Jerry Ryan joined the Little Brothers of Jesus in 1959. He lived and worked with them for more than two decades in Europe and South America. He and his family now live in Massachusetts.
By this author
In Fellini’s 1972 film Roma, the pope appears as a kind of giant head bathed in splendor, emitting rays of glory intimidating some, inspiring hope and adoration in others. His mere presence overwhelms everything; he speaks not a word. Satire? Perhaps, but not too far off the mark. At the height of the ultramontanist fervor in the nineteenth century, the Roman Jesuit review Civilita Cattolica calmly affirmed that “when the pope meditates, God is thinking in him.” Certain bishops and theologians seemed to view the “Vicar of Christ” as a prolongation of the Incarnation. A popular devotional booklet, attributed to Don Bosco and bearing an imprimatur, tells us that “the Pope is God on earth. Jesus placed the Pope above the prophets, above the Precursor, above the angels. Jesus put the Pope on the same level with God.” Practically speaking, the adage “no salvation outside of the church” became “no salvation outside of submission to the Vicar of Christ.” Closer to the present, a friend of mine who served in the papal household of Paul VI told me that when the pope was passing by he was preceded by a bell-ringer warning those present to lower their eyes and not dare gaze on the Sovereign Pontiff.
Vestiges of this mentality still exist in certain circles. This is why the resignation of Benedict XVI and the rapid election of Pope Francis came as a shock to many. There were, however, previous signs of a change of perspective in the church’s self-image. The most striking was, in my opinion, the very underappreciated penitential ceremony celebrated by John Paul II at St. Peters on the first Sunday of Lent 2000. The official missalette of the papal Mass and penitential act had, on its first page, a reproduction of one of the panels of the Holy Doors of St. Peters: “And the Lord turned and looked at Peter.” The look of Jesus in this image is stern and sad; a tear falls from one of his eyes. It is a look of disappointment, of reproach, of one determined to go it alone even if abandoned. Peter is shattered, ashamed, humiliated, disgusted with himself. He can’t believe what he has done. Nor can the maidservant in the background, who perhaps represents humanity and who simply cannot make sense of it all. She appears puzzled and sad. In the ceremony itself, it is no longer question of acknowledging the “faults of certain sons and daughters of the church” but a recognition that, if the church is a communion of saints, it is also a community of sinners: “a solidarity in sin also exists among all the members of the people of God—the bearers of the Petrine ministry, bishops, priests, religious and lay faithful.” The first-named among sinners are the “bearers of the Petrine ministry.” This, in itself, represents a total reversal of perspective.
It is also much more attuned to the Gospel narratives. On the shores of Lake Tiberias, Jesus offers to Simon, son of Jonas, the possibility of reaffirming his love and his desire to follow his Master. He is not addressed as Peter, solid as a rock, nor is he rehabilitated as such. It is only by his tears and repentance that Peter found mercy. The risen Christ does not confer upon him a power of authority but rather the vocation of a shepherd called to guide his flock on the way of truth.
St. Pius X, in his encyclical Vehementer (1902), wrote: “By its very nature the church is a society of unequals; it is composed of two categories of persons: the pastors and the flocks.
Joseph Cunneen, a longtime contributor to Commonweal, passed away in his sleep on July 29. He was eighty-nine years old. The son of an attorney and a teacher, Joe attended the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, and served in France with the 101st division of Combat Engineers during World War II. It was there he discovered the theological renewal that would flourish in the postwar years and ultimately lead to Vatican II.
René Page died on February 2, 2010. He was eighty-six. His obituary did not appear in the New York Times or, as far as I know, in any other newspaper. He was little known outside the fraternities of Charles de Foucauld (1858–1916), those religious communities of men and women whose prayer and work lives are modeled on the “hidden” life of Jesus, that is, his life in Nazareth before his public ministry.
Chapel of the Rosary, Lourdes, Fritz von Dardel, 1886
Christian mysticism can be defined as the experience of direct, personal encounter with the God of love. It is an immediate experience, one that transcends all rituals and dogmas. It goes deeper than all “signs,” whether verbal or sacramental, to attain what they only hint at or point toward. Christian mysticism requires purification, a heightening of the senses and of the spirit. It is not the fruit of abstract reflection or of intellectual intuition. It is a gift of God, but one often associated with the practice of contemplative prayer.
Early last year, the Ministry of Culture of the Islamic Republic of Iran awarded its World Prize for the Book of the Year to The Banquet: A Reading of the Fifth Sura of the Qur’an—originally published in French as Le Festin: Une lecture de la sorate al-Mâ’ida. The book’s author was invited to Tehran to receive the award from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and was subsequently asked to present his findings to academic gatherings in Tehran and at Iran’s principal Shiite university at Qum.
The years just before and after World War II saw breakthroughs in theology that had major impact on Vatican II. For centuries the church had been waging a defensive battle against the abuses of the Enlightenment, the challenges of the Reform, and the rise of the secular nation-state. Theology had been reduced to defending the status quo or nurturing a form of popular piety that would set Catholicism apart from rival versions of Christianity. The “new theology,” which developed above all in France, upset the calm and stagnant waters of scholasticism.
Benedict XVI’s encyclical Spe salvi, published a year ago, is magnificent as a theological lesson on the virtue of hope, drawing on Scripture and the church fathers to challenge the misplaced hopes of the modern world.
Some time back, I got an e-mail from an old friend with whom I had lost contact many years before. He was an ex-seminarian from Argentina who had been imprisoned and tortured during the “dirty war” of the military dictatorship. That he had gotten out alive bordered on the miraculous.