Category Archives: Theology

Hans Urs von Balthasar remembered

Von BalthasarToday is the anniversary of death of Hans Urs von Balthasar, the renowned theologian of our era. Remembering Balthasar I also recall my dear friend, Jesuit Father Edward T. Oakes, who did much to make Balthasar’s theological perspective known and used.

Father Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905–1988), a Swiss Catholic theologian, is remembered as one of the 20th century’s great theologians yet was not never a university professor nor invited as a theological expert at the Second Vatican Council. Balthasar’s theological and philosophical output was massive which has influenced the course of theology today. His key idea was the idea that God’s relation to creation is the convergence of of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  It was Oakes who would remind me that Balthasar was the “kneeling theologian,” that is, appreciating the contemplative and liturgical tradition and indicating the way I ought to reflect on the Divine Majesty versus the academic or “sitting” theological approach (most often credited to people like Karl Rahner).

In 1929, he entered the Society of Jesus with a doctorate in literature. During theological studies for priesthood he found himself discouraged by the neo-scholastic theology offered having been attracted to the Church Fathers. He and the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth had mutual interest in theological thinking; Balthasar later wrote a book on Barth.

From experience we know that we all have our complements. Balthasar’s was doctor and mystic, Adrienne von Speyr, whom he had received into full communion with the Church. Their complementarity was friendship in the Lord looking for greater communion in the Divine, Trinitarian Life. Balthasar and Speyr founded a Secular Institute, the Community of St John –which you can read about in the book, Our Task, that tries to bridge religious and lay vocations. At this point he was dismissed from the Society of Jesus.

In 1988, John Paul II announced his intention to name Balthasar to the College of Cardinals. He had been offered the red hat before, but declined its acceptance. He died two days before the consistory on June 26, 1988.

“In the trinitarian dogma God is one, good, true, and beautiful because he is essentially Love, and Love supposes the one, the other, and their unity.”

Prayers for Hans Urs von Balthasar: priest, theologian, cardinal-designate.

Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization

Holy Family ABronzinoIn advance of the October 2014 extraordinary Synod of Bishops on Marriage and family, the “instrumentum laboris,” —the working document of 75 pages— offers a broad picture of the ways the Catholic Church witnesses to the Gospel and teaches and lives the moral life and the significant work that needs to be done to adequately address contemporary challenges. The office for synods published “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.

The Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops is the third of this category. One might say this is the first synod with such wide interest, international participation in the initial stages and hope for good work going forward.

The Pastoral Challenges of the Family” is based on the feedback and analysis requested from the national various Conferences of Bishops around the world late in 2013. So, besides the questionnaire, the document also incorporates the concerns of those who sent their reflections directly to the Pontifical Council for the family with the appropriate theological reflection. This is the first Synod for Lorenzo Cardinal Baldisseri.

The Holy Father has placed the work of the Synod under the patronage of the Holy Family. The Synodal prayer concludes the instrumentum labors.

Theological commission defines role of sensus fidei in Church

A high powered theological commission, the International Theological Commission (ITC) gave a detailed definition to what Catholics mean when they say they have, or employ, a sensus fidei in Church life. Over the last decades various meanings have surfaced, and not all of them are correct. The ITC has stated in another place, “Catholic theology speaks the truth in love, so that the faithful may mature in faith, and not be ‘tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine.’” 

The focus of Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church historical method identifies (discerns) the authentic contributions to the sensus fidei, by two criteria: conformity to the apostolic tradition and active participation.

Concluding the 85th session of the The International Theological Commission, released a new document . “Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church” deals with the role of sensus fidei (the sense of the faithful) in the Church. There was one American on the sub commission that produced the “Sensus Fidei, Sister Sara Butler, M.S.B.T. (a former professor of mine).

The Catholic understanding of the sensus fidei “does not consist solely or necessarily in the consensus of the faithful. Following Christ, the Church seeks the truth, which is not always the same as the majority opinion. The Church values sociological and statistical research when it proves helpful in understanding the historical context in which pastoral action has to be developed and when it leads to a better understanding of the truth. Such research alone, however,” he insists, “is not to be considered in itself an expression of the sense of faith.” That was Pope John Paul II said. His successor the emeritus Pope Benedict XVI taught, “It is particularly important today to clarify the criteria used to distinguish the authentic sensus fidelium from its counterfeits. In fact, it is not some kind of public opinion of the Church, and it is unthinkable to mention it in order to challenge the teachings of the Magisterium, this is because the sensus fidei cannot grow authentically in the believer except to the extent in which he or she fully participates in the life of the Church, and this requires a responsible adherence to her Magisterium.”

As a technical term, sensus fidei describes the our ability as members of the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, to discern how the Gospel of Jesus Christ is lived. The document’s works with with the survey sent to national episcopal conferences on the Synod of the Family.

Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity

Elizabeth of the TrinityOne of the local Dominican friars put me on to the life and insight of the French Carmelite nun, Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity (whose feast is November 8). Thinking of this Blessed woman on Trinity Sunday draws me to think more deeply of what Love is in my own life and how it exists.

Blessed Elizabeth (1880-1906) had a personal mission of making the Holy Trinity better known and widely loved by every Christian. Hers is a manner of living the baptismal consecration we have received by the power of the Holy Spirit as a gift of living in the Father, Son and Spirit who make Their home within us (cf. Jn 14:23). Some of the many things she said:

The Trinity – this is our dwelling, our ‘home’, the Father’s house that we must never leave.

I think that in heaven my mission will be  to draw souls, by helping them go out of themselves to cling to God by a wholly simple and loving movement,  and to keep them in this great silence  within, that will allow God to communicate Himself to them and transform them into Himself.

To her mother she said: Oh, may the Master reveal to you His divine presence, it is so pleasant and sweet, it gives so much strength to the soul; to believe that God loves us to the point of living in us, to become the Companion of our exile, our Confidant, our Friend at every moment.

A Christmas poem of 1901 states: He comes to reveal the mystery, To give all of the Father’s secrets, To lead from glory to glory, Even unto the bosom of the Trinity.”

Why is Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity important for today? Why is this very young Carmelite nun relevant to my experience of faith? True to the meaning of her name, Elizabeth (means ‘house of God’), she communicated to the world that “God wants to make is His home in us.” She is widely admired and her writings are read the important and common persons because people seen in them a certain authenticity, a call to go deeper into the mystery of Love, that is, God Himself. Many call Blessed Elizabeth a “prophet for our time” saying that she heard God’s call, and speaks the truth to us today. In his beatification homily Pope Saint John Paul said that Elizabeth is “a brilliant witness to the joy of being ‘rooted and grounded in love'” (Eph 3:17). Can we say the same for ourselves?

Years later in the mid-20th century the Servant of God Father Luigi Giussani would echo the teaching of Blessed Elizabeth by reminding his followers that God is not an abstraction, an idea, a figure of ages past.  But that God is a Presence here-and-now, contemporaneous with human experience. Blessed Elizabeth and Father Giussani would indicate that a true Christian cannot claim with any degree of seriousness that we are surrounded by God as by air, light or energy, BUT that God is present within us; that God is at home in the human heart, that He exists in our concrete experience; that the newness of Christianity is that God wants to be in relationship with each person, and that God really cares and loves us. God incarnate –Jesus Christ– is not absent but truly present in every facet of human life. We know this by way of His eucharistic Presence.

Blessed Elizabeth’s writings reveal an awareness of the indwelling presence of God. She wished to “live through love in his presence” and to be in communion with Him for ever.

Who is Christ in our time?

A running fight between a priest and his religious superior over how direct the priest can be in his preaching that Jesus is The Way, The Truth and The Life has been ensuing for an extended period of time. The dialogue between the two is not edifying. The superior is arguing that the priest is teaching his own brand of Catholicism that is offending some of the faculty and some of the parents. The priest is preaching and teaching what Church believes, and is articulated in the Second Vatican Council and other documents like Dominus Iesus. The latter contends that the fruits of V2 have too often generated poorly catechized adults and has contributed to a general weakening of the truth of salvation. Jesus Christ has been reduced to moralisms or what beige Catholicism shows, “the nice Jesus.” Reading the homilies you do realize that the priest is not pouring vinegar in the eyes of the congregants but he is being clear in his teaching: the gospel is true, and the magisterium of the Catholic Church is accurate –salvation is at hand. His point: Do you believe in what is biblically revealed by God? Or, is theology made up as you go along to get along? If it is the latter, then we are in deep trouble.

Catholics can’t be the only ones dealing with matters of doctrine and dogma. Sure enough, the Wall Street Journal answered my question. No, Catholics, the Orthodox and other ecclesial communities are having to face the problems of what is being preached, and what face of Jesus Christ is being revealed today to the world. The secularists are not the only ones to “change” the face of Jesus. The content of a priest’s preaching is as much important as the how something is said. Words matter; concepts matter, clear thinking is crucial. Yet, style cannot be confused with content.

In the “Houses of Worship” column in WSJ today Stephen Prothero writes about a Seattle Evangelical Pastor Mark Driscoll and his efforts to portray a more robust understanding of who Jesus Christ is, an image that does not make Jesus out to be a “pansy.” Driscoll evidently believes that many quarters of Christianity have distorted the Christology to fit contemporary concerns. Prothero characterizes Pastor Driscoll as believing “too many American churches are populated by ‘chicks’ and a bunch of nice, tender chickified church boys.” In other words, what Driscoll sees in Christian churches today is a face of Jesus that is cosmetically altered to fit a current ideology, one that is not too challenging, one that has little-to-no-concern for ultimate things. Dare I say, the current Jesus is anemic.

I think it is fair to say that Jesus Christ we ought to preach, the Second Person of the Trinity, is not made in the image and likeness of certain men and women. He is the image of Someone greater, the Divine Mystery.

What else does Driscoll think and say? Apparently, his assessment indicates that some Christians have swapped out the revealed Son of God for “a limp-wrist hippie in a dress with a lot of product in his hair.” Jesus is metrosexual. Sounds similar to the controversy noted above. Prothero notes that some segments of American Christianity, since the 1800s, have preached a “Jesus as a brave warrior –not a meek preacher….” It is thought that if the image and person preached –Jesus– was more masculine men would be coming back to the practice of religion, or we would be more faithful to what is biblically revealed. I am not sure that has to be an agenda item; but I am concerned that the truth be preached and not glossed-over to suit a constituency.

I happen to think that the person of Jesus we often warm up too is inconsistent with what is foretold in the prophecies of the OT, and in the portrait given in the NT. Sacred Scripture does not give us an effeminate savior. Quite the contrary, Jesus of the NT is not aiming to be a “nice God-man interested in how you’re feeling.” We don’t have a Savior who is a good social worker. Salvation is not the liberation of personal anxieties but the liberation from sin and death; it is the opening the possibility of encountering the Beatific vision. Think of Jesus’ interaction with tax collectors, the pharisees, the mis-guided apostles and so on, ought to give us an indication of the person of Jesus: being “nice,” that is, sentimental, is not going to get you to heaven.

Prothero quotes Billy Sunday who said in 1916: “Lord save us from off-handed, flabby-cheeked, brittle-boned, weak-kneed, think-skinned, pliable, plastic, spineless, effeminate, sissified, three-carat Christianity.” A strong, masculine Jesus was transformed in the 60’s and 70’s with “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Godspell.” You know, I think Billy Sunday is right.

Stephen Prothero is uneasy with and dismissive of, Pastor Driscoll and Sunday, because he lacks a Catholic understanding of Scripture, liturgy, and theology. Prothero, likes suburban Catholicism with a pretty low Christology. It seems to me that he sees the person of Jesus as relative and subjective. And is inconsistent with what is witnessed by the saints. Rather unfortunately, Prothero doesn’t hold to the existence of objective reality, objective truth. A reading of the person of Jesus in Scripture and orthodox biblical exegesis shows a face of Jesus concerned more with the true “ends” of man and woman rather than being given a make-over to suit post-modern problems in psychology. Nowadays, according to some, you just have fit-in if you are going to be an acceptable preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

About the author

Paul A. Zalonski is from New Haven, CT. He is a member of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic ecclesial movement, and an Oblate of Saint Benedict. Contact Paul at paulzalonski[at]yahoo.com.
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