Sunday, 5 October 2014

The Extraordinary Synod as witness to the Family

Hans Urs von Balthasar frames his book The Moment of Christian Witness (original German title Cordula oder der Ernstfall) with two striking motifs. A key principle underlying the book is that the Christian life experience contains that decisive moment of Christian witness, manifested in the literal blood-martyrdom of those killed for their belief in Christ, or manifested in decisive openness to the possibility of such a witness by those who are not called to its literal fulfilment. In the Preface to his book, von Balthasar contrasts the response of the faithful Christian in the figure of Georges Bernanos with that of the Christian whose liberal thinking has robbed him of any real Christian commitment:
If you say to Georges Bernanos, "Come along with me. It's the Ernstfall - the crucial moment in Christian experience", the old grumbler will get up out of his armchair without so much as raising an eyebrow and follow you like a lamb. But if you go to Reinhold Schneider, the author of Winter in Vienna, and say the same thing to him, there is no telling what might happen. Whether you would finally manage to get any response at all from those who have been "demythologised" and converted to the world, I do not know. They have already explained everything away and are left with a merely symbolic belief in a message that they understand only by analogy. For them, both the belief and the message are worth dying for only by analogy, just as they consider Christianity worth living for only by analogy to something else.
The motif that closes the book is that of Cordula, whose name features in the German title of the book:
When the Huns caught sight of the young girls they fell upon them with savage howls, like wolves among sheep, working havoc among them and destroying them all.
But there was one girl, called Cordula, who out of fear hid herself the whole night long in a ship. The following morning, however, she offered herself up to the fury of the Huns, and thus received the crown of martyrdom. Afterward, her feast day was not celebrated because she had not suffered together with the others. A long time afterward, therefore, she appeared in a vision to a woman hermit and asked for her death to be commemorated on the day after the feast of the eleven thousand virgins. 
The Legend of the Eleven Thousand Virgins
[The historical accuracy of this legend of eleven thousand virgins martyred in Cologne in the fourth century is pretty much rejected. See St. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins at New Advent.]

It is difficult to read Simon Caldwell's report Iraqi Christian: ‘ISIS terrorist held a sword to my throat but I refused to convert’ without being reminded of the story of Cordula, and without also asking ourselves whether, in the comfort of our developed nations, we would get out of our armchairs like Georges Bernanos if we faced a similar call to witness to Christian belief.

Does not, in a very different way, the Extraordinary Synod (and the Ordinary Synod that will follow) represent a "decisive moment" that calls the Church to witness to the beauty of God's plan for family life even to the point of derision and marginalisation? Witness in this sense relates to the teaching of the Bishops gathered in Synod; but it also relates to the living out of that teaching by Christian families in their own individual life situations. The witness may be imperfect - but at the "decisive moment", will we get out of our armchairs like Bernanos or hesitate like Schneider?  

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