Monday, 24 March 2014

A Reformed Wedding

A friend of mine got married on Thursday. I’ve known him from the time we both attended a Reformed secondary school, and as we belonged to the same group of friends, we’ve stayed in touch. His bride comes from another part of the country. Her family name is De Pater, but since women traditionally acquire a double surname on their wedding day, her last name is now Brand-de Pater – which translates as ‘Burn the Friar’.

I was unable to make it to the civil ceremony and the church service, but I did attend the wedding reception. While standing in line to congratulate the bride and groom, I had a conversation with someone I had not seen since secondary school, about seven years ago. Back in the day we had had only casual contact.

We exchanged news on what we were doing these days; he had gone into graphic design, I think. On hearing that I was in formation for the priesthood, he remarked that there was an ongoing rapprochement between Catholics and Protestants. ‘The main lines are the important thing,’ he thought.

‘Yes, those too,’ I said.

More confidentially he went on, ‘I don’t know how [the groom] stands in the faith; do you? I couldn’t make it out from the sermon either.’

‘I don’t know either,’ I said. ‘But what do you mean by ‘how he stands in the faith’?’

‘Well, whether he is converted,’ he answered, ‘whether Jesus Christ is his Redeemer. I don’t know how that is with you…’ (This was in the plural form and thus referred more generally to the Catholic perception on conversion. ‘Yes, certainly,’ I said.)

‘But I’m afraid to ask him now,’ he said. ‘I haven’t really talked to him since secondary school and it might be strange to ask the question now, when I haven’t brought it up all those years. You do feel that you’ve fallen short…’

I agreed today might not be the best day to ask, and excused myself on the ground that I still had to write my card.

The bride and groom were radiant and cordial, and I managed to extend my congratulations just past the point of awkwardness; for which I take full responsibility.

Once inside, I joined two old friends at a table and asked, ‘How was the church service?’

Before the answer was given, we were joined by a young couple. The husband also belonged to our group of friends; he had always maintained a near-complete silence at our gatherings, but had still managed to get married in January, whereas the two others did not even have girlfriends on the horizon. His young wife was with him, and being married seemed to agree with them both.

One friend told them I had just asked how the sermon had been.

‘Technically speaking I was asking about the church service,’ I said.

The couple said that the sermon had been mostly inaudible where they were sitting; the sound installation had not been properly synchronized with the minister’s speech.

The friend had been seated more towards the front and had not experienced these problems. He said: ‘It was good, it is always good when the Gospel of grace for sinners is preached honestly.’ Or words to that effect.

‘Hm-mm,’ I said.

Some time afterwards, we were joined by another person I hadn’t seen since secondary school, though I knew he had gone on to study theology. He was accompanied by a girlfriend. The last three years of school, we had had heated but friendly debates about all sorts of topics. When I converted to Catholicism during my first year of college, the first question he asked me on MSN was whether I had already returned to Protestantism. I was insulted because he seemed not to take me seriously, and stopped responding.

Today the six-year silence was broken. One of the first questions he asked was, ‘Are you Reformed yet?’

‘I am in a process of daily reformation,’ I said, ‘in the context of Cornelis semper reformandus.’ This made him laugh.

Studying God’s revelation as an academic subject has a way of generating rather than arresting conversations, and so my talk with him was longer and more spirited than the ones reported above. It turned out he was in his final year of his Masters in Theology. ‘And then?’ I queried. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘What would you do if you were me?’ ‘I haven’t seen you in seven years,’ I said. ‘What would you do if you were you?’ ‘I really don’t know,’ he said.

Though he had been a math-and-science type at school, he had started specializing in Semitic languages, studying not only Biblical Hebrew, but also Ugaritic and Syrian on the side, and who knows what else. Also he had started reading The Lord of the Rings, after having seen the first movie. ‘Only now I begin to understand what kind of world you were living in back at school,’ he said, not unkindly. He praised the masterful writing of the book, its Christian themes and the way it conjured up an authentic medieval worldview, but still saw the danger of getting too involved in a fantasy world.

He asked: ‘What do you think about Luther? What do you think about the justification of the sinner?’ I struggled to give just answers. He said, ‘The answer is, Does not this doctrine make men careless and profane?’ (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 64)

It was good to chat with him again. His girlfriend was nice too; she studied English at Leiden University, so I asked about her favourite author. It turned out she was less interested in literature than in grammar and phonetics. Knowing her boyfriend, perhaps I should have guessed.

Around 7.30pm the reception ended. I shook hands with the bride, walked out, realized I had overlooked the groom and walked back to shake hands with him. My theologian friend called out, ‘It’s nice to see you retrace your steps. You should do that more often.’

Monday, 10 March 2014

The Pope and the Bishops

On Friday evening, the rector of the seminary e-mailed us with the optimistic announcement that we were going to discuss Evangelii Gaudium on Monday evening, so would we please read it over the weekend. Saturday was a day of silent reflection, so not the time to do ‘homework’, even reading a beautiful papal exhortation. On Sunday, however, I was able to read most of it. What struck me most about the document, aside from its personal tone and invigorating character, was the Pope’s performance (in the document) of what he himself encouraged, namely processes of participation:

Since I am called to put into practice what I ask of others, I too must think about a conversion of the papacyThe Second Vatican Council stated that, like the ancient patriarchal churches, episcopal conferences are in a position “to contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegial spirit.” Yet this desire has not been fully realized, since a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated. (32)

Pope Francis does his best to remedy this defect by frequent reference to the teaching of the bishops from around the world. Here is as full a list as I can make it:

missionary outreach is paradigmatic for all the Church’s activity. Along these lines the Latin American bishops stated that we “cannot passively and calmly wait in our church buildings”; we need to move “from a pastoral ministry of mere conservation to a decidedly missionary pastoral ministry”. (15; reference to the Fifth General Conference of the Latin American and Caribbean Bishops, Aparecida Document, 2007)

The African bishops, for example, taking up the Encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, pointed out years ago that there have been frequent attempts to make the African countries “parts of a machine, cogs on a gigantic wheel. This is often true also in the field of social communications which, being run by centres mostly in the northern hemisphere, do not always give due consideration to the priorities and problems of such countries or respect their cultural makeup”. (62; reference to Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Africa, 1995)

By the same token, the bishops of Asia “underlined the external influences being brought to bear on Asian cultures. New patterns of behaviour are emerging as a result of over-exposure to the mass media… As a result, the negative aspects of the media and entertainment industries are threatening traditional values, and in particular the sacredness of marriage and the stability of the family”. (62; reference to Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Asia, 1999)

As the bishops of the United States of America have rightly pointed out, while the Church insists on the existence of objective moral norms which are valid for everyone, “there are those in our culture who portray this teaching as unjust, that is, as opposed to basic human rights. Such claims usually follow from a form of moral relativism that is joined, not without inconsistency, to a belief in the absolute rights of individuals. In this view, the Church is perceived as promoting a particular prejudice and as interfering with individual freedom”. (64; reference to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care, 2006)

[T]he indispensable contribution of marriage to society transcends the feelings and momentary needs of the couple. As the French bishops have taught, it is not born “of loving sentiment, ephemeral by definition, but from the depth of the obligation assumed by the spouses who accept to enter a total communion of life”. (66; reference to the Conférence des Évêques de France, Élargir le mariage aux personnes de même sexe? Ouvrons le débat!, 2012)

The Bishops of Oceania asked that the Church “develop an understanding and a presentation of the truth of Christ working from the traditions and cultures of the region” and invited “all missionaries to work in harmony with indigenous Christians so as to ensure that the faith and the life of the Church be expressed in legitimate forms appropriate for each culture”. (118; reference to Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Oceania, 2001)

The Aparecida Document describes the riches which the Holy Spirit pours forth in popular piety by his gratuitous initiative. On that beloved continent, where many Christians express their faith through popular piety, the bishops also refer to it as “popular spirituality” or “the people’s mysticism”. It is truly “a spirituality incarnated in the culture of the lowly”. Nor is it devoid of content; rather it discovers and expresses that content more by way of symbols than by discursive reasoning, and in the act of faith greater accent is placed on credere in Deum than on credere Deum. It is “a legitimate way of living the faith, a way of feeling part of the Church and a manner of being missionaries”; it brings with itself the grace of being a missionary, of coming out of oneself and setting out on pilgrimage: “Journeying together to shrines and taking part in other manifestations of popular piety, also by taking one’s children or inviting others, is in itself an evangelizing gesture”. Let us not stifle or presume to control this missionary power! (124; references to the Aparecida Document)

In all places and circumstances, Christians, with the help of their pastors, are called to hear the cry of the poor. This has been eloquently stated by the bishops of Brazil: “We wish to take up daily the joys and hopes, the difficulties and sorrows of the Brazilian people, especially of those living in the barrios and the countryside – landless, homeless, lacking food and health care – to the detriment of their rights. Seeing their poverty, hearing their cries and knowing their sufferings, we are scandalized because we know that there is enough food for everyone and that hunger is the result of a poor distribution of goods and income. The problem is made worse by the generalized practice of wastefulness”. (191; reference to the Conferência Nacional dos Bispos de Brazil, Exigências evangélicas e éticas de superação da miséria e da fome, 2002)

Here I would make my own the touching and prophetic lament voiced some years ago by the bishops of the Philippines: “An incredible variety of insects lived in the forest and were busy with all kinds of tasks… Birds flew through the air, their bright plumes and varying calls adding color and song to the green of the forests… God intended this land for us, his special creatures, but not so that we might destroy it and turn it into a wasteland… After a single night’s rain, look at the chocolate brown rivers in your locality and remember that they are carrying the life blood of the land into the sea… How can fish swim in sewers like the Pasig and so many more rivers which we have polluted? Who has turned the wonderworld of the seas into underwater cemeteries bereft of color and life?” (215; reference to the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, What is Happening to our Beautiful Land?, 1988)

Diversity is a beautiful thing when it can constantly enter into a process of reconciliation and seal a sort of cultural covenant resulting in a “reconciled diversity”. As the bishops of the Congo have put it: “Our ethnic diversity is our wealth… It is only in unity, through conversion of hearts and reconciliation, that we will be able to help our country to develop on all levels”. (230; reference to the Comité Permanent de la Conférence Épiscopale Nationale du Congo, Message sur la situation sécuritaire dans le pays, 2012)

Interreligious dialogueis in first place a conversation about human existence or simply, as the bishops of India have put it, a matter of “being open to them, sharing their joys and sorrows”. (250; reference to the Indian Bishops’ Conference, The Role of the Church for a Better India, 2013)

Eleven quotes, or a set of quotes in one case, which are presented as coming from the bishops. I say ‘presented’, firstly because some of them are Pope John Paul II’s reworking of the bishops’ remarks, and secondly because they are quite explicitly introduced as the teaching of local bishops. Various parts from the whole world are represented, speaking on themes near to the hearts of the speakers.

Thus the exhortation from the Bishop of Rome has taken on the form it wished to take, not smoothing over differences, but incorporating them into a multifaceted whole:

Here our model is not the sphere, which is no greater than its parts, where every point is equidistant from the centre, and there are no differences between them. Instead, it is the polyhedron, which reflects the convergence of all its parts, each of which preserves its distinctiveness. Pastoral and political activity alike seek to gather in this polyhedron the best of each. (236)