There’s been a fuss over the Pope’s preacher (no, don’t ask, I don’t know why he needs one either, never seems short of a word or two himself) celebrating the Reformation. In the Catholic Herald, Ed West has pointed out the various devastating effects of the Reformation from the destruction of art to that of human beings; what, he wonders, have Catholics to celebrate about that? Far be it from me to invite critics to read what the preacher said, but as one used to doing so, I did, and I found it enlightening and edifying. So what is he saying?
Cantalamessa spoke of the ‘theological and spiritual virtues’ of the Reformation. No doubt it was myopic of him not to talk about art or to score points by a body count of who burnt whom, and concentrating on theology and spiritual values was clearly unfair, since most folk have no idea what they might be. But the fellow’s a religious person, and he was speaking to Bishops and others who might understand; and if we will stop a moment, he is speaking to us too.
‘We preach Jesus as Lord’, he said, quoting Paul to the Corinthians. That is at the heart of the Good News, and unlike recent Catholic converts here, the life-long Catholic Cantalamessa recognises that the Reformation stemmed from the desire to do that more effectively and unencumbered by the sorts of abuses which grow up over time in every church.
He recognises that we call preach salvation by Justification by faith, and that gnawing over the bone of ‘good works’ is yesterday’s argument; Protestants should be equally willing to drop the nonsense that Catholics preach a ‘good works’ salvation; they don’t, they never did, and the attempt to say they do is a smear unworthy of any follower of Christ. If we have faith, works follow, James saw it, Paul knew it, any Christian is with them on this one – from his or her own experience of living in Christ and Christ living in them. It is in that personal encounter that real spiritual unity begins:
We need to start again with the person of Jesus, humbly helping our contemporaries to experience a personal encounter with Him. “All things were created through him and for him”; Christ is the light of the world, the one who gives meaning and hope to every human life – and the majority of people around us live and die as if He had never existed! How can we be unconcerned, and each remain “in the comfort of our own panelled houses”? We should never allow a moral issue like that of sexuality divide us more than love for Jesus Christ unites us.
That last comment challenges me further than I can go, because I don’t see it simply as a moral issue, but as something which Paul preached on and which he saw divides us from Christ. But what am I to say to those whose encounter with Jesus had led them to think otherwise? I am to say what I believe, which is that this would be more convincing were it not a reflection of contemporary Western mores. Yes, every age brings something to our understanding of the Gospel message, but our age is more willing to add than it is to question its own assumptions.
We are entering a ‘Year of Mercy’ declared by the Pope. But we live in an era of God’s mercy, and does repentance precede or follow Grace? He reached out to me when I was far off. I receive him in my heart, by faith, with thanksgiving. By his mercy I have come far from the sectarian strife of my early life, as as I forgave those who hated me and sought forgiveness from them in turn, I confront the strangeness of God’s Mercy. It falls like the dew, it comes undeserved – and as I am forgiven, is it right that I should not forgive?