Home > Archives > 10 - 2011 > A gift, not a possession
YEAR OF FAITH 2012-2013
from issue no. 10 - 2011

A gift, not a possession

Faith has the character of a gift that arrives, it cannot be inferred, it cannot be ‘produced’. It is not our own achievement.

An interview with Cardinal Walter Kasper

Interview with Cardinal Walter Kasper by Gianni Valente

A‘Year of Faith’, a ‘time of particular reflection’ convoked following the example of Paul VI in 1967, with the aim of encouraging ‘a more complete conversion to God, to strengthen our faith in Him and to proclaim Him joyfully to the people of our time’. The proposal of Benedict XVI to the whole Church, first spoken of in his homily on Sunday 16 October and set out in the apostolic letter Porta fidei, is still in the germinal phase and will take on concrete form only in eleven months’ time, opening in October 2012 on the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of Vatican Council II and the twentieth anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. And yet, even in the preliminary stages – as noted by Father Federico Lombardi, director of Vatican Radio and the Vatican press office – what Pope Ratzinger has announced may be considered one of the characteristic initiatives of this pontificate.

Already in the first mention and in the Apostolic Letter outlining it there is a scattering of low-key, comforting invitations to set aside self-referential ‘ecclesiocentrism’, and to ask everything of Jesus Christ, ‘He who gives rise to the faith and brings it to fulfillment’.

‘What more important things should the shepherd of the wayfaring people of God tell us?’, commented Father Lombardi. 30Days turned the question to Cardinal Walter Kasper, president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity.


Cardinal Walter Kasper [© Romano Siciliani]

Cardinal Walter Kasper [© Romano Siciliani]

Benedict XVI has proclaimed a Year of Faith. Paul VI already did so in 1967. At that time, both you and Joseph Ratzinger were two young theologians in their prime. How do you remember that decision of Pope Montini?

WALTER KASPER: Those were the years immediately after the Council. When the great enthusiasm was over, the Church seemed to go through a kind of collapse. It seemed that the faith was waning, right when ecclesiastical circles were debating the reforms needed in the Church to revive the Christian message for the situation of that time. Ratzinger wrote his Introduction to Christianity at the time. I wrote Introduction to the faith. In that context, Paul VI had the insight to hold the Year of Faith, which ended with the proclamation of the Creed of the People of God. He wanted to show everyone that the faith is the heart of everything. Also reforms are useful and necessary when they foster the life of faith and the salvation of all believers. In recent days I have been rereading Bernard of Clairvaux: his great reform also was only a restarting in the faith. As Yves Congar wrote, ‘successful reforms in the Church are those made in function of the concrete needs of souls’.

Why hold a Year of Faith at this precise time?

There is a crisis. One sees it particularly in Europe. It is evident in Germany. But when I speak with Italian bishops, they tell me the same thing. Especially among young people, many have no real contact with the life of the Church and with the sacraments. When one speaks of the new evangelization, one can not but take note of this. Otherwise one ends up doing academic things.

And yet Benedict XVI begins the Letter calling for this special year by saying that ‘the door of faith is always open for us’. What is the import of those opening words?

It is God who holds open the door of faith, for us and for everyone. It is not us who can or should busy ourselves opening it. For this reason the beginning of faith is always possible. It is not an achievement of ours. Faith has the character of a gift that arrives, it cannot be inferred, it cannot be ‘produced’. For this reason also the invitation made by the Pope to agnostics on the recent day of Assisi was important. In secularization, God has his ways of touching the hearts of every man. Of those who seek and also of those who do not seek. And they are ways that we do not know.

In Assisi, Benedict XVI spoke of agnostics in terms that were certainly not those of opposition.

The Pope said that agnostics help believers ‘not to consider God as their property’. God is not a possession of those who believe. One cannot say of faith: I have it, others don’t... The believers who have received the gift of faith are also on pilgrimage. And one can never presume to anticipate such a gift as a possessed understanding of a conceptual knowledge. Sometimes, in the Church, faced precisely with unbelief and agnosticism there has been retrenchment and the impression given of looking at faith as a possession. As if the problem were to argue and combat those who do not believe... One almost loses sight of the fact that Christ died for everyone.

The first lines of Porta fidei stress that concern for the consequences of the social, cultural and political commitment of Christians often prevails in the Church also ‘by continuing to think of the faith as a self-evident presupposition for life in society. Do you also note this taking for granted?

First and foremost faith is a personal relationship with God, which is expressed in prayer and in the trust that one will be upheld in the arms of God in every situation, or as Jesus says: loving God with all our heart. Theologians speak of a theological virtue. But in this first commandment, the love of God is immediately linked with love of one’s neighbor as oneself. Thus faith has social, cultural and political consequences, without which it would not be sincere. On the other hand, these consequences must be inspired and motivated by love of God, otherwise they become a form of humanist ideology, which remains without firm foundation. I am thinking of the preaching in churches on Sundays. No other human reality has this opportunity of reaching so many people who come spontaneously to listen. But sometimes the sermons seem only instructions on what Christians should do and not do on the moral, cultural, political plane, often the joyful message that God always goes before us with His grace is lacking.

Directed towards the crypt, to venerate the tomb of Saint Francis, Benedict XVI crosses the lower Basilica of Saint Francis with some leaders and representatives of Churches, of Ecclesial Communities and of world religions, at the Assisi meeting, 27 October 2011 [© Osservatore Romano]

Directed towards the crypt, to venerate the tomb of Saint Francis, Benedict XVI crosses the lower Basilica of Saint Francis with some leaders and representatives of Churches, of Ecclesial Communities and of world religions, at the Assisi meeting, 27 October 2011 [© Osservatore Romano]

There are those who say: now we need to focus more on faith and less on social welfare. Is that the ‘solution’?

Faith and charity cannot be set in opposition. It would be an intellectualism or a kind of misinterpreted mysticism. St Paul said that faith becomes active in charity. It has always expressed itself in the spiritual and corporal works of mercy: helping the poor, the imprisoned, the oppressed, the sick... The Christian life is simply this. Personally, the most compelling witnesses to the faith I have seen were on the journeys I made when I was the person in the Church in Germany responsible for aid to the Churches of the developing countries. We went there taking some material resources to help the survival of those people and, in the misery of the slums and favelas, we came across the cheerfulness and trust of lives cherished and consoled by the Lord. The same happened looking at the faith of the many brethren encountered in ecumenical dialogue. Through fraternal relations one bears witness to the Catholic faith.

Now that the Year of Faith has been called, what is there to do?

Benedict XVI has only asked that the Creed be reflected on in each diocese. It’s not enough just to recite it, one must know and understand it in its depth. Because the Creed expresses the fundamental articles of faith, which are common to all Christians and correspond to their baptismal vows. Meantime they are constitutive of the Christian life. But I think it is important that the simple confession of faith does not express a claim to conceptual possession of the truth. We often sing the Creed during Sunday mass. A dogmatico-conceptual system cannot be sung. Instead we sing the Creed, and sing it as prayer. It is a doxology, praise and recognition that gives thanks.

Some people say that more must be done to make the Christian anthropological vision credible.

Yes, of course that’s important too. Faith is not just an intellectual act, but a way of being and living in God’s hands and under His providence. This also implies Christian freedom well-understood. The confession of faith is prayer because it asks God to reveal His mystery. As St Thomas said, actus fidei non terminatur ad enuntiabile sed ad rem. The act of faith does not end in the verbal repetition of true formulas. It remains open to recognition of the living reality that those words suggest. And for Thomas, the ‘res’ is God himself. It is He who acts, it is not up to us to have to ‘prove’ it. In addition, the Creed is the quintessence of the faith of other generations. In the faith one is not alone before God. One is in a communion that embraces all ages. In times like ours, one feels even more how important it is to find comfort and enjoy the company of the saints and the Fathers of the Church, and all the great witnesses who have preceded us.

‘Believers are strengthened by believing’, writes the Pope, quoting St Augustine. How does one grow and go forward on the path of faith?

In faith, one is carried both at the start and along the path of life. In the experiences of life one increasingly discovers the riches of the faith. It is not we who keep the faith, as a property acquired. We are kept in the faith. St Thomas wrote: ‘Grace creates faith not only when faith is born in a person, but as long as faith lasts’. We used this definition in the framework of the agreement with the Lutherans, when we recognized the fundamental identity between the theology of Luther on justification by faith and essential aspects of the doctrine of the Council of Trent defined in the decree De iustificatione. This means that the gift of faith is not some kind of thrust, a charge that someone gives us at the beginning, and then we go ahead alone. Nor is it like the lighting on airport runways: lights cemented in asphalt to illuminate the whole strip. Rather it’s like a lantern in one’s hand that one carries, and it moves with us, lighting up the short stretch we have in front. Its light is necessary and sufficient to take the next step.

Benedict XVI in prayer at the tomb of Francis in the crypt of the lower Basilica with some leaders and representatives of the Churches, of Ecclesial Communities and world religions [© Osservatore Romano]

Benedict XVI in prayer at the tomb of Francis in the crypt of the lower Basilica with some leaders and representatives of the Churches, of Ecclesial Communities and world religions [© Osservatore Romano]

If faith is at the beginning and at every step a gift and a free acknowledgment of the Lord, what is the Church?

The Church is – as an old definition says – the communion of the faithful. Tertullian said: Unus christianus, nullus christianus. One single Christian, no Christian. As Christians we are never alone but always in a community of believers of all times and of all places. Nevertheless, the Church is not a terminus of faith. The Church is sacrament, sign and instrument. In the Creed we profess to believe in God the Father, in Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit, but do not profess to have faith in the Church. We believe in God, and it is He who reveals the Church as the Body of Christ and as His people. The Church like the moon does not have its own light but only reflects the light of the sun, which is Christ. If it does not refer to Christ, it does not manifest any beauty of its own. The beauty that is in it – for example, in the liturgy – is only a reflection of the glory of God.

And yet sometimes it seems that the Church wants to occupy the scene thinking thence to bear witness to the Lord.

Perhaps it’s useful to remember that the Fathers of the Church did not feel the need to develop any systematic ecclesiology. They did not have the problem of dwelling on the Church, a few words were sufficient. The core of their interests and their concern was certainly not the ecclesiastical institution. Ecclesiology only arises at the end of the Middle Ages, in response to conciliarism and then to Luther. And then, as Yves Congar said, it begins as ‘hierarcology’, to explain the theological and doctrinal reasons of function and dominance of hierarchies in the ecclesial framework. Also out of that came the temptation to and the danger of a certain ‘ecclesiocentrism’. Vatican Council II, with its patristic ressourcement, also took up the image used by many of them of the Church as a mere reflection of the light and work of Christ, which is also found in the title of the Vatican II Constitution on the Church: Lumen Gentium.

Speaking of hierarcology, even now, at least in the media, there is much talk of bishops and cardinals.

Naturally, bishops and cardinals have their role in the life of the Church. But Benedict XVI continues to repeat that the central issue is not that of the Church, but that of God. If faith in God wanes, the Church can also be put aside and forgotten.

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português