Home > Archives > 03 - 2009 > Humility and respect are part of the novelty of the Gospel proclamation
ECCLESIAM SUAM
from issue no. 03 - 2009

Humility and respect are part of the novelty of the Gospel proclamation


The most basic thing to recognize is this: the Church is His.
This issue sees the start of the collaboration of Cardinal Georges Cottier with our magazine. The theologian emeritus of the Pontifical Household writes a column reflecting on the mystery and life of the Church


by Cardinal Georges Cottier, OP


Cardinal Georges Cottier

Cardinal Georges Cottier

In this period it has also happened to me to reflect on the misunderstandings that have arisen about certain actions and words of the Pope, on the letter Benedict XVI sent to the bishops about the remission of the excommunication of the Lefebvrian bishops and on the controversy around events that in some way involved the Church, such as the very painful business of Brazil.
What can all this mean for us?
A first impression is that many people, even among Christians, no longer know what the Church is. It is a paradox: the mystery of the Church as the object of faith was the central theme of Vatican II, and now a crisis occurs precisely on this point. It’s a paradox that invites us to reflect on how God guides His Church.
The most basic thing to recognize is this: the Church is His. Ecclesiam Suam, such was the title of the first encyclical of Pope Paul VI. In the Creed, we confess the Church as a mystery of faith. It means that we are in the sphere of grace. It means that the Church is a gift from God and not the creation of man. It means that the Church is not our property, but is the Church of Jesus Christ. It is He who guides it and makes it live through the word, sacramental grace and the life-giving sap that is called charity. We are in the Church in so much as we receive the gift of Christ. It is He who brings us together. If the Church is a matter of grace, a gift that requires nothing in the creature, we can live this mystery only through the ways that the Lord has given us. And the first way is prayer. That is why I was so comforted by Pope Benedict when at the Angelus he asked the faithful to pray for him. It is the prière de demande, the sign that the heart is open to receive the gift of God. If we want to guide the Church or build it, we would make mistakes or do unnecessary things. I’m impressed by the enormous number of projects engaged in by Christians, which often give very little fruit. When the Church had to indicate a patron for the work of the missions, it did not choose a great evangelist. It chose Theresa of the Child Jesus, who wrote of herself: “When I am charitable, it is only Jesus who acts in me”.
This is the mystery of the Church which also surfaces in the manner in which the witness of the risen Jesus occurs. Those who experience the inner liberation bestowed by the Holy Spirit freely share this gift with others. Witness is not the result of our ability or effort. That is why the clearest and most touching witness is that which the witnesses give without noticing. Whereas those who insist too much on their work as witness, as if it were a role to fulfill, are often aiming at constructing a figure for themselves.
A first impression is that many people, even among Christians, no longer know what the Church is. It is a paradox: the mystery of the Church as the object of faith was the central theme of Vatican II, and now a crisis occurs precisely on this point. It’s a paradox that invites us to reflect on how God guides His Church
St Paul, in his Epistles to the Romans and First to the Corinthians, tells us that the Gospel proclamation is not based on the perspicuity of a discourse and at the same time it is concerned with the real situation of the recipients to whom it is addressed. He writes to the Corinthians: should anyone be confused or misled by seeing his brother eat the meat sacrificed to the idols in pagan temples, it is better to avoid the practice, even if the Holy Spirit has wiped away all superstition, and it is clear that the meat is like any other meat. This discrimination, this respectful concern for the given situation is connatural to Christian witness. We must not misunderstand the invitation of St Paul to proclaim the Word “opportune et importune” as do certain Protestant sects that do not seek real opportunism but indulge in extremist provocations and so create trouble for everyone, especially in countries with a Muslim majority or in the mission lands.
The novelty of the Christian message should always be offered in humble fashion that is respectful of the recipient of the message. It is not a matter of tactical and strategic opportunism. It’s a consequence of the fact that the truth proclaimed by Christians is a gift, it is not their property. And if this gift does not illuminate the very way in which it is proclaimed, it remains merely a pretext for making speeches. I shall always remember the remarks of a lady from an eastern European country who arrived in Rome after the end of communism and encountered the faith. She was a person of culture. To help her, I suggested she follow courses in theology, at a certain level. One day she said to me that some of the teachers reminded her of people in the communist milieu in which she had lived: people who made speeches about things that obviously they no longer believed. Cardinal Charles Journet, my father and teacher in the faith, always said that the frontier of the Church runs through our hearts. The pretence of demonstrating the truth of faith through arguments when the heart is not imbued with charity can cause scandal and objections. A gap is perceived, an estrangement of the heart that repels and distances others more than our sins and our betrayals.
In recent months there has also been talk of the loneliness of the Pope, the inadequacy of his collaborators, the limitations that have emerged in the action of the Apostolic See. On these issues also the debate has appeared subject to widespread basic misunderstandings.
A certain “limitation” is connatural to the Church. When Jesus ascended into Heaven, leaving the apostles led by Peter as his witnesses, he well knew that Peter was a man with all his limitations, which are in no way passed over in the pages of the Gospel. The Popes in history were not all men of genius and even less saints. But this also shows that the Church is the work of God. That on the small boat packed with sinners, there is the Lord. It is He who can calm the tempests and reassure those who are afraid. Time ago I read the account of a Protestant from Geneva who came to Rome in 1840. He describes the flocks of sheep grazing in Saint Peter’s square, and how everything looked in ruins. The Basilica looked like a monument from the past, like the Colosseum. If the Church were the work of the men who guide it, it would have ended long ago. Moreover, the Church has always avoided the temptation of considering itself a stronghold of the pure and holy.
The novelty of the Christian message should always be offered in humble fashion respectful of the recipient of the message. It is not a matter of tactical and strategic opportunism. It’s a consequence of the fact that the truth proclaimed by Christians is a gift, it is not their property. And if this gift does not illuminate the very way in which it is proclaimed, it remains merely a pretext for making speeches
I read in a French newspaper that the remission of the excommunication of the Lefebvrian bishops is proof that even the Catholic Church is not infallible, because the current Pope has revoked a decision of his predecessor. A triviality, but it gives a measure of the confusion going round about these things. The charism of infallibility, which is that of the Church itself, dwells by individual entitlement in the Pope as successor of Peter when he sanctions by a definitive act a doctrine concerning faith and morals (cf. Lumen Gentium 25). In the ordinary governance of the Church a pope can err, and it’s not a disaster, it’s human.
With regard to present circumstances, in recent times many people have insisted on alleged difficulties of the Pope in communicating clearly the meaning of his decisions. I have many times had occasion to experience the lucidity in communication of Joseph Ratzinger, as also his readiness to listen to the opinions of others. Everyone has had the opportunity of seeing that the Pope knows how to make himself understood very well, for example when he speaks impromptu and without much mediation to young people or to priests, or also in the direct tone in which he addressed the bishops in the letter of 10 March. On the other hand, perhaps there are those who are exacerbating concerns about divisions in the Church. It should be recognized that difference of opinion should not be feared and exorcised. Even in the Vatican Curia, on many things we do not all think in the same way. No one in the Church can have as their ideal a totalitarian system in which one person thinks for all and the others strive to find ways of not saying anything. The comparison between different ways of seeing things is always useful, it’s a sign of vitality. If one doesn’t recognize that, it ends up with signing declarations in support or in disagreement with the Pope, or the game of setting the “loyalists” against the opponents gets going. As if in the Church there could be parties “pro” or “contra” the Pope.
We are not “fans” of the Pope. He is the successor of Peter, Divine Providence wanted him as he is. And we love him as he is, because behind him we see Jesus. That is what it means to be Catholic.


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