HOME and BETHLEHEM
By Fr. THOMAS CORBISHLEY, S.J.
THE headquarters of the Society of Jesus, the Curia. is almost literally within a stone's throw of St. Peter's, and night after night, as the fathers of the General Congregation walked up and down on the roof. the floodlit dome provided a sort of background to our conversation. There it was. immense, imperturbable, the symbol of the power of the Church through. out the world.
One day a group of us were taken to see the excavations under the Basilica, and came to a spot within a very few feet of what was almost certainly the last resting place of St. Peter himself.
The contrast between the simple second century shrine built by the piety of those poor followers, and the flamboyant massiveness of the Church built to house those same remains, was startling, and almost disconcerting.
But still more astounding is the contrast between the simple scene of the Nativity — the bleak cave, the helpless Child, the unknown Mother, the handful of shepherds — and the endless millions whose thoughts at this time turn to that same scene.
IN an important sense, Bethlehem and Rome are the two poles round which our lives as Catholics should revolve : Bethlehem, because without the sheer reality of the story our religion might become formalised, impersonal and cold; Rome, because there we find not only the Vicar of Christ himself, but the centre of that organic unity which we believe to be his Body.
Christmas, then, reminds us of how it all started, reminds us of the source and origin of our whole supernatural destiny. Rome is the abiding assurance to us that the events of that first Christmas night had a more than transient importance. In a profoundly true sense. history was made that night in a way never to be repeated.
One of history's most remarkable ironies is to be found in the revenge. so to say, which Our Lord has taken on the Emperor Augustus.
As we know from the story told by St. Luke, it was because of the decree of the Emperor Augustus that Our Lord's mother went to Bethlehem to give her Child to mankind in the cave.
To-day, across the Tiber from St. Peter's. stand the remains of the Altar of Peace which Augustus erected about the time he was issuing that very decree. Close by is the squalid ruin of the mauso leum built to house the mortal remains of the lord of the world. unkempt, unvisited. Hard by Nero's Circus, where another Roman Emperor massacred so many of the first generation of the followers of that Child, springs the dome inscribed with the promise to the Rock on which the Church is built.
WHAT is of more urgent and more practical importance is the realisation that comes over the visitor to Rome of that other great reversal of history which took place in 1870.
It is not only the inescapable self-assertiveness of the pompous monument to Victor Emmanuel, or the busts of the nineteenth century worthies on the Janiculum and the Pincio — the secular antitheses to the Church roll of saints ; it not the imprisonment of the Holy Father in the Vatican —a very technical imprisonment, since only the other day he drove some 80 miles to open the new Vatican transmitting station ; it is not the duplication of diplomatic missions--to the "Quirinal" tthe former Papal palace) and to the " Holy See."
Much more is it the sense that, in the long view, the Church has gained immensely and the State has lost from that very spoliation of the Papal States. Now, undisturbed by possible political implications, unembarrassed by memories of former quarrels. all peoples and nations come to do homage to the Vicar of Christ the King.
It is safe to say that the place which the present Holy Father holds in the esteem and affection of the Catholic world is something unprecedented in history. Partly because of the development of travel facilities which have enabled a larger number than ever before to travel to Rome and see the Holy Father in person, partly because of the technical achievements of radio and television, it is certain that he is realised as a living being, as no Pope before him. by the ever-growing mass of the Catholic body.
NOR is this appreciation confined to the Catholic faithful. More and more, as the world divides into two great armed camps, bearing in their hands the terrible weapons that can obliterate civilisation if not humanity, men and women everywhere are beginningdimly and uncertainly, because suspicion and ignorance are slow to clear — to realise that the only hope lies in a return to the Christian values embodied in the person of the Holy Father.
The contribution which his pronouncements on such a diversity of subjects can make to the world's happiness may not yet be realised. It is almost inevitable that the realisation will he widespread and far-reaching.
It seems reasonable to claim that it was this sense of the importance of the Catholic Church to the well-being of mankind which was at the back of the wide-spread interest shown by the press of so many. countries in the recent General Congregation of the Society of Jesus.
Jesuits are, of course. always news. And some of the speculations which were published concerning the Society were worthy of the media in which they appeared. But, apart from these wilder ventures into the world of conjecture. there was a general and a genuine desire to understand What the General Congregation was all about.
To many, the Allocution addressed by the Holy Father to the members of the Congregation came as a surprise and a disappointment. They had so taken for granted that some tremendous issues were at stake, to be met by some dramatic and challenging declaration, that the almost conventional insistence by the Holy Father on the traditional virtues of religion and the safeguards by which. in the past, the spirit of the Society had been maintained and its greatest successes achieved, made them almost feel that they were cheated.
So they decided that the words of the Allocution implied that there was, in the Society. sonic tremendous tension. amounting almost to crisis, between the Old Guard and the Young Men, who, if not Angry. were at least impatient.
WHAT IT DID WHAT, in fact, was the Congregation concerned to do? It was concerned — as a body and not under pressure from this or that " faction "—to safeguard two things one, qtat, in accordance with the intentions and spirit of its Founder, it should always be ready to adapt its methods and its activities to the changing world-situation; two. to see that whatever was done was done in entire accordance with the aloud, he includes it as an exception, since it looks as though the Church now wants the prayer to be public. A second exception is the Domine non sum dig,ius before the people's Communion, since the celebrant, having already received Communion, must be saying the words for the people. Fr. Howell's suggestions, which coincide with regulations in Germany. France, and Belgium. certainly seem tidier and easier, and perhaps their adoption would enable the Dialogue Mass to become more widespread in this country. I myself hope it will one day become the universal norm when a congregation is present.
basic principles of the Christian and religious life.
The former concern found expression in decisions which were taken concerning the re-grouping of provinces in new Assistancies, with especial reference to the great mission fields of Asia, Africa and South America ; the preparation of specialists in the different sciences ; the basic intellectual training of Jesuits for the priesthood and. at the same time, the training of the Brothers for their own important and special vocation ; certain minor modifications in the department of sheer administration, chiefly to lighten the great and growing burden resting on the shoulders of the 6eneral and his Assistants.
The other concern was expressed in the close scrutiny of all that regards the ascetic and spiritual formation of members of the Society ; in a renewed insistence of the fundamental importance of all those means which, in the words of St. Ignatius, "unite the instrument with God."
ND here we do well to return to the thought of Bethlehem and the Child in the manger. As we contemplate that scene we are reminded that, when all is said, it is the simple human realities which are of central importance.
Here in the Cave we sec the Child and His Mother--and what else 7 The setting is designed to throw into vivid relief those two figures. The Child is God, we know by faith ; but to all human seeing He is just a Child, " one of the children of the year" in Alice Maynell's unforgettable phrase.
Yet, starting with no human advantages, making use of no weapons other than the purely spiritual ones of sheer self-dedication, slicer obedience, sheer disinterestedness, sheer love of His Father and of all men, He was launching a campaign which. through the ignominy and agony of defeat and death, was to lead to the triumph symbolised by Eternal Rome.
It is a lesson for us all. Manmade satellites challenge (how punily) comparison with the stars of God's creation ; statesmen are bewildered by the problems of inflation, the threat of nuclear warfare, the upsurge of nationalism in so many quarters ; we ourselves are anxious about our families. our possessions. our health, our position in life and a score of other things.
How insecure was that little Family how lacking in this world's goods ; how weak that Child, threatened by the envy of a king ; how humble His station I But, in His own life, He demonstrated the validity of the promise He was to make in full manhood : " Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His justice. and all these things will he added unto you."
Bethlehem and Rome How uncertain. one would have said, the promise ! How glorious the fulfilment I
Next week Fr. Corbishley will write a special article for the New Year,