, and I appreciate that you'll have heard a good deal about ecclesiology over the weekend.

So, let's consider the Church as the Bride of Christ. To do so, I'd like to propose that we think together of the Lord's wedding, the wedding of the Lamb. Christ the Lord would be up front waiting for us, his Bride, to reach the altar.

I want to take up one aspect of such a scene, that of the bridal veil. The veil slightly distorts the perspective of the wearer. Though it has not always been a feature of weddings, the bridal veil is an object of modesty, and protects the bride from the jealous eyes of other men.

Through it the Bride can make out the figure of the Bridegroom; through it, we can see the Lord Jesus himself, and we can hear his voice as he gives his life to us. But we don't yet see the Beloved face to face. This is the veil of human mortality.

What do I mean by this veil of mortality? Because in some sense our mortality isn't protection from ourselves but a weakness; we are created good, and have acquired a redeemable flaw. So, what do I mean?

Our knowledge of an inevitable death for each one of us, introduced as the wages of sin, affects the way we understand ourselves, and in turn, affects our understanding of the Church.

There is a certain futility ever-present in our way of thinking which we must factor in. This futility expresses itself, for example, in the sweated critique of dangerous liberalisms, and in the relentless promulgation of content-free super-dogmas like tolerance.

Pop culture knows this futility as YOLO (You Only Live Once #yolo).

Both extremes, sadly, end in an evangelical idleness, which appropriates the responsibility for the Church herself to those of like mind. If we do not become, as it were, bifocal (looking both within the veil and through it), the veil of mortality provides a theological cul-de-sac: we must both look to ourselves and through the full meaning of human death if there is to be a satisfactory account of the Church.

Reflections on the spousal character of the Church leads us to consider Christ's freedom at the moment of entering into his Passion and death. His freedom is clearest in some of our favourite passages of the Gospels, especially those in the Gospel according to John.

Not long after he has healed the man born blind, the Lord speaks to the assembled crowd about himself as the Good Shepherd: "No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again" (Jn 10:18).

He reassures the disciples, well before there is a detailed plot to end him, that he is unbounded and that his life is a gift to be given away.

Divine plan

He who is God and man knows that human life ends in death, but his death will have no sense of inevitability about it: Christ is free to make something of his death, according to his Father's will which he loves.

The most chilling passage in the Bible for me is part of the scene of the arrest in Gethsemane, when the guards approach to arrest the Lord. St John describes the scene: "Jesus, knowing all that was to befall him, came forward and said to them, 'Whom do you seek?'" (Jn 18:4)

On the eve of his most cruel death and thorough humiliation, the Lord attests that his arrest by Temple guards is entirely willed by him. The Lord's freedom might also be seen at the crucifixion, in his bowing his head and breathing out his spirit in death (Jn 19:30).

For John, the crucifixion is a moment of action, but not of movement. Though the Lord was fastened to the cross and unable to move his body at will, he liberally uses his head and mouth, the only parts of himself which were at some liberty, for the fulfilment of the divine plan for salvation.

It is a mystery of the faith that the Lord Christ suffered and died for us, though he remained at liberty in and through the events of Holy Thursday and Good Friday, indeed his whole life.

I've been asked a couple of times recently about the unconditional love of God, especially in the context of grave sins; whether God's unconditional love can account for the existence of both heaven and hell.

The unconditional love of God consists principally in his freedom and eagerness to renew the living spring of grace. Pope Francis put it this way in a homily earlier this year:

"He is the God of mercy: he does not tire of forgiving us. It is we who are tired of asking for forgiveness, but He never gets tired. Seventy times seven go forward with forgiveness.

"And from a business standpoint, the balance is negative. He always loses: he loses in the balance of things, but conquers in love" (Homily, 28 March 2014).

I'd like then to highlight the possibility that an important message within the project of evangelisation is the freedom of Christ.

It is all too frequent in my limited experience as a confessor that people are truly fearful: of their sins, of God's wrath, of what happens when God's wrath is unfettered on account of personal sins.

Practising Catholics are not immune from this fear, perhaps they are just as susceptible to it, especially when confronted with the consequences of habitual sins. Nothing is so discouraging as habitual sins on a sincere heart. And it is right that we should fear him who can destroy both body and soul.

But unlike lecturers at exam time, God is both merciful as well as just, and it is a source of joy for me to assure the penitent with trembling hands that the confessional is a place of pardon and peace.

The penitent always emerges from the death of sin forgiven by God through the priest to enjoy a life without their sins, free from them. This is the message of Christ's beloved spouse, the Church: for freedom Christ has set us free (Gal 5:1).

We don't have to have our sad past dithering about behind us when Christ makes available the freedom which forgiveness brings.

The freedom of Christ, that is, his gift of self and immunity from the effects of our sins, is a point of evangelisation which I would have you profess and preach on your campus, the better to encourage others to be reconciled to God.

Dignitatis Humanae

It is at this point that I would like to address the question of Catholic teaching on religious liberty, and do so through the lens of the Declaration on Religious Liberty of Vatican II, Dignitatis Humanae.

As I do so, I want to note first that the Declaration is less concerned with the privileged status of conscience, and more with the religious allegiance required of states which have adopted an official religion.

As such, the Declaration doesn't claim to develop a notion of supremacy of conscience even over revealed truths, as many mistakenly suggest.

Listen to the Council Fathers: "The demand is likewise made that constitutional limits should be set to the powers of government, in order that there may be no encroachment on the rightful freedom of the person and of associations" (DH 1).

And in another place, they say: "Forms of government still exist under which, even though freedom of religious worship receives constitutional recognition, the powers of government are engaged in the effort to deter citizens from the profession of religion and to make life very difficult and dangerous for religious communities" (DH 15).

What we have before us as readers of the conciliar document is the espousal of freedom from coercion or compulsion in religious matters by governments, which is founded upon the inherent dignity of the human person.

The Council Fathers identify patience and diligence in the Lord's words entrusting the preaching of the Gospel to the disciples shortly before his Ascension: "Going to every nation, make disciples of them" (Mt 28:18).

Where does this leave us, for on the one hand we have the apostles and their successors with Christ's teaching authority, and the inviolable right to freedom from coercion in religious matters on the other.

Dignitatis Humanae gave a political vocabulary to Church leaders in constrictive regimes, to speak both of the rights of the individual and the responsibility of governments in guaranteeing those rights.

What we have, then, is the duty to seek the truth with prudent inquiry and then to adhere to it with intellectual rigour once it has been discovered.

At this time in the Church's history we can identify certain restrictions on religious freedom, and I am not simply looking overseas. One particularly unpleasant contributor to these restrictions is political correctness, which, of its very nature, overbalances from time to time into an excessive degree of caution, and which provides fertile ground for hasty scandal and ugly litigation.

With the public discourse on euthanasia beginning once again (and I must ask whether it ever subsided), I was disappointed but not surprised to see how our Professor Nicholas Tonti-Filippini was effectively sidelined in a televised dialogue.

Professor Tonti-Filippini has said on a number of occasions now that we've arrived at a situation in public discourse in which a position is dismissed or unheard because it is one which the Catholic Church holds.

This is not a time for pessimism or communal self-pity. From time to time, the outlook might be rather bleak for holy mother Church.

Some would describe the degradation of the Church in the public eye over sexual abuse and its handling as one such time. But the Church is purified by Christ; he sanctified her, made her holy, when there was no hope otherwise.

We, as every generation of Christians before us, and as every generation of Christians after us until the Lord comes again, are under the power of mortality, under the veil. We can see our future Christ assures us of an everlasting inheritance as coheirs with him.

And so we rejoice that the Holy Spirit has not confined himself to the interior transformation of persons in whom he is pleased to dwell. Rather, he is at work, through us yes, but we are not indispensable, to bring about the renewal of all creation. He is the Lord, the giver of life, the soul of the Church.

And it is Christ the Lord who is the Good Shepherd, who remains so, even after his Ascension. For though the Lord is invisible, he is not absent; though he is imperceptible to our senses, he is powerful to save.

Let us be attentive especially to this aspect of the full meaning of the Eucharist. The Lord freely gave himself into the hands of sinful men for their sake and ours. For the Lord triumphed over sin and death, and the fruit of his free sacrifice is offered to everyone who has faith and has been baptised.

The Eucharist is a masterful triumph over sin and death, because the Blessed Sacrament entails a distribution which would end any other human life, the sharing of one's own body and blood.

Source of grace

But the Lord is an inexhaustible source of grace, and all things are in his hands. As Pope St John Paul II was wont to say, the Lord is the sole master of the future. The full meaning of our human death, this veil thrown over our faces until the consummation of the mystical marriage, is that we are not in control of the Church.

Certain of us may be responsible for some greater or lesser part of it, and bishops and priests especially so. But she has been joined to the divine Bridegroom, Christ the Lord.

And so, although the sins of her members make themselves unworthy to be joined to the spouse, Christ's gift of forgiveness of sins in sacraments of baptism, reconciliation, and holy communion makes free those once enslaved, enriches the poor, and enlivens the living dead.

And so we entertain the greatest hope, that we have not yet begun to see what the Lord has in mind for his beloved bride. God has made known to us, but has not yet revealed, "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him" (1Cor 2:9).

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