Serving the Church and the Faith: insights from St Ignatius of Loyola & Pope Benedict XVI

Many bloggers get hate mail. No doubt it goes with the job. I am fortunate that I have had so little. By hate mail I do not mean those who argue points. If done civilly and rationally, that is fine and good, and welcome. But there are some who wade in with name-calling and even threats. These people – or so far, this person – will be banned. Being a personal blog there is no obligation here to provide absolute free speech to all and sundry. Being a personal blog it is not compulsory reading, and those who do not like what they read here can just stop reading it, and look elsewhere for material more to their taste. The blogosphere is a reader’s market.

The most recent hater left a series of comments rather than just one, which read a little like stream of consciousness writing – as it comes to mind, so it is immediately written down. In one he accused me of fomenting controversy, and so acting in a way unbecoming a priest and a Benedictine. In another he darkly reminded me of Fr Michael Clifton’s blog, which that priest was forced to abandon due to threatened litigation by another cleric whose published views he criticized on doctrinal grounds. This reminder, of course, was a thinly-veiled threat. No doubt this commenter would uphold the academic freedom of theologians to say whatever they want; and would uphold the right of anyone to express opinions against the teaching of the Church. Tolerance is a one-way street for such people. So, in the same vein, I have taken down those comments.

Yet, though this is a personal blog, I am indeed still a priest and a monk. How my post welcoming our new bishop, commenting favourably on his first press statement and tentatively (as I do not know most of the details) supporting his work as vicar general in Shrewsbury can be construed as controversy is beyond me. How supporting and promoting the ministers and the teachings of the Church can in any way be said to be unbecoming to a priest and a Benedictine is likewise beyond me.

The accusation has been levelled that I am a craven proponent of the Church’s line. There is nothing craven about it! The approach here is measured and principled. It is a part of my role as a priest of the Church. I am ordained to teach the faith, not my faith. There are some things the previous local bishop did that I found difficult to approve; but it is not my place to criticise him in public unless he commits grave sin or injustice. Even then, there are ways and means appropriate to the task. The bishop is, whatever else he might be, a successor of the apostles and deserves my respect and loyalty, despite the fact that I am not directly subject to him. There are parts of the new Missal I find clunky, and there are things I would have rendered differently. But it is not my place to criticise publicly the Church’s liturgy. It has been promulgated and it behoves priests above all to explain it so that all may derive maximum benefit from it. A little effort in this regard bears surprisingly rich fruit. Whatever its minor faults, it cannot be denied that the new Missal is vastly superior to the one it replaced.

Possibly this commenter and others see Benedictines as tame religious, who provide oases of quiet hospitality for troubled souls, who stand apart from the world and so should stand aloof from it, being content to sing liturgy and till fields, and do little else apart from that. What a curious, and unhistorical, view of Benedictines, a view which could only come from someone who is not a Benedictine. Now, do they get upset at Fr Anthony Ruff OSB on the Pray Tell liturgy blog, who has been very loud in his opposition to the new Missal as well as espousing other views at odds with the Church’s teaching: controversial to say the least? Has my commenter left him hate mail I wonder? Or Sr Joan Chittester OSB, advocating women’s ordination and other things contrary to the Church’s teaching: controversial surely? Does he send her hate mail too?

St Boniface cuts down a tree sacred to the pagans

On the orthodox side, there is St Boniface, the apostle of Germany and English Benedictine monk, who used some pretty vigorous methods in evangelising those barbarian tribesmen, not least by over-turning their pagan altars and destroying their pagan shrines. If he were around today perhaps he would get hate mail too for being un-Benedictine. Actually, he was martyred, come to think of it! But not for being un-Benedictine. Or there is St Peter Damian, that great medieval Benedictine, a monk of great reforming zeal who lambasted with great gusto the scandalous members of the Church in his day, not least clerical sexual abusers and their homosexual sub-culture, in his treatise, the Book of Gomorrah. He was pretty controversial; was he thus also un-Benedictine?

St Peter Damian OSB

One reason why hostile rulers have tended to close or secularise monasteries at the outset of their anti-Church activities is that monks, in their relative seclusion from the hurly-burly of the world, gain thereby a perspective on the world and the Church which is lost to those in the thick of things. By standing outside monastics can see the whole in a glance. By standing back from the strong currents of the present time, they can see back into history and so understand the origin of many of these currents, and moreover their direction, and so whether to go with their flow, or to resist it. My perspective is not particularly enlightened when compared to the great monastic figures of history, and today. Nevertheless, a monk can speak from the perspective of his monastic crows nest in support of the Church and its teachings when they face opposition that has been nurtured by various movements of recent history.

St Ignatius Loyola SJ

Today is the feast of St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of that most un-monastic order, the Jesuits (who are the last “order” properly speaking). Historically, Jesuits have always been right in the thick of things in the world, shock troops in the battle for souls. And “battle” is very much a Jesuit metaphor, spiritual and intellectual combat very much their metier. St Ignatius saw his spiritual sons as fighting under the banner of Christ. One must make a choice, to fight for the Kingdom of Christ or to serve the kingdom of Satan. Life, St Ignatius taught in his Spiritual Exercises, required the constant exercise of discernment, to determine whether the options that arise in our daily lives derive from Christ or from that other kingdom, and either adopt them or repudiate them accordingly.

For St Ignatius the first battle for every Christian is within the self, against one’s own love of self and the world. The essential weapon in this and all battles for Christ is the submission of will, the self-surrender that is the heart of obedience, the obedience that Christ lived and calls us to live also. Since every army must have a local commander, St Ignatius expected the highest levels of his troops to commit themselves especially, by means of a fourth vow, to obey and be at the disposition of Christ’s earthly representative, the Pope.

Only when one understands St Ignatius’ outlook, conditioned by his soldierly experience and Reformation Europe, can one savour to the full his two most famous prayers. The first is his suscipe prayer:

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding, my entire will;
all I have and call my own.
Whatever I have, you have given me.
I restore it all to you and surrender it wholly
to be governed by your will.
Give me only your love and grace
and I am rich enough and ask for nothing more.

The second is his prayer for generosity, which for St Ignatius is a necessary corollary of self-surrender to God:

Lord, teach me to be generous.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve:
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labour and not to ask for reward,
save that of knowing that I do your holy will.

St Ignatius understood that Christianity involves a conversion at our deepest level, a conversion manifested in all our actions and words. Christ, not least through the Church and its faith, changes us. We do not change the Church or the faith in their saving essence. As Pope Benedict observed years ago, when he was a cardinal, Christian faith is not a human construct:

Christianity is not a philosophical speculation; it is not a construction of our mind. Christianity is not “our” work; it is a Revelation … and we have no right to reconstruct it.

[from The Ratzinger Report, 1985, p.97]

How much of this attitude, that the Christian faith is something we can change as we like, motivates those who advocate, for example, women’s ordination or the acceptance (indeed, blessing) of homosexual relationships? The Church’s teaching is that these are matters of divine revelation, and so cannot be changed. Revelation ended with the death of the last apostle; there will be no new revelation to contradict the previous (as if God would contradict himself anyway). To advocate change in things which cannot be changed is a fruitless, and ultimately destructive, enterprise. The constructive solution lies in the (perhaps painful) humility to submit to Christ and the faith he has revealed.

To be sure, there are always elements in the life (as opposed to the dogmatic faith) of the Church that are susceptible to human frailty and sin and can do with a healthy dose of reform. However, to reform the Church in this sense is a task that can only be undertaken by someone who already submitted to the Church. All the true reformers were just such people. If their cause be just, God will always vindicate them, in his good time, not ours.

So to all Jesuits, especially those Australian Jesuits who have been such a blessing in my life, let us wish a happy feast of St Ignatius; and may their works, assisted by the prayers of St Ignatius, prosper to the greater glory of God.