by Dom. PATRICK BARRY Headmaster of Ampleforth
THERE are two ways of looking at the Church— from above and from below.
You can look at the Church's history and the interplay of forces which has led to the present situation. So you may discern a pattern in the picture which presents itself and compare it with the past: you may contrive to interpret the development and peer into the future. That is what 1 call looking at the Church from above. Not everyone is interested in that approach and even those who arc must look at the Church also from below; everyone must look at it from below. Everyone has to face the problem of how to live his own life. If, as I have suggested, he is living in a period of development it is not much consolation nor immediate help to be told that he must put up with the agonies so that future generations may enter into the benefits of a new era. Individuals often suffer from grand designs and for many the benefits are doubtful in the end. A Polish soldier wno lost his leg fighting. for Napoleon and lost his country when Napoleon was defeated got no great consolation from think ing about the Napoleonic grand design. That is an extreme case, but it is no good pretending that some people don't feel the same way about what has happened to the Catholic Church in the last ten years. Vatican II, they feel, may well have initiated a grand design, but it also took a lot of things from them which they desperately miss; they are dubious about the emergence of many of the promised benefits of the grand design. The mood was expresssed in bit of verse published in The Tablet recently. It is clearly a parody of Chesterton, though it isn't up to his standard. The author contemplates suicide but pauses in a moment of hope: Perhaps next week The Tablet will not say (In its last pages where the print is small) That soon in Canada and the USA The Jesuit Order won't exist at all.
Perhaps concern for "relevance" will pall. Perhaps the word "temptation" will yet stay Instead of "test" which is nonsensical.
I think 1 will not hang myself today.
Perhaps next week no experts will let fall That is superfluous t So there's no need of a confessional.
Perhaps next week The Tablet will be gay And tell of priests delighted with their call (Who do exist, though news. wise rather grey). Perhaps Professor Kiting has had his ball.
I think I will not hang myself today.
It expresses the mood of distress and bewilderment which is experienced by many in many forms, even by some who greeted Vatican II with enthusiasm and expected it to herald an era of triumphant, if not triuniphalist, development in the Church.
All sorts of things have led to this mood. First of all there is the Liturgy. In the Liturgy we have gone straight from Classicism to Expressionism. Who would have thought ten years ago that you would have to pick your church carefully on Sunday morning, if you wanted to retain your equanimity for the rest of the day'? Then there are the problems high-lighted or created by the publication of Ilatnanae Vitae under the headings both of contraception and authority. Questions about the celibacy of the clergy, stories of priests who have left the Church with or without full attendant publicity, the latest talk about the Curia, all are noted and receive varying treatment in the secular press; and they like to make the most of disagreements between Cardinal Suenens and the Pope and the latest extravagance in the Church in Holland.
Individually and cumulatively these controversies and others like them have a most unsettling effect on the individual Catholic. He finds it difficult enough to lead a good life, if everyone is agreed about what a good life is; he finds it intolerable if every aim is questioned and every ideal treated with indulgent contempt. You will not expect me to attempt to deal with these problems in so short a time. I mention them to give the context of what I take to be the central problem for many Catholics. The central problem which arises from the uncertainty of the past ten years is the assault on faith itself. The older generation often feel that they have lost so much which was familiar that they wonder what is left to cling to. For the younger generation it isn't much easier. To them it isn't an immediately attractive scene.
If it hasn't 'worked so well for the older generation they feel reluctant to commit themselves and would like to look round a bit first. A period of extreme reluctance to commit themselves is not uncommon and, however regretfully, one can understand. If they are idealists, we don't quite measure up to their requirements; if they are cynics, we seem to have lost our defences and they know our hesitations and confusion. They are not impressed. For every age group therefore I see the problem as primarily an assault on faith itself. This is the real worry for many Catholics and if you look at the Church from below you will feel that the crisis of our times is a crisis of faith.
I suggest that it is wrong to blame all this on Vatican II or to think that everything could be solved if we put the clock back. However important the structure of the Church and the leadership in it may 6e. the central question of faith is and always has been a radically individual one. Even when we say it together the Creed begins "I believe . . ." If a liturgist ever tries to change that to "WE believe . ." it will be because he doesn't understand the question and he hasn't read and studied Vatican II — or the New Testament, if it comes to that.
Have you ever read the documents of Vatican II'? I imagine not. It takes a bit of doing and most of it is pretty turgid reading, but it is worth doing for the gems that occur in patches. Personally 1 should select one passage from the document on Religious Freedom as among my favourites. It is a favourite not only because of its truth and clarity but also because of the many implications which flow from it.
The passage I refer to is as follows: "Of its very nature the exercise of religion consists before all else in those internal voluntary and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly towards God." It is important to quote these words in the present context, because they emphasise the aspect of Christianity which was under-emphasised in postR e f ormation Catholicism. Faith is an individual decision: there is an element of loneliness about it which no institutional support can take away.
The central question of the New Testament — what it was all about — was put by Christ to the apostles: "Whom do you say that I am?" The whole purpose of the continuing existence of the Church can be interpreted as the task of putting that question to every succeeding generation, "Whom do you say that I am?" It is right that Vatican II emphasised the individual free internal nature of the essential act of religion which I take to be the act of faith. We are driven back to remembering this by the confusion of our times. Whether things are going well or ill in the Church at this moment, whether its public image is acceptable or unacceptable to The Times, The Guardian or the BBC, whether we live in an age of faith or an age of infidelity, nobody else can ultimately bear any portion of that responsibility with which we answer the ultimate question.
It is particularly important to remember this because whatever difficulties and con fusions exist in the Church today -whether one regards them as evidence of decadence or as upheavals inevitable in a period of new growth and development — however one interprets the situation, there is no doubt that the essential problem has not been treated by what has happened in the last ten years; it is equally certain that it could not have been evaded by clinging to the past. Quite a lot has been happening in the world. Exceptional changes have been taking place. The Church could not have remained totally unchanged. and there were certain problems which were bound to come to the fore.
In 1873 Newman preached a prophetic sermon in which he foresaw quite a lot of our trouble: "I think the trials which lie before us are such as would appal and make dizzy even such courageous hearts as St Athanasius, St Gregory I or St Gregory VII, and they would confess that dark as the prospect of their own day was to them severally, ours has a darkness different in kind from any that has been before it. The special peril of the time before us is the spread of the plague of infidelity . . . Christianity has never yet had experience of a world simply irreligious."
In our own day Karl Rahner considers what it is like for a Christian to live in a totally irreligious milieu:
"His faith is constantly threatened from without. Christianity receives no support, or very little, from institutional morality, custom, civil law, tradition, public opinion, normal conformism, etc. Each individual must be won to it afresh, and such a recruitment can appeal only to personal decision, to what is independent and individual in a man, not to that in him which makes him a homogeneous part of the masses, a product of his situation, of 'public opinion' and of his background. Christianity ceases to be a religion of growth and becomes a religion of choice. Obviously Christians will still give institutional form to their lives, over and above the institutional element in the Church herself; they will try to transmit to their children the faith that they have themselves won in a personal decision, they will develop and try to preserve Christian habits of morality. customs, practices, associations and organisations. But by and large the situation will remain one of choice, not of natural growth; of a personal achievement constantly renewed amid perilous surroundings."
Rahner's picture must strike a chord with anyone who is trying to live as a Christian today. A faith constantly renewed amidst perilous surroundings — a faith which rests on the acceptance of our individual responsibility before God — a faith which is not unduly affected by the institutional state of the Church, the developments or decadence. the losses or gains — this is the sort of faith called for by the present state of the Church and the world. None other will see us through. With it the future can be faced. Through it solutions may be found to our problems. Without it all controversy and discussion will ultimately prove sterile. What ever one may think about the grand strategy, if you look at the Church from below the greatest need of our times is faith against all the odds. The designs of the grand strategists will be sterile without it. In our
search for it three points are worth considering.
First, there is nothing essentially new in this situation. The need has been masked at various times but it has always been there. The loneliness of Christ in Gethsemane has been reflected through the ages by the essential loneliness of every Christian in his hour of trial. Of course Christianity is a religion of community, but it is a community of those who have faced the decision and persevered in that decision.
This has always been so and it has always been recognised that the darkest moments of the individual are the moments of opportunity and growth. "Since Christ," said St. Thomas More, "entered not into his kingdom without pain and suffering. who can for very shame expect to enter it in ease and comfort." Hair shirts and persecution may have been the chief abrasives of the past. In our day it is the assault on faith itself which causes the most acute suffering and difficulty. The difficulties are not less nor the pain less searching.
Secondly, the source of faith is to be found always in prayer. In saying this 1 may appear to be sinking into dutiful and dull conformity with the practice of preachers and writers on Christianity throughout the ages. It is true they have always insisted on prayer. Christ himself insisted on it and they have good authority. It is true that they all recommend the Eucharist and have added to it the Rosary or the Thirty Days Prayer or whatever pious practice happened to be current in their time.
I don't want to quarrel with any such recommendations but I do want to add one thing with urgency. Our use of words in prayer is a matter of convenience and approximation, whether it he liturgical or private prayer. But the essence of prayer is in silence — silence not only of the lips and imagination, but of the mind. I suggest that the prayer of silence has never been more needed than it is today.
Thirdly, remember what Christianity really is. When we find the props falling away, whether it be the Latin Liturgy, the stability of the clergy, or clear guidance on moral issues and the exercise of institutional authority, it is easy to forget the nature of the demands Christ makes on those who would follow him. Very often Christianity provides consolation and protection, but that is not its essential role. Christianity is a religion of mercy, of forgiveness, but also it is a religion of demand.
There is danger of forgetting that the demands can be very searching and that they are part of the package. In heroic times the demands were clearcut and they still are in some parts of the world — persecution and the loss of personal liberty and life. In the West the test is less heroic and less clearcut but not less demanding. In the past the Christian often had to find faith in an atmosphere of hostility.
Today he must find it in an atmosphere of apathy and irreligion. He gets little help from his milieu. It is a searching test and emphasises the individual and personal nature of that decision whereby a Christian is able to say "I believe." He is alone when he faces the ultimate responsibility — when he searches in his soul for his answer to that question: "Whom do you say that I am?"