Monday, 20 December 2010

Fr Cantalamessa's Third Advent Homily

The theme of Fr Cantalamessa's third homily for the Holy Father and members of the Roman Curia was "The Christian Response to Rationalism". The full text can be found here. I am usually minded to advise "reading the whole", as any comment easily gives only a partial impression, and I would do the same in this case, too.

Once again, Fr Cantalamessa draws significantly on the thought of Blessed John Henry Newman. The first point that Fr Cantalemessa makes is that it is a usurpation of reason (Newman's phrase) when it attempts to reason about religion upon purely secular maxims, maxims that are intrinsically foreign to the nature of religion. This does not mean for Newman that we must reject the style of reason that is of our general use when we come to study matters of religion, and replace it with another and contradictory style of reason. Religion is rightly the subject of such study. But the appopriate application of that rational study reveals that, in the case of religious belief, there are other, wider factors at play too. These wider factors have a rationality of their own style, and it is the offence of rationalism to exclude these wider factors.
"... When the Gospel is said to require a rational faith, this need not mean more than that faith is accordant to right reason in the abstract, not that it results from it in the particular case." [A footnote cites the University Sermons]
Taking up Newman's thought again, Fr Cantalamessa argues that:
Rationalism cannot be combated with another rationalism, although of a contrary sign. Hence, another way must be found that does not pretend to replace the rational defense of the faith, but to accompany it, also because the recipients of the Christian proclamation are not only intellectuals, able to engage in this type of debate, but also ordinary people who are indifferent to it and more sensitive to other arguments.
This leads Fr Cantalamessa to considering how a reflection on rationalism has implications for the evangelising mission of the Church. In speaking of how the divine and the sacred impact upon us uninvited, he suggests that a recovery of the sense of the sacred - be that in the religious experience of the community of those who hold a religious belief, in the religious experience of the individual who is a mystic and receives a particular gift of encounter with God, or be that in the experience of one who recognises the sacred in the observation of the world around us. Fr Cantalamessa draws significantly on Rudolf Otto's phenomenology of the religious experience of man, translated in English with the title "The Idea of the Holy".
If this is so, the re-evangelization of the secularized world must pass also through the recovery of the sense of the sacred. The terrain of culture of rationalism -- its cause and at the same time its effect -- is the loss of the sense of the sacred; it is necessary therefore that the Church help men to re-ascend the slope and rediscover the presence and beauty of the sacred in the world. Charles Peguy said that "the terrible penury of the Sacred is the profound mark of the modern world." One notices it in every aspect of life, but in particular in art, in literature and in everyday language. For many authors, to be described as "desecrating" is no longer an offense, but a compliment.
Fr Cantalamessa argues that, in addition to what I might call the reason of intellect the field of religious belief has also a reason of witness or of testimony, the two reasons being quite open to each other and not at all contradictory. When an individual person comes to religious belief, it is generally the case that factors other than intellectual argument have been at play in their journey, and these other factors are perfectly rational.
Theologian Karl Rahner, taking up, it seems, a phrase of Raymond Pannikar, affirmed: "The Christian of tomorrow, will either be a mystic or he won't be." He intended to say that, in the future, to keep faith alive would be the testimony of persons who have a profound experience of God, more than the demonstration of his rational plausibility. Essentially, Paul VI said the same thing when he affirmed in "Evangelii Nuntiandi" (No. 4): "Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses."
And he finishes by suggesting that Christmas, being more than ever challenged in its authentic meaning by secularising and materialistic influences, provides a privileged opportunity for Christians to recognise and live out a sense of the sacred in the world.
Oh, and along the way Fr Cantalamessa cites Edith Stein as an example of one whose mystical experience exemplifies how vivid is their discovery of God. In later conversation with her closest friend, Hedwig Conrad-Martius, the friend at whose house she was staying when the incident referred to below occurred, Edith Stein would refer to her journey to the Catholic faith as "my secret for myself" (Secretum meum mihi) and not disclose anything more about it:
It was precisely from one of these encounters that a disciple of philosopher Husserl, a Jewess and convinced atheist, one night discovered the living God. I am speaking of Edith Stein, now St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She was a guest of Christian friends and one evening when they had to go out, she stayed alone in the house and not knowing what to do, took a book from their library and began to read it. It was the autobiography of Saint Teresa of Avila. She went on to read it the whole night. Having come to the end, she simply exclaimed: "this is the truth!" Early in the morning she went to the city to buy a Catholic catechism and a Missal and, after having studied them, went to a neighboring church and asked the priest to baptize her.

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