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from issue no. 05 - 2007

Hope awaiting among brother men

«Perhaps some people are still unaware: Christians live tamquam scintillae in arundineto in the world, like sparks in the stubble. We live in the diaspora. But the diaspora is the normal condition of Christianity in the world». An interview with Cardinal Godfried Danneels, Primate of Belgium

Interview with Cardinal Godfried Danneels by Gianni Valente

Mechelen, 24 May 2007. His Eminence looks in good shape, busy with a thousand things. He had brought forward all his appointments to May because of a trip scheduled for June to Beijing and Chinese Mongolia, to visit the Christian communities set up there thanks also to the work of the Belgian Scheut Missionaries. But then the long stay in the former Celestial Empire was postponed: «The Pope’s letter to the Chinese Catholics is about to arrive, and I didn’t want some storm to break over my head while I was there…». It’s only a few days to Pentecost. Godfried Danneels, Primate of Belgium, remembers what Orthodox Metropolitan Ignatios of Lattakia said during the ecumenic meeting in Uppsala in 1968: «When the Holy Spirit is not there, Christ remains in the past, the Gospel is a dead letter, the Church is a mere organization, authority seems domination, the mission is propaganda, worship nostalgia, Christian action becomes an ethic for slaves».

Cardinal Godfried Danneels

Cardinal Godfried Danneels

Words that seem up-to-date.
GODFRIED DANNEELS: These things are valid for all times. From the Ascension of Christ until the end of the world, it will always be so. For me there is something that can be added: without the Holy Spirit the Church is in fear. One sees it on the day of Pentecost also: there, in the cenacle, fear was winning. Then the Holy Spirit put an end to the fear and enabled the proclaiming of the Gospel not only to those who lived according to the Jewish law, but also to the pagans. The Church also has as its task the safeguarding of Tradition. But it is the Holy Spirit who frees from fear and enables living the same things in different circumstances. In the Church it is the Spirit who safeguards the depositum fidei. He is the only one capable of being faithful to the past and prepared for the future, because He belongs neither to the past nor to the future, He is present. Apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, the future of the Church is always the extrapolation of pieces of the past that one strives to make relevant, but there is never anything that really makes all things new.
Now there is concern also in the Church because the shared assent to certain fundamental moral values seems to be waning in western societies.
DANNEELS: It’s an agreed fact that there is no longer a Christian Civitas, that the medieval model of Christian Civitas is invalid for the current time. Perhaps some people are still unaware but Christians live in the world tamquam scintillae in arundineto, like sparks in the stubble. We live in the diaspora. But the diaspora is the normal condition of Christianity in the world. The exception is the opposite, a completely Christianized society. The Christians’ ordinary way of being in the world is that already described in the second century Letter to Diognetus. The Christians «do not live in their own cities, nor use an idiom that is different». They live «in their country, but as strangers; they participate in everything as citizens and they are detached from everything like foreigners. Every foreign land is their country, and every country is foreign». That’s the way we are citizens of the new secularized society.
But being in a minority, isn’t it the moment to give battle, even going so far as to use sharp words?
DANNEELS: When the Pope went to Spain he never used negative formulas when speaking about the family. He only proposed and admired the beauty of the Christian family. Some people may have been disappointed. Not me. Christianity is above all a good ferment, the gift of good things to offer to the world, not having the problem of winning over the world. Saint Bernard was wont to say to his contemporaries: have mercy on your souls.
Isn’t there a risk of sentimental optimism?
DANNEELS: Vatican Council II entitled its document on the Church in the world by its two first words: Gaudium et spes. The pair of words that followed was luctus et angor, sadness and anguish. Maybe, if the Council were taking place today, the Council Fathers would reverse the order, and start with luctus et angor. The enthusiasm of that period was perhaps exaggerated. There was an element of reaction against the preceding pessimism. But in that naive boldness there was also something beautiful. It was a sign of youth. Like a girl going to a dance for the first time. Then came maturity. It was realized that all four words of the incipit are to be taken into account.
Where would you start today to describe the relations between the Church and the world?
DANNEELS: The world is a creation of God. It’s true that for John’s Gospel the world is set in the dark and opposes God. But that is not the original situation: creatures come out of the hands of God as good, omnis creatura Dei est bona. And it won’t even be the final situation, when the whole Kósmos is redeemed. It’s a transitory situation, and it wasn’t God who caused it, it was us by our sin. The Church has always denounced Gnosticism, that posited evil as an original feature of the creation, and in some way of God Himself.
But isn’t that a reason for forcefully repeating that natural law, in its objectivity, is an original datum inscribed in the heart of all mankind?
DANNEELS: Yes, but recognizing that if it depended on us, we Christians would be the first to find ourselves impotent to obey, to believe, to pray and to live well, to practice the good life. The disobedience of the origin still wounds us, we are rescued from it only thanks to the obedience of Jesus. It is His obedience that draws a line of healing in our betrayals and our sickness. And that recognition should gainsay any pride. And encourage a more merciful look at every human being.
There are those who fear that mercy is brought in whenever there’s a wish to evade the unpopular task of telling truths opportune et importune, even on ethical and moral questions.
DANNEELS: The mission of the Church is not exhausted in announcing the truth, but in spreading the reconciliation offered and worked by God. And mercy is not a kind of obligatory amnesty, that drowns our miseries in indifference. It is not a self-service refrigerator always replenished. We don’t deserve it. But when it gratuitously touches hearts, it changes them, heals them, and takes us out of ourselves, raising us higher. It is attraction. It is the balm of mercy that also bestows the tears of pain for one’s sins and wretchedness that we no longer even felt. As also happened to the first of the disciples, in the courtyard of the house of the high priest: «Then the Lord, turning, looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the words that the Lord had spoken to him… and going out, he wept bitterly».
Descent of the Holy Spirit, Maestà by Duccio di Buoninsegna, Museo dell’Opera, Siena

Descent of the Holy Spirit, Maestà by Duccio di Buoninsegna, Museo dell’Opera, Siena

It remains a fact that in public debate it often ends with Christians being identified as those who with their battles come down heavy on human miseries. Péguy would say: people with smug souls.
DANNEELS: The people of our time don’t perceive they are living in a childish or primitive condition from the moral point of view. They feel morally evolved. Maybe they then conceive practices and behavior outside the natural moral law, but that’s another matter. And in this situation I don’t know what would be gained by using the strategy of the niet. Repeating in continuation what shouldn’t be done, ends almost by hiding the good one claims to defend. Before going to Cologne Benedict XVI said that being Christian «is like having wings» and that Christianity is not a plethora of prohibitions, «something fatiguing and oppressive to live».
But what is to be done in the face of the laws and the proposals opposing the principles of Christian morality?
DANNEELS: That civil law not coincide with the precepts of the Gospel and of Christian morality is the normal situation. It’s true that if the law approves homosexual unions, for example, the pedagogic value of law vanishes. Law becomes a kind of thermometer, that limits itself to registering and regulating individual behavior as it is, abandoning its function of being also a thermostat. But this is a fact about our modern society: the law often no longer educates. It’s not a good thing, but this is the place in which it is given us to live. The dangers must be denounced, but then it’s a matter of living the Gospel in this situation that we have not created. It’s not the first time.
Euthanasia, contraception, unmarried couples. There is argument about how Christian lawmakers should act on these matters. Without going into the details, what guidelines should be followed?
DANNEELS: The distinction between things that are intolerable and those that are described as “imperfect laws”, that can be tolerated on the basis of the traditional category of the lesser evil, is always salutary. And then, as to the behavior of individuals, there is a wisdom in the Church, an ability to look at reality for what it is, that has been practiced for centuries above all in the confessional.
The way with which the world is looked at from within the Church conditions to some extent its whole mission. Nowadays much is staked on the public response to its message, on its ability to give credible answers to the cultural challenges of current thinking.
DANNEELS: Professional merchandisers target and study the field at which their message is aimed: they analyze the terrain, they calculate the probabilities of positive response. They don’t sow where the soil offers few possibilities of yielding results. For decades evangelization also seems to have been aiming at studying the terrain. But any good farmer knows that the ripening of the grain he has sown in the field he has conscientiously worked depends on the rain and the sun. For the Christian message that is even more valid: fertility comes from on high, like the sun and the rain.
But doesn’t the soil also have to be ploughed?
DANNEELS: Those who with their lives proclaim and give witness to the Gospel don’t presume to decide for themselves what the good earth is. And then the ideal field doesn’t exist. As in the parable of Jesus, the field offers all the difficulties possible. The seed is always good, because it is the seed of the Lord. The good sower only has to sow. He does no more than take the seed and scatter it in the field. It’s not he who brings about the harvest. He sows openhandedly, without bothering too much that one piece of land is more suitable than another. In the hope that somewhere there is always a stretch of good soil that will manage to bear fruit and yield a harvest, even if we don’t know where.
There is very frequent insistence in the Church at the moment on the category of reason. To show the people of today the fertile link between the Christian position and a reason open to the transcendent. What do you think of this approach?
DANNEELS: Intelligence is a gift to make the most of. We must not fall into fideism, like the sects in America, but also in Europe. The faith is not rational, but it is reasonable. The Pope himself, when addressing the matter, points to this openness. That said, the mysteries of the faith cannot be understood rationally. How is God one and trinity? How does Jesus become incarnate and get born from the Virgin Mary? How does he rise after death? And how is he present in body, blood, soul and divinity in the bread and wine? Sometimes one loses heart because we think that the outcome is our doing, that it’s up to us almost to demonstrate all this, and convince, and win over the world. So the situation of exile and diaspora that the Church is going through can also be seen as a purification.
In what way?
DANNEELS: In the Bible, before the exile, the Hebrews thought that they could do everything by themselves. Everything was going well even without God. Then they were deported to Babylonia and there they no longer had anything. Neither king, nor synagogue, nor temple, nor holy mount. There, as Daniel tells us, «we received a humbled and penitent heart». And that is worth more than anything. In the long-time established Christian Churches we thought that everything could go ahead even without grace. That’s not the way we put it, but it’s what was thought. There was always the idea that when Jesus said «you can do nothing without me», it was just words. Now indeed we see that if Christianity continues to survive, it is a miracle.
Speaking of miracles, you have said that the ones worked by Jesus in the Gospel are like anticipations of the sacraments.
DANNEELS: Miracles testify that things happen that are not to be explained by the given premises. They suggest that the conclusions are not always what follow from the premises. So with miracles we are always on the diving-board of hope. Also the sacraments are His doing. In this sense, they are the continuation of the miracles. Much less spectacular, but still stronger and necessary, because they are for the soul and come through grace.
A silent efficacy that in one of your books you set alongside the “discretion” with which the risen Jesus himself worked…
DANNEELS: Jesus when risen did not make his presence felt, though Easter marks a clamorous victory over death and sin. He appears to his followers in fleeting fashion, here or there, in particular places set apart. He doesn’t sweep away the doubts of his disciples all at once. He simply appears to them as he is. And it is not a withdrawal into self-enclosure: the apostles immediately receive the mission to proclaim Him to the whole world.
I wanted to ask you some questions about the current life of the Church. Has anything in particular struck you recently?
DANNEELS: The apostolic exhortation Sacramentum caritatis looks good to me, even if a bit long. I found things in it I’d never read, for example on the beauty of the liturgy. Overall, the outpouring of Vatican documents has diminished, and that’s a good thing.
Christ and the woman of Samaria at the well

Christ and the woman of Samaria at the well

What do you think of the even recent arguments that have arisen about some of the Pope’s speeches?
DANNEELS: The Pope always takes a theological approach to questions, and sometimes he isn’t understood. When he told the Indios peoples that the Church did not impose the Gospel, he was speaking the truth from the theological point of view, because the naturaliter christiana soul of the Indios was open and therefore we did not kill the Indio soul by bringing the Gospel. On the other hand the historical fashion in which that happened was not without problems. And he acknowledged as much, speaking in an audience some days later. Just as he clarified the meaning of his words in Regensburg, after the notorious polemics. It would be better if he wasn’t always being obliged to correct himself.
More than two years ago, in the liturgy of thanksgiving for the election of Benedict XVI, you said that the affection, the charity and the loyalty of the faithful shape the pastor, and constitute the fitting “biotopos” for «the lymph of grace to draw amazing fruits from his natural gifts».
DANNEELS: It’s true. John Paul II was someone to watch, but ample sections of his official discourses can be skipped, and one didn’t lose much. In Benedict XVI it’s the words that are important, not the show. He’s a theologian. A professor. And then in Benedict XVI the function he performs isn’t taken over by his personality. And that is always salutary. When personal charisma comes to condition overmuch the exercise of the Petrine office it can be negative. It’s the function that’s important, not so much the penchants, the virtues and the limits of the person who exercises it.
Some people still paint him as a kind of universal chastiser.
DANNEELS: One can’t say that Pope Ratzinger is a chastiser. The successor to Peter is above all he who bears on his shoulders the sheep wounded by the attack of wolves or by the thorns of life. That is why the five crosses on the papal pall are red in color: it is the blood of the wounded sheep that marks the shoulders of the good shepherd.
What do you think of the role being played by the Curia in this period?
DANNEELS: I’ve not been in Rome recently, I’ve no idea what the Curia is doing at the moment. But of course it must remain an executive organ in the hands of the Pope. The Curia is secondary, it helps, but must not take direction into its own hands.
In the past you proposed the setting up of a “privy council”. Would you feel like suggesting it again in the current situation?
DANNEELS: I remain convinced that gathering a small council around the pope every so often, Church figures from different countries, whose members might change every two or three years maybe, would be of help to him, so he can be sure of knowing the temperature of the Church. The Curia can’t feel and register that temperature, it’s not its task. Of course, there’s already the Synod of Bishops, and the College of Cardinals. But what I call the “privy council” could be a more elastic, discretionary, contingent instrument, certainly not above the Pope, but only an assistant body at his service.
Speaking of the Synod, what do you think of the new statutes that open up the possibility of taking deliberative measures on particular matters, with the consent of the Pope?
DANNEELS: They don’t seem to me changes of any substance. Even before, if all the bishops expressed a common wish on individual points and individual decisions, it couldn’t be discounted, and the Synod passed from advisory to de facto deliberative body.
The next Synod will focus on the Scriptures.
DANNEELS: Cardinal Martini and I have been hoping so for at least ten years. I’m not sure I shall go, next year I reach 75 and will offer my resignation. And since 1980 I’ve taken part in all the Synods. We’ll see what my bishop colleagues in Belgium decide this time.

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