Circular Letter: Advent 2010

Blessed Cardinal Newman
and the Prophetic Office of the Laity

Advent is a time of progression from darkness into light, from sin to a new life, in and with God. It is a time of preparing the way again for the coming of Jesus. In Him is life, and the life is the light of men. The true light that enlightens every man is coming into the world (cf. Jn 1:4, 9). Life and light are inseparable, because only if we live in the light of truth, will we attain to eternal life, to union with God, who is both Life and Truth. Yet not everyone rejoices in the light. “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world knew Him not. He came unto His own, and His own received Him not” (Jn 1:10-11). The world does not want to accept the light, because it would have to change its way of life. Like Pilate who asks, “What is truth?”, so, too, already at Bethlehem the world says to the Child knocking at the door, “We have no room!” In our society today, under the “dictatorship of relativism” (Benedict XVI), anyone who seeks to speak or live the truth about life issues or moral values, is branded as “uncharitable”, “intolerant”, “divisive” or “politically incorrect.” Yet true charity and unity can never be separated from truth: the truth about God and our divine origin, the truth about man and his final end.

Christ, the Perfect Man

This truth, written into the very nature of man but obscured by sin, is found clearly articulated in the message of the Gospel, in Christ who became man for us and, in so doing, “fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et Spes, 22). After the first fall, it is only in Jesus do we come to understand again what true humanity is meant to be and how we are to live. For this reason, the Church has been of great value to nations over the centuries, in that by the light and truth she has received from Christ, she has provided moral direction in the making of laws, the development of culture and the structuring of society. The Church has a very important voice in the public forum, and she “cannot withdraw from the task of proclaiming Christ and His Gospel as saving truth, the source of our ultimate happiness as individuals and as the foundation of a just and humane society” (Pope Benedict XVI, Address at Hyde Park  on the Eve of the Beatification of J.H. Newman, September 18, 2010). God depends upon her to bring the light of Christ to mankind, to allow Christ to be born again in the world today.

The Role of the Laity in the Formation of Culture

Yet the duty of proclaiming Christ does not lie with the Bishops and priests alone. Pope Benedict comments, “No one who looks realistically at our world today could think that Christians can afford to go on with business as usual, ignoring the profound crisis of faith which has overtaken our society or simply trusting that the patrimony of values handed down by the Christian centuries will continue to inspire and shape the future of our society” (Pope Benedict XVI at Hyde Park). We have been given a gift, the gift of our faith and the grace to live it out. We must ask ourselves, are Christians still forming culture and society as of old? Have we passed this gift on to our children and neighbor? All of us, even seriously practicing Catholics, have been pressured unawares by the consumerist, atheistic, hedonistic society around us. We must be vigilant, therefore, if we are not to become like “children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles” (Eph 4:14). We must form culture instead of allowing culture to form us.

For this reason, the beatification of John Henry Cardinal Newman is particularly timely for our days. Blessed Cardinal Newman considered his life’s work “as a struggle against the growing tendency to view religion as a purely private and subjective matter, a question of personal opinion” (Pope Benedict XVI at Hyde Park). It is imperative for Christians of our time as well to take hold of culture and society, to form and inform it by the light of the Gospel. Through the testimony of faith lived out in daily life, and by “speaking the truth in love” (Eph 4:15), we are called to bring the light of Christ to the world. This is the prophetic office of the Church, not only of the Holy Father, the Bishops, and priests, but also—in a distinct way—of all the members of Christ’s Body. “The very witness of a Christian life, and good works done in a supernatural spirit, are effective in drawing men to the faith and to God; and that is what the Lord has said: ‘Your light must shine so brightly before men that they can see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5:16)” (Vat. II, Apostolicam Actuositatem, 6).

Nearly a century before the Second Vatican Council, Blessed John Henry Newman already recognized and preached the importance of this prophetic mission of the laity, within the Church and directed also to the world. This prophetic role is not something separate or contra-posed to that of the hierarchy and the ministerial priesthood; rather, being based upon the common priesthood of all the faithful, and in collaboration with and in docility to the teaching authority of the pastors of the Church, the prophetic role of the laity is united closely together with that of the hierarchy to form the one prophetic office of the Church.

Binding Ourselves to the Truth in the Obedience of Faith

In order to form culture and society by the light of the Gospel truth, however, first of all we ourselves must know and live that truth. For having been “made in the image and likeness of God, we were created to know the truth, to find in that truth our ultimate freedom and the fulfillment of our deepest human aspirations. In a word, we are meant to know Christ…” (Pope Benedict XVI at Hyde Park). Cardinal Newman spent his entire life in the passionate pursuit of truth, through meticulous intellectual honesty, a deep prayer life and a commitment to personal conversion. He was “an intellectual and a believer, whose basic spiritual message testifies that the path to knowledge is not withdrawal into ‘self’, but openness, conversion and obedience to the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life” (Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, Sept. 22, 2010).

By God’s grace we know the truth through the gift of our Catholic faith. What we know by the light of faith is even more certain than what we know by the light of natural reason (cf. St. Thomas Aq., Summa Theo., II-II, 171, 5, obj. 3). For faith is based on the word of God Himself, who can neither deceive nor be deceived (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 157). “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone [the Bishops in communion with the Pope]. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ” (Vat. II, Dei Verbum, 10 § 2). The faithful walk in truth when they are obedient to and follow the directives of this Magisterium. Even though we do not always understand the mysteries of our faith, nevertheless, we are called to respond with the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5), both in our intellectual assent to the formulas of the faith and in living out their moral consequences. In this way, we will grow in authentic charity towards God and neighbor, for charity can never be separated from truth.

Today’s world teaches us on the contrary to live “a radical individualism and self-interest which lead us away from the love of God and from the love of one another…. Our culture teaches us to believe what is convenient and to reject what is difficult for us or challenges us. Thus we can easily fall into ‘cafeteria Catholicism,’ a practice of the faith, which picks and chooses what part of the deposit of faith to believe and practice” (Cardinal Raymond Burke, Address at the World Prayer Congress for Life, Rome, Oct. 9, 2010). One extreme example of a failure in the “obedience of faith” in a particular demand of Catholic morality was the reaction to Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae  in 1968, where many “Catholic” theologians, setting themselves up as a “second magisterium”, encouraged the faithful to follow their “personal conscience” in the question of artificial contraception, rather than the teaching Magisterium.

False Prophets

This blatant disobedience still confuses the faithful today, and has led to a widespread and insidious error among otherwise good-willed Catholics, leading them to think that we have the right to disagree with the Magisterium (which teaches with the authority of Christ!) on the basis of “personal conscience”. Though we have the duty always to follow our conscience, we are responsible for having a well-formed conscience, and this is precisely through adhering to the directives of the Magisterium. Moreover, the failure to live by the light of Christ and His Church in this area, is also a failure among Catholics to bear witness before the world to the truth we have from Christ. Many have become, as it were, “false prophets”, and have led fellow Christians and non-Christians into confusion and error regarding the natural end of marriage.

Cardinal Newman struggled with many truths of the Catholic faith in his conversion process, but once he embraced the faith and recognized the divine source of Catholic Tradition, he accepted all the Church’s teachings, whether he understood them or not. “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt” (Apologia pro Vita Sua, 239). For him, coming over to the Catholic faith “was like coming into port after a rough sea” (ibid., 238). He “saw clearly that we do not so much accept the truth in a purely intellectual act as embrace it in a spiritual dynamic that penetrates to the core of our being” (Pope Benedict XVI at Hyde Park). In other words, our entire lives must be transformed by the truth we have been given. Through prayer, and especially the Sacraments, we can assimilate the word of truth ever more profoundly; and it is through prayer, and especially the participation in the Holy Eucharist, that we remain united to the Truth, who is Christ. The angels also help to enlighten us regarding the truths of faith and to live them out more faithfully, for they are “light”, and are sent to mediate this light from God to men.

Speaking Out for the Truth

Once we know the truth and have given ourselves over to it, we cannot keep this truth to ourselves; “it calls for testimony, it begs to be heard, and in the end its convincing power comes from itself and not from the human eloquence or arguments in which it may be couched” (Pope Benedict XVI at Hyde Park). Because they are more involved in the temporal order, lay persons have access to areas of evangelization where no priest is heard. In order to transform the “culture of death” in which we live, therefore, the laity must also be ready to speak the truth. “The true [lay] apostle is on the lookout for occasions of announcing Christ by word, either to unbelievers to draw them towards the faith, or to the faithful to instruct them, incite them to a more fervent life; ‘for Christ’s love urges us on’ (2 Cor 5:14)” (Vat. II, Apostolicam Actuositatem, 6).

This prophetic mission of the laity is even more urgent today when, “under the influence of a rationalist and secularist philosophy which makes man, instead of God, the ultimate measure of what is right and good, many have become confused about the most basic truths [of morality]” (Cardinal Burke, Congress for Life). We see this confusion especially in the political discussions today, which revolve ever more around simple moral truths that forty years ago would never even have come into question. We need, therefore, to speak out for our faith. Blessed John Henry Newman writes:

I know well that “all things have their season,” and that there is not only “a time to keep silence,” but “a time to speak,” and that, in some states of society, such as our own, it is the worst charity, and the most provoking, irritating rule of action and the most unhappy policy, not to speak out, not to suffer to be spoken out, all that there is to say. Such speaking out is under such circumstances the triumph of religion, whereas concealment, accommodation and evasion is to co-operate with the spirit of error. (Via Media, Preface to the Third Edition)

Proclaiming the truth and standing up for what is right takes courage. Though we may not be directly threatened with martyrdom, “the price to be paid for fidelity to the Gospel…often involves being dismissed out of hand, ridiculed or parodied” (Pope Benedict XVI at Hyde Park). Nevertheless, we must not shrink from this task. God relies upon us, upon our fidelity to the prophetic mission which He has entrusted to each of us,  whether it be to the preaching office of Bishops, or to the call of the Christian laity to bear personal witness in the secular world.

Witness of a Christian Life: Charity in Truth

While the witness of words is important, even more importantly our very lives must become a testimony to the world around us of the love of Christ, the truth of His word and the dignity of the human person. “Newman teaches us that if we have accepted the truth of Christ and committed our lives to Him, there can be no separation between what we believe and the way we live our lives. Our every thought, word and action must be directed to the glory of God and the spread of His Kingdom” (Pope Benedict XVI at Hyde Park).

If we profess our faith in God who is love, we must also manifest that love in our lives by our words and deeds. And that love must always be guided by truth: “Truth, by enabling men and women to let go of their subjective opinions and impressions, allows them to move beyond cultural and historical limitations and to come together in the assessment of the value and substance of things” (Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in veritate, 4). In our society which tends to relativize truth, our Christian witness to unchangeable moral values can help to build up society according to objective moral norms, which allows for the true development of the human person. We must bear prophetic witness by our works of mercy, by the way we vote, by the way we live.

The Angels and the Clarity of Truth

One of the greatest antidotes to the pervading spirit of relativism or our times is a strong and vital devotion to the holy angels. In the Work of the Holy Angels, we have the special calling to draw upon the help of the holy angels throughout the day, that in all we do we may bring the light and love of Christ to those around us. We become transparent for the light of Christ by purifying ourselves and living a close union with Him. The angels can help us in this purification process, enlightening us into our hidden faults, inspiring us to works of mercy and directing us to the means of grace. They can help us to discern truth from falsity, to make wise decisions, to live by the truth, and to articulate the faith and moral truths with clarity and precision. When we live a close bond with the holy angels—even more so, through a formal consecration to them—their light, the light of Christ, will burn ever more clearly in us and through us, that others may perceive only Jesus.

To be an apostle for Christ, therefore, requires no special apostolate. Just by fulfilling the duties of our state of life with a pure conscience, we can become God’s instrument to touch the hearts of those around us. “We exercise our ‘prophetic office’ often without even knowing it; we draw people one step closer to the Lord and His truth” (Pope Benedict XVI at Hyde Park). Cardinal Newman also meditates on this truth:

God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me  which He has not committed to another. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes… I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection  between persons… I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth  in my own place, while not intending it, If I do but keep His commandments  and serve Him in my calling. (Meditations on Christian Doctrine, March 7, 1848).

“Keeping His commandments” and “serving Him in our calling”, led by the “kindly light” of faith, we allow Christ to transform us by His truth, and thus, in Christ, to work towards the transformation of the world. “Each of us has a mission, each of us is called to change the world, to work for a culture of life, a culture forged by love and respect for the dignity of each human person” (Pope Benedict XVI at Hyde Park). This is the meaning of the prophetic office of the laity; this is what it means, in the words of Cardinal Newman, to “radiate Christ”!

As we prepare for the coming of the Child Jesus at Christmas, therefore, may the Blessed Virgin Mary help us to purify our hearts and to strive to make faith the basis of all our thoughts, words and deeds, that from within God may transform us and conform us to the image of His Son. Like the Child Jesus, let us become children again, open and docile to the will and word of our Father, for “Unless you turn and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 18:3). We pray that the holy angels may enlighten our faith and strengthen us to profess it bravely out of love, that with and in Christ, we may be a sign for the world of the joy and peace of knowing and serving God. And may Blessed John Henry Newman give us a share in his faith, simplicity and devotion, which allowed him to become for both Christians and non-Christians alike, a prophetic sign of the presence of God in the world, working through love.

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