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Posts Tagged ‘salvation’

Is it possible, in these pluralistic times, to claim that Jesus Christ is the unique saviour? Well, of course I think it is. Archbishop Augustine Di Noia, however, gave a wonderful anecdote about how difficult it can be to proclaim this – even to Christians.

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Archbishop Di Noia is Vice President of the Pontifical Council ‘Ecclesia Dei’ in Rome. He was in London last week to speak to the clergy of Westminster Diocese at our annual summer gathering.

He was reminiscing about when the document Dominus Iesus was published in 2000 by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, then headed by Cardinal Ratzinger. The US Bishops’ Conference was given an embargoed copy of the text a couple of weeks before, and they gave it to Di Noia to ask what he thought of it, what he thought the public reaction might be (within and outside the Church), and how he thought they should prepare themselves in anticipation. He had some kind of advisory role there at the time.

So he read the document, and his reaction was (I’m quoting from memory): “There’s nothing particular striking or controversial here; nothing that isn’t in the Holy Scriptures or the Documents of the Second Vatican Council. I doubt it will get much attention. No action needed…”

Perhaps he was naive, but he himself admitted that he was completely unprepared for the forcefulness of some of the negative reactions. At the end of the story he quipped, with a smile: “I nearly lost my job”.

You can read the document here. The core is simply a re-statement of mainstream, historic Catholic belief that Jesus Christ is the unique saviour and that the Catholic Church has a unique place in God’s plan of salvation.

Dominus Iesus is a lot more inclusivist than many people think. It leaves open the hugely important questions about how people might be saved without an explicit knowledge of Jesus Christ or an explicit faith in him, and the different ways in which people can be related to the Catholic Church and share in the salvific communion that she mediates in history.

But it refuses to let go of these core beliefs which we receive from the Scriptures and the Tradition. What’s fascinating is to see how much these once uncontroversial beliefs challenge so much of what is taken for granted in the contemporary secular worldview, and how they even give many Catholics pause for thought.

[Scandal, in its original Greek context, does not mean a situation where some moral wrongdoing has taken place, but something that ’causes you to stumble’: that stops you in your tracks, that trips you up, that makes you think, that challenges you, that ‘scandalises’ you in the sense of overturning all of your preconceptions about a given situation.]

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It was good to be at the HTB Leadership Conference on Monday and Tuesday. They filled the Albert Hall, and still managed to sell a few hundred extra tickets for the overflow venue at Holy Trinity Brompton Road.

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There were some very powerful talks and interviews; an incredible array of seminar topics; lots of prayer and discussion and networking; and some fantastic music from the Worship Central team. And there was, interestingly, a very strong Catholic presence: Cardinal Schönborn, for example, was one of the keynote speakers; Christopher West led a series of workshops over two whole afternoons about the Theology of the Body; and the Carmelite Church in Kensington was packed for the celebration of Holy Mass (followed by breakfast for all present), as part of the conference programme, on the Tuesday morning.

I won’t even attempt to summarise the content of the talks. The phrase that struck me most was from Bill Hybels, Senior Pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in the States. It was a throwaway line in the middle of a very practical talk about creating a vision within your core team. Here is the line: “You know, we sometimes forget this: that it’s natural for churches to grow!” In other words, if a Christian community simply lives its faith to the full; if Christians simply become the disciples they are called to be; if we simply believe and pray and love and hope and serve as we are meant to: then of course our churches will grow. What should baffle us is not why they sometimes do, but why they usually don’t. As St Catherine of Sienna said: ‘If you become who you are meant to be, you will set the world on fire’.

There was an intensity about the conference, a passion for souls, a Christian fervour, that you don’t often experience on an average Sunday morning. I was wondering to myself if this intensity was something attractive only to those ‘professional’ Christians (like myself) who sign up for conferences like this, and whether it might alienate ordinary Christians. But the conference started on Monday, 13 May, and I started to connect it with the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima.

In the morning, I had celebrated Mass in the local parish in Chelsea and given a short sermon. I spoke about Our Lady of Fatima’s passion for souls, the sense of urgency which she communicated to the three shepherd children, the seriousness of her message, and the unconditional commitment to the gospel message of salvation that she expected from the children and from every Christian. Then I walked up the road to the HTB Leadership Conference. When you see things from the perspective of the call to conversion and the invitation to salvation, there is not a great distance from Fatima to Holy Trinity Brompton.

[For information about Fatima, see here. If you want to book for the leadership conference next year, see here]

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I’ve been at the Youth 2000 retreat in Balham for the last three days. Each afternoon I lead an ‘open forum’ workshop where participants bring random questions about faith and Christian life. It’s not that I necessarily provide expert answers, but as a group we thrash the questions around, and if I can shed any light I try to do that.

In yesterday’s session, we went beyond the usual questions about doctrine and morality, and someone asked about the Marian title ‘Co-Redemptrix’. We had a great discussion, just thinking through what we knew about Mary’s role in salvation from the scriptures and the tradition.

I came home this afternoon and found a book by Josef Weiger called Mary, Mother of Faith (Chicago, Henry Regnery Company: 1959), which is more a meditation on the Marian scripture passages than a doctrinal exposition. He has sections on ‘Co-Redemptrix’ and ‘Universal Mediation’.

First of all, he makes it quite clear what the title Co-Redemptrix does not mean.

What it does not mean is that our salvation depends on Mary; that Jesus’ mother is the source of our sanctity; that her own personal sanctity comes from herself; that she possesses a supernatural nature independent of the grace of her divine Son. Nor does it mean that Mary stood in no need of redemption.

Our redeemer is Christ; our Mediator is Christ; he has redeemed us by his death; and all are redeemed by him; all without exception; including Jesus’ holy mother.

Having said all that, which certainly needs saying, because the title can so easily be misunderstood, Weiger goes on to reflect on what it truly means.

At the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel came to Mary to invite her to give her consent to God’s plans:

God bound his will to the will of one of his creatures – the choicest of them, no doubt, and the most endowed with grace; still, the will of a human being was to help decide God’s plan for salvation; in fact, God made the salvation of the world dependent upon the freely-given consent of a human heart […].

Divine Wisdom made our redemption part-dependent on the Yes or No of the Virgin. Our Redeemer had no desire to force himself on people or to assert himself by deploying rights and opportunities easily available to his almightiness. The salvation of the world was to become a reality in an act of faith, and through the faith of a virgin heart. Mary was to be a partner in our redemption. That is the meaning of her title, Co-Redemptrix. Without the Virgin’s faith, there would be no redemption by Christ. Through her faith Mary gave the Word of God a human home. Our Lord’s incarnation and the Virgin’s faith are an indivisible whole.

If we wonder what it is that distinguishes Mary’s faith from that of other saints – hers was necessary to bring about the salvation of the world in Christ; and that can be said of no other human being. Other people’s faith is necessary for their own salvation. The Virgin’s faith and her Son’s achievements are prerequisites, for without Mary’s faith and Christ’s death and glorification, it would be impossible. It is in fact on quite a different plane. Thus one person’s lack of faith cannot jeopardize the salvation of the whole world… So belief in her part in redemption implies belief in the irreplaceable and representative character of her faith […].

Mary was no mere passive instrument of the Incarnation, she took an active part in it; so much so that, lacking her faith and her faithfulness, the salvation of the world would have been jeopardized [pp. 90-100].

This all makes theological sense to me. It’s hard to deny that the Virgin Mary, in a unique manner, cooperated in the work of our redemption; that in this limited but crucial sense she was a Co-Redemptrix. The big question, which we didn’t all agree on, is whether the doctrine should be defined!

[Lots of stuff here if you want to follow up the scripture, history, theology, patristics, Magisterium, FAQs, objections, etc: http://www.fifthmariandogma.com/ ]

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What if there were another you? I don’t mean just an identical twin or a clone with the exact same genes. I mean someone who was like you in every way, the same body and mind and heart, the same past and experiences and memories, the same thoughts and feelings, the same decisions taken and the same mistakes made, standing in front of you now – but not you.

This is the idea at the heart of the film Another Earth, which jumps straight into my Top Ten films of the year. [Major plot spoilers follow – sorry!]

Another planet appears – just a dot in the night sky. As it comes closer it becomes apparent that this planet is the same size as ours, that it even has the same structure of continents and oceans as ours. Then, in a magical sci-fi moment, as the woman responsible for ‘first contact’ with the new planet speaks on a microphone, she realises that the woman talking to her on the other end is herself. [It’s on the trailer here – I’ve ruined it for you!]

So the synchronicity between the two planets and between each corresponding person is absolute, apart from the fact that it inevitably gets broken by the appearance of the other planet – so the woman is not hearing the same words ‘she’ is speaking on the other planet, but actually having a non-symmetrical conversation with her other-self.

First of all, you are simply in sci-fi territory. I love these films. And in fact this film is really a re-make of another film from the ’70s (I can’t remember its name – brownie points for anyone who can help) where the US sent a spaceship to another planet on the other side of the sun, only to discover that the planet was the same as the earth – apart from everything being a mirror image of this earth. So our astronaut lands on the other planet, and another astronaut from that planet lands on our earth, with everyone thinking that our astronaut has come back early – until he sees that all the writing here is in reverse. Anyway – this is classic sci-fi.

But very quickly it becomes philosophical. Looking at this other earth in the sky above, marvelling that we can behold such a world, you realise that this is exactly what we do whenever we reflect on our experience, or use our imaginations, or question what is going on in our own minds. The remarkable thing about human beings is that we can ‘step back’ from our own experience (inner and outer) and view it; that we can ‘see ourselves’. The strangeness of the film brings to light the strangeness of ordinary human life.

We take this ability to reflect for granted, but it really is the key factor that seems to distinguish us from other animals. No-one today would deny that animals can be incredibly sophisticated and intelligent; and on many measures of intelligence they would beat us. But this power of self-reflection seems to be one of our defining characteristics; and it surely connects, in ways that aren’t always clear, with human freedom – the freedom we have to think and imagine and act in ways that go far beyond the instinctual programming we receive as bodily creatures.

So the wonder that Rhoda Williams feels staring up at this other planet is no more than the wonder we should feel whenever we step back and reflect on ourselves.

Then there is a theological angle too. To cut a long story short: Rhoda unintentionally kills the family of musical conductor John Burroughs in a driving accident, soon after the planet is discovered. He is haunted by the loss of his family, and then receives a ticket to travel to the other planet – a ticket that Rhoda has for herself, but she decides to give it to him. Why would he go? Because if the synchronicity between the two worlds was broken when they started to impact on each other, then perhaps the accident did not happen on the other planet, and ‘his’ family is still alive up there.

I call this a theological idea, because it’s about the possibility of redemption, of putting right something that has gone irredeemably wrong in the past. That in some sense this action might not have happened, or it might be possible to go back and undo the harm that has been done. This is crazy of course – in normal thinking. But if it’s crazy, why do we spend so much time imagining/hoping that somehow we could put right what has gone wrong? I don’t think our almost compulsive inability to stop regretting the mistakes we have made is simply a dysfunctional habit that we can’t let go of; it’s a yearning for forgiveness and redemption, for someone to go back in time and allow us to change things, an echo of a possibility of renewal that we can’t justify at a rational or philosophical level – because the past is completely out of reach. It’s about hope.

Or the film is about conscience – the possibility of imagining an action now, as if it were happening, and asking if we really want this parallel imaginative world to unfold into reality, or if we would regret it. So the work of conscience, and of all conscious deliberation, brings us up against another parallel world that is exactly the same as ours – only we have the power to decide whether it shall come into existence or not.

At the very end of the film, in her backyard, Rhoda meets ‘herself’ – we presume she has come from the other planet, with her own ticket, which she didn’t need to give away, because the accident there didn’t happen. All we see is her catching the gaze of the other woman before her, and recognising her to be herself – but not. Then the film ends immediately. It’s incredibly moving. As if a lifelong search, unacknowledged, is finally over; as if, miraculously, I step away and see myself for who I am, and see myself seeing myself. And that, miraculously, is in fact what happens every time we know ourselves through self-reflection, through self-consciousness. Human beings are not just conscious. We are self-conscious. That’s the idea that the film opens up so well.

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The Benediction of Saint Patrick by starbeard.Sunday was the feast of All Saints. I gave a talk about the meaning of devotion to the saints at Farm Street, the Jesuit church in central London. You can listen to it [click OPEN] or download it [click SAVE] from here; and read the handout here.

I spoke about the obvious things: how we learn from their example; how we enjoy their friendship; how we are helped by their prayers. But I added another point: that our dependence on the prayers of the saints teaches us a deeper truth about our identity as human beings [Go to 45:23 in the download].

In the story of the Garden of Eden, there are two tragedies that unfold. One is the Fall, the Original Sin when Eve and then Adam took the forbidden fruit and ate from it. But this depends on the tragedy that comes before: that when Eve is tempted, when she is faced with this moment of monumental crisis, she faces it alone, she doesn’t ask for help or advice or support from God or from her husband. And I don’t mean this in a sexist way as if to say that the woman should have sought help from the man; I mean it in a way that would apply to Adam as much as to Eve. Neither of them was meant to face the serpent alone; and how different it could have been if they had turned to each other and to God. When she looked at the fruit, with the serpent whispering in her ear, and took that decision on her own, it was – perhaps – already too late.

The same is true with Cain and Abel. It’s a difficult passage to interpret, but it reflects the scene between Adam and Eve. Cain is tempted, and struggles with the Lord. But instead of seeking God’s help, or seeking the help of his brother Abel – he kills him. When the Lord asks him “Where is your brother Abel?” and Cain replies “Am I my brother’s keeper?!” – the answer is, “Yes, you should have been”. But even more importantly, he should have allowed Abel to be his keeper when he was facing his own demons; Cain should have turned to his brother, leant on him, and shared his concerns with him.

So part of our salvation, part of our healing, is the restoration of human relationships. The Fall involved a pride, a false notion of independence, a distorted idea of autonomy, of self-reliance. And in the healing process that Christ brings we learn – in certain respects – to become more dependent on others; we learn that we are not alone; we learn that we are not meant to cope on our own. It’s OK to need others, it’s OK to ask for their help.

This is one reason why devotion to the saints is so important. In praying for others, and in asking others to pray for us, we learn to depend on their help – and our proper identity as children of God and as brothers and sisters is restored.

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