"The Reality of Realities": On God, Conversion, and the Priesthood |
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | April 13, 2011 | Ignatius Insight
"The Reality of Realities": On God, Conversion, and the Priesthood |
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | April 13, 2011 | Ignatius Insight
"Neither material things, nor money, nor buildings, nor any of the
things I can possess constitute the essential, or reality. The reality of
realities is God. This invisible reality
seemingly far away from us, is the reality."
-- Pope Benedict XVI, Audience
with Parish Priests of Rome, March 10, 2011 ( "Faithful Workers in the Lord's
Vineyard," L'Osservatore Romano, English, March 23, 2011)
The American Civil War began on April 12, 1861. On March 27th
of that same year, Rome, though still in the hands of the Papacy, was declared
the capital of united Italy. This year, 2011, is also the sixtieth anniversary
of the Holy Father's ordination to the priesthood. In letters to the Italian
President (March 16) and in a discourse to the National Association of Italian
Municipalities (12 March), the Pope noted the unique relation of Italy with
regard to the Church in its midst. To Mr. Georgio Napolitano, the Italian
President, Benedict wrote of the "history of this beloved country, capital if
which is Rome, the city in which "divine Providence has established the See of
the Successor of the Apostle Peter." The See of Peter, then, is not in Rome for
merely technical or political reasons, though there is a lively history of its
being and remaining there.
To the Italian mayors, Benedict recalled the broader context of the
presence of the Church in any civil society: "The Church demands no privileges
but only asks to be able to carry out her mission freely, as effective respect
for religious freedom requires. In Italy religious freedom permits the
collaboration that exists between the civil and ecclesial communities.
Unfortunately in other countries Christian minorities are all too often victims
of discrimination and persecution." The Pope does not name the countries in
which this "discrimination and persecution" exists.
The Pope likewise addresses the Roman clergy, whom he meets every year.
He goes over a "lectio divina," with
them. The reflective reading together this year was of a passage from the Acts
of the Apostles (20: 17-38). Here, Paul explains nothing less than how to be a
priest. But Benedict also begins with a reference to the uniqueness and
importance of Rome and its clergy. He thanks this clergy "for the work you do
for the Church of Rome, which—according to St Ignatius (of
Antioch)—presides in charity and must also always be exemplary in her
faith. Let us do all we can together to ensure that this Church of Rome measure
up to her vocation...."
The first thing that the Pope tells the Roman clergy is that "We cannot
be part-time priests; we are priests for ever, with the whole of our soul, with
the whole of our heart." Christ did not come to be served but to serve. This
Christ is the prime example of what the priesthood is about. "We (priests) are
servants. And; serving means not doing what I propose for myself which would be
what I should like best; serving means letting myself take on the Lord's
burden, the Lord's yoke; serving means not being swayed by my own preferences,
my priorities, but letting myself truly be 'taken on in service' for others."
Benedict is aware of the details with which the parish priest must
deal. "All of us, from the Pope to the lowliest parochial vicar, have to do
administrative work, temporal work; yet we do it as a service, as part of what
the Lord imposes on us in the Church and we do what the Church tells us and
expects of us." While there is room for innovation and variety of styles,
essentially the priest is known for his representing the Church, not himself.
He does not make up the rules. He does not ignore the ones that are to guide
him. "We work as the Church tells us, where the Church calls us, and we try to
be precisely this: servants who do not do their own will, but the will of the
Lord." The average priest, I think, is relieved to be reminded that what he
does is not of his own making or concoction.
The Pope recalls the meaning of the word "humility" in the Gospel. It
is a key word. It goes back to Christ's lowering himself to become man.
"Humility does not mean false modesty...yet, anything we can do is a gift of God;
it is given for the Kingdom of God." The priest must be conscious that he is
not about his own business. The best things he does will rarely be praised. "It
does not matter what may be said of us in the newspapers or elsewhere; what
matters is what God says. This is true humility, not to appear before men and
women but to be in God's presence, to work humbly for God and thus really to
serve humanity and men and women."
Next, Benedict recalls Paul's admonition to tell us the whole of what
Christ taught. "He (Paul) did not preach a Gospel to suit his own favorite
theological ideas; he did not shrink from the commitment to proclaiming the
whole of God's will, even an inconvenient will and even topics of which he was
personally not so enamoured." This passage reminds me of the parish in which
the faithful have never heard any topic but love for twenty five years, or
another which hears of hell and sin but seldom of grace and forgiveness.
Priests are to speak of the whole of God's will. "If the contemporary
world is curious to know everything, even we ourselves must be more curious to
know God's (will)." What must be made known is the Creed "from Creation until
the Lord's return, until the new world. Doctrine, liturgy, morals,
prayer—the four parts of the Catechism of the Catholic Church—indicate this totality of God's will." It is
not as if we do not have sources from which we can draw. On the other hand, we
are not to give the impression that "Christianity is an immense packet of
things to learn." The fact is that Christ was and is God. "God revealed himself
in Christ...it is essential to make the ultimate simplicity of faith understood."
Faith gives answers to our questions "even answers which in the first
instance we do not like but which are nevertheless the path of life, the true
path." Benedict is always conscious of the fact that, at some level, we may not
personally "like" what the Church teaches. This is why one of the most
important services to the Church is the mission of faithful intelligence.
Chesterton's "orthodoxy" is our guide. There are reasons why what does not seem,
at first sight, to make sense does in fact make sense when we insightfully
Benedict gives a short history of the word "conversion." In Greek, it
is metanoia, which means "changing our
way of thinking." In Latin, the word is poenitentia. This word refers rather "to my own action to let
myself be transformed." The Hebrew word means "a new direction in life"; it
refers to a change in "our perception of reality." Benedict then adds something
we might not expect: "Since we are born in original sin, for us 'reality' means
the tangible things, money, my position, the everyday things we see in the news
on television: this is the reality. And spiritual things appear a little
'behind' reality." Thus, conversion will mean to invert the impression."
The real thing, the "reality of realities," is God. Conversion means to
reorient our perception of what is important. Our criterion becomes "what does
God say about" whatever we do. "God is reality. Christ is reality and is the
criterion of how I act and how I think." The Latin phrase, poenitentia, "means to exercise my self-control, to let myself
be transformed, with my whole life, by the Word of God." So the issue is not
just of thought or of mind, but the question of the totality of my being
"The unity of the Church deserves martyrdom." We think of Sir Thomas
More. Sheer biological survival at the cost of principle in effect denies the
principle. Socrates also taught this. To lose one's life is to save it, when
the choice is between truth and survival. "Of course, we must take care of our
health, we must work reasonably, but we must also know that the ultimate value
is being in communion with Christ...." And the Pope has a kindly word for old
priests. "Even in old age, even if we are getting on in years, we do not lose
our enthusiasm, our joy of being called by the Lord."
The whole title of the Gospel is "good news." Yet, we must be alert.
Benedict cites Peter Canisius: "You see, Peter is asleep, Judas is awake." It
is significant that a Pope cites this passage. He adds this similar admonition
from Pius XI: "It is not the negative forces that are the great problem of our
time, but rather the somnolence of the good.'" The English philosopher Edmund
Burke said something like this. So we are to "watch," to "take heed." "A
well-intentioned activism exists but (one) in which a person forgets his own
soul, his own spiritual life, his own being with Christ."
"The sacramental character of the presbyterate and of the priesthood
appears clearly. It is not a profession that must be carried out because
someone has to run things, someone has to preach. It is not something we do,
simply. It is election by the Holy Spirit and in this will of the Holy Spirit,
the will of God, we live and ceaselessly seek to let the Holy Spirit, the Lord
himself, take us by the hand." That reminder that the priesthood is not simply
another profession is a welcome one. It is not just another job. It is not a
selecting but a having been selected.
Benedict discusses the origins of the words bishop (episcopoi) and priest. He explains their development as they
emerged from Greek and Roman conditions. There is a pastoral background to
these words. The holders of these offices are to tend the flock. Into this
background also falls the notion of a king, who too is conceived as a shepherd.
"Perhaps there are the two central concepts for this office of 'shepherd'; to
nourish by making the Word of God known, not only with words but by testifying
to it for God's will, and to protect it with prayer, with the full commitment
of one's life."
The development of Church offices did not mean that it was not yet
founded. Just the opposite is true. "The Church is not an organization that was
founded gradually; the Church was born from the Cross. The Son acquired the
Church on the Cross and not only the Church of that moment, but the Church of
The Church is not just another worldly corporation. "The Church is a
gift." We must then relearn the joy of being in the Church. "The fear of triumphalism
has perhaps caused us to forget a little that it is beautiful to be in the
Church and that this is not triumphalism but humility, being grateful for the
gift of the Lord." The cause of joy is given to us. We do not "create" it
"The Church is constantly threatened," Benedict reminds us. "There is
always the danger, the opposition of the devil, who does not accept the
presence the new People of God in history or that God should be present in a
living community." There will be always difficulties in Church, no surprise.
But I have never seen the danger to the Church quite put the way the Pope does
here. The devil still does not accept the Incarnation, the presence of God's
people in the world. Still, "we must be confident with joy, that truth is
stronger than falsehood, love is stronger than hatred, God is stronger than all
the forces in opposition to him."
The Pope ends with a reminder of the poor and the weak, of the fact
that people expect priests to love them, "even if we do not like them." And he
adds a final reflection that in the Garden of Olives, Christ "prayed on His
knees. Praying on one's knees means adoring God's greatness in our weakness,
grateful that the Lord loves us, precisely in our weakness."
Isaiah says that the whole world will "kneel before the God of Israel."
Humility transforms our gestures. "Kneeling is no longer an expression of
servitude, but rather of the freedom that God's love gives us, the joy of being
redeemed, of standing together, with Heaven and earth, with the entire cosmos,
to worship Christ, to be united to Christ and thus to be redeemed." This is
indeed a lectio divina to be remembered.
In the city of Rome, the See of Peter, the capital of Italy, to the priests of
the Eternal City, we are told of the "reality of realities." This is as it
should be. This is why Rome is a city also of Providence.
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of the Priest
James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning,
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006),
The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007),
and The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays (CUA, 2008).
His most recent book from Ignatius Press is
The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Modern Age,
is available from St. Augustine's Press. Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!