|(The 88 year old Prosper Grech.)|
The face of Christ shines forth
even through thick clouds
even through thick clouds
· Cardinal Prosper Grech’s meditation to the 115 cardinals at
the opening of the Conclave that elected Pope Francis ·
the opening of the Conclave that elected Pope Francis ·
The 5 April - 3 May 2013 edition of the official bulletin of the Holy See, the “Acta Apostolicae Sedis” (available on the site www.vatican.va) published the meditation which Cardinal Prosper Grech, osa, of Malta delivered to the 115 cardinals on 12 March, at the opening of the Conclave that elected Pope Francis the following evening. The following is a translation of the reflection, which was delivered in Italian.
At the venerable age of 87 I am one of the eldest in the College of Cardinals, though as regards the appointment I am still a newborn; and since my life has always been dedicated to study, my knowledge of the affairs and work of the Curia does not surpass the third grade.
Only as such do I dare to present this simple meditation in nomine Domini. The act which you are about to fulfil here in the Sistine Chapel is a kairos, a powerful moment of grace in the history of salvation, which continues to unfold in the Church until the end of time. You are aware that this moment requires the utmost responsibility from all of you. It does not matter whether the Pope you elect is of one nationality or another, of one race or another. It only matters that when the Lord asks him, “Peter, do you love me?”, that he be able to reply in all sincerity: “Lord, you everything, you know that I love you” (cf Jn 21:17-19).
Then the sheep entrusted to him by Jesus shall abide secure, and Peter will follow Christ, the chief Shepherd, wherever he goes. With this, I have no intention to offer a profile of the new Pope, nor even to outline a plan of action for the future Pope. This most delicate task belongs to the Holy Spirit, who in recent decades has endowed us with a series of excellent holy Pontiffs. My intent is to draw from Scripture several reflections to make us understand what Christ wants from his Church, reflections that will help you in your discussions. During his life, Jesus sent his disciples to proclaim the Kingdom of God (Lk 9:2). The Kingdom has many facets, but we may sum up its essence as the moment of grace and reconciliation which the Father offers to the world in the person and work of Christ. Kingdom and Church do not coincide; the Kingdom is God’s paternal sovereignty which includes all of the beneficiaries of his grace.
After his Resurrection, Jesus sent the Apostles out to the whole world to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Mt29:19). The Church accomplishes this by presenting the Gospel whole and entire, without diluting the word; to use Paul’s words: “for I am not ashamed of the Gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16). When one descends to compromises with the Gospel one empties it of its dynamis, as though one had removed the explosive from a hand grenade. Nor must one even give into the temptation of thinking that one may relativize the need for baptism since the Second Vatican Council has also paved the way to salvation for those who are outside the Church. Today one may add the abuse of many indifferent Catholics who neglect or refuse to have their own children baptized.
The Gospel proclamation of the Kingdom of God takes concrete form in proclaiming “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). Both the divine sonship and his crucifixion constitute the scandalum crucis, which is “folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). It is this very scandal of the Cross which humbles the hybris of the human mind and elevates it to accept a wisdom that comes from above. Also in this case, relativizing the person of Christ by placing him alongside other “saviours” means emptying Christianity itself of its substance. It was the precisely the preaching of the folly of the Cross that in less that 300 years reduced the religions of the Roman Empire to a minimum and opened the minds of men to a new vision of hope and resurrection. Today’s world thirsts for the same hope, as it suffers from an existential depression.
Christ crucified, however, is intimately bound to the Church crucified. She is the Church of the martyrs, from those of the first centuries to the countless number of faithful who in certain countries expose themselves to death simply by going to Sunday Mass. However, the Church crucified is not limited only to her martyrs. When she reflects the Person, teaching and behaviour of Christ, she does nothing other than present the Truth, which is Christ himself (Jn 14:6). Therefore, the Church requires men to look at themselves in the mirror of Christ, as she must too. Everyone desires to come to a knowledge of the truth, but when it reveals our defects then it is hated and persecuted: Oculis aegris odiosa lux, quae sanis amabilis, (Confessions VII, 22) says Augustine. And Jesus predicts: “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (Jn 15:20). Therefore, persecution is a quid constitutivum of the Church as is the weakness of her members, from which she cannot prescind without losing her individuality; it is a cross she must embrace.
Yet persecution is not always physical; there is also the persecution of falsehood: “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Mt 5:11). You have recently experienced this through various media outlets which do not love the Church. When false accusations are made one must not pay attention to them, even if they are a cause of immense sorrow. It is quite another thing when the truth is spoken against us, as has happened in many of the accusations of pedophilia. Then one needs to humble oneself before God and men and seek to eradicate evil at any cost, as Pope Benedict XVI did with great anguish and sorrow. Only thus does one regain credibility before the world and offer an example of sincerity.
Today many people do not come to believe in Christ because his face is obscured or hidden behind an institution which lacks transparency. But if recently we have lamented the regrettable happenings that have befallen clerics and laity, even in the pontifical household, we must think that these evils, as serious as they may be, when compared with certain past events in the history of the Church are nothing but a cold. Just as these were overcome with God’s help, so also the present crisis will also be overcome. Even a cold needs to be treated so that it does not develop into pneumonia. The evil spirit of the world, the mysterium iniquitatis (2 Thes 2:7), is constantly striving to infiltrate the Church. Furthermore, let us not forget the warnings of the prophets of ancient Israel not to seek alliances with Babylonia nor with Egypt but to follow a pure politics ex fide by trusting solely in God (cf. Is 30:1; 31:1-3; Hos 12:2) and in his Covenant. Courage! Christ relieves our minds when he exclaims: “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33).
Let us now go one step further in our inquiry into God’s will for the Church. There is no doubt that the unity of his body is Christ’s summum desideratum, as his priestly prayer at the Last Supper demonstrates (Jn 17). Unfortunately, Christendom is still divided in both faith and love. The first attempts at ecumenism immediately following the Second World War (I remember being present at several meetings with Romano Guardini at Burg Rothenfels), and also the commitment aroused by Unitatis redintegratio are bearing fruit even though a long stretch of road still remains. Prejudices die very slowly and reaching a theological agreement is not easy at all. We are tempted to grow weary of this road that often seems one-way. But discontinuing the dialogue would go against the explicit will of God. Yet what is needed more than discussions or ecumenical encounters is the confident and intense prayer of all parties and a convergent path towards the holiness and spirit of Jesus.
Preserving unity within the Catholic Church herself will not be an easier task for the future Pontiff. Between ultratraditionalist extremists and ultraprogressive extremists, between priests who rebel against obedience and those who do not recognize the signs of the times, there will always be the danger of minor schisms that not only damage the Church but also go against the will of God: unity at all costs. However, unity does not mean uniformity. It is evident that this does not close the doors to the intra-ecclesial discussion, which has been present throughout the Church’s entire history. Everyone is free to express his thoughts on the Church’s task, but such proposals should be in line with that depositum fidei which the Pope together with all of the bishops has the task of safeguarding. Peter will make his task easier to extent that he shares it with the other Apostles. Unfortunately, today theology suffers from the feeble thought that dominates the philosophical environment, and we need a good philosophical foundation in order to be able to develop dogma with a valid hermeneutic that speaks a language that is intelligible to the contemporary world.
It often happens, however, that the proposals put forth by many of the faithful for the progress of the Church are based on the degree of freedom that is granted in the area of sexuality. Certainly laws and traditions that are purely ecclesiastical can be changed, but not every change means progress; it must be discerned whether such changes serve to increase the holiness of the Church or to obscure it.
Let us now turn to an even more pressing chapter. In the West, at least in Europe, Christianity itself is in crisis. Europe no long wishes to consider its Christian historical traditions. There exists a spreading secularism and agnosticism which has various roots. To mention just a few: the relativization of truth, which is the result of the aforementioned feeble thought, a theme often emphasized by Benedict XVI; a materialism which measures everything in economic terms; the legacy of governments and parties that intended to remove God from society; the explosion of sexual freedom and that very rapid scientific progress which knows neither moral nor human restraint. Furthermore, a lack of knowledge and indifference reigns not only as regards Catholic doctrine, but even regarding the ABC’s of Christianity. We therefore feel the urgency for a new evangelization which begins with the pure and plain proclamation of the kerygma to nonbelievers, and which is followed by ongoing catechesis that is nourished by prayer.
But the Lord is never defeated by human negligence and it seems that, while they are closing the doors to him in Europe, he is opening them elsewhere, especially in Asia. And even in the West God will not fail to keep for himself a remnant of Israel that does not bend the knee before Baal, a remnant we find mainly in the many lay movements endowed with various charisms that are making a strong contribution to the new evangelization. These movements are full of young people, who were much loved by the two most recent Popes. They are the seed that, well cultivated, will grow into a new tree laden with fruit. Yet care must be taken that particular movements do not believe that the Church has no more resources. In short, God cannot be defeated by our indifference. The Church is his, the gates of hell can wound its heel but can never suffocate it.
Until now we have spoken about Popes, cardinals, bishops and priests, but there is another factor of hope in the Church that we must not pass over, the sensus fidelium. Augustine calls it “the interior Teacher” in each believer, and St John calls is “the anointing” that teaches us all things (1 Jn 2:20, 27). It creates in the depths of the heart that criterion for discerning what is true from what is false; it makes us distinguish instinctively what is secundum Deum from what comes from the world and from the Evil One (1 Jn 4:1-6). According to Dei Verbum 8, the sensus fidelium is also a locus theologicus which needs to be considered by the Church’s pastors. The embers of devout faith are kept alive by millions of simple faithful who are far from being called theologians, but who in the intimacy of their prayer, reflections and devotions can give deeply meaningful advice to their pastors. It is they who “will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever, I will thwart” (1 Cor 1:19). This means that when the world with all of its knowledge and intelligence abandons the logos of human reason, the Logos of God shines forth in simple hearts that form the marrow from which the backbone of the Church is nourished.
But why am I saying this? It is because although we commonly profess that the Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church, we do not always take him into consideration in our plans for the Church. He transcends all sociological analysis and historical prediction. He goes beyond scandals, internal politics, ambition and social problems, which in their complexity obscure the face of Christ which must shine forth even through thick clouds. Let us listen to Augustine: “The Apostles saw Christ and believed in the Church that they did not see; we see the Church and must believe in Christ whom we do not see. By holding fast to what we see, we will arrive at seeing the One whom now we do not see” (Sermones 328, 3). And you, why are you here? In 1961 John XXIII received in audience, here in the Sistine Chapel, the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See. He pointed to the dominant figure of Christ the Judge in the fresco by Michelangelo, and told them that Christ will also judge the actions of the individual nations in history. You find yourselves in this same Chapel, beneath the figure of Christ with his hand raised not to crush but to illuminate your voting, that it may be secundum Spiritum, not secundum carnem, that is, Non in sinistrum nos ignorantia trahat, non favor inflectat, non acceptio muneris vel personae corrumpat. Thus the one who is elected will not only be yours, but will essentially be His.
I would like to conclude on a lighter note. This is not the first Conclave I have attended. I was also present at the conclave of Paul VI, as a simple sacristan who prepared the altars. One day Cardinal Montini came to me asking me to hear his confession; two hours later he was Pope. When he died, preparations were made for the Conclave, and there were three Cardinals, including Cardinal Luciani, who were staying at the Collegio Santa Monica. It fell to me, as the eldest, to greet them before their departure for the Sistine Chapel. I remember having said: “Saying ‘best wishes’ to you is not in good taste, saying ‘goodbye’ is even worse. I will only say: ‘May God bless you’”. I am a bird of good omen! I extend to you the same greeting: May the Lord be with you and bless you.