A Bishop's Reaction to reading the "Five Wounds of the Church"1

 

 

I am wondering how I could have accepted the invitation to take part in, and even to give the concluding address at a Convention of Studies devoted to Antonio Rosmini marking the second centenary of his birth.

 

What Rosmini said about many bishops of his time, namely: "that the pastors of the Church, occupied and overloaded with much business, haven't always got the time for thinking in peace." (Cinque piaghe, "Some preliminary points", n.12) applies also to me.

 

I am, therefore, not competent to talk about this priest who was remarkable for his spirituality and learning. I can only thank all the specialists who have enlivened this Conference and I hope I can learn much from these proceedings and from my fleeting reading, from time to time, of the works of this famous Roveretan priest.

 

There is another reason for my keeping quiet during this Convention and restricting myself to listening and that is the sensitive nature of quite a few problems dealt with in the book "The Five Wounds of the Church" and which even today are hotly debated within the Church. It would be better, as Rosmini appropriately says of the fourth wound, "to let sleeping dogs lie". And he continues with bitter irony: "Everything is all right in the judgement of the prudent people of this century. In the judgement of even more prudent people Catholics must not have the temerity to speak out: it is necessary that they keep perfectly quiet so as not to stir up disquiet and distasteful rumours: anything that causes uneasiness is simply imprudence and temerity" (n.124). But Rosmini notices that "such a type of prudence is the most appalling weapon of those who threaten the Church."

 

So I don't wish to let myself be influenced by this worldly and blameworthy prudence but I must keep within the limits of my little knowledge of the topic. For this reason I have decided to explain, in a very simple way, what a bishop of today experiences when reading this book which is at the heart of your researches and discussions. So I wish to modify the title which you have given me; not "The Five Wounds and the Church Today" but "What is a Bishop's Reaction Today on Reading This Book?" I have therefore re-read the book noting here and there the passages which I find more striking and which I feel are more current, or, on the contrary, those which seem to me to lack force in today's Church and are not relevant to us. In this talk, then, I will use these notes made from my reading of the book and so my comments will be informal and spontaneous without any pretence of depth.

 

Firstly I will speak of some general impressions and then of some reflections on individual topics.

 

I. Generally speaking I am astonished and full of admiration at the extraordinarily lively style, the polemical power, and the force of the language. It is a book which is still vibrant, fresh, hard-hitting and impassioned.

 

It is a book which is permeated by a great love of the Church, and at the same time of great daring and a powerful prophetic spirit.. Rosmini foresaw ways out and possible solutions from ancient evils. He saw, as unacceptable abuses, situations which we had been used to for a long time and which seemed to have taken root. Nowadays, especially since Vatican II, this positive opinion is easy to accept, because we have witnessed important changes in the liturgy, in customs and language: But we can understand what difficulty some of his contemporaries felt at being challenged in such a radical fashion.

 

The author intends to make his point by placing everything in the context of historical development which he repeats appropriately with each wound and which always takes its origin from the primitive Church. It is here especially that we feel, or at least I feel, at odds with the book. In these historical vignettes which are part of the argument he compares a perfect and bright Church of the first centuries with a Church which gradually and progressively decays. The whole book is situated within a general theoretical plan which comprises certain periods (times of organisation, of stability and times of "censure", or even an era of advance, a period of organisation and an era of stagnation or a critical period. Cf., n.58 note 1). This scheme would be very useful if applied to a general chronology of social events but is an oversimplification when applied to real events and particularly ecclesiastical ones. For example, it seems to me that the author pictures the Church of the New Testament in a way which is too idyllic3The Church of today, in reality, is much more complex and troubled. He also seems to minimise the dramatic divisions of the Church in the first centuries in order to place the origin of all the evils in successive ones. Consequently, referring to ancient models of the Church is not enough to explain the motivating force behind the desire to necessarily reform certain ecclesiastical institutions.

 

II. But I do not want to go on at length with these general reflections which would otherwise pale in comparison with the Author's individual arguments. He was aware of the need to be sensitive in arguing historically but he was too dependent on deficient sources which were not adequate from the critical point of view.

 

But I think it is more interesting to consider specific problems which might spur on the renewal of the Church of the present day. I will refer to the following topics: 1. Liturgical renewal; 2.The education of clergy and laity 3.Union among the bishops; 4.The nomination of bishops; 5. The poverty of the Church.

 

As you see, I haven't taken the titles of the five wounds exactly, but I stress in each of them the themes which affect us today.

 

1.The Renewal of the Liturgy

 

The pages which Rosmini devotes to this theme under the title of "The separation of the people from the clergy in public worship" are particularly interesting for us because several of the things suggested anticipate the innovations of Vatican II and they have partly been realised, for example the introduction of modern languages into the liturgy and a greater sharing of the faithful in the liturgy etc. We can therefore ask whether their realisation has borne the fruit which Rosmini waited for and whether what he envisioned has, in fact, come about, that "Christians assembled in the temple enact the sacred functions together& knowing what they are doing there& in short all taking part in the divine worship not simply in a material way but with a perfect understanding of the sacred mysteries, of the prayers, symbols and rites which make up divine worship" (n.15). For this to occur Rosmini holds that it is "necessary" or at least "very useful and fitting, that the people understand the words of the Church in public worship, that they be instructed in what is said and done in the holy sacrifice" (ib.).Nowadays, however, we are aware that neither the use of modern languages in the liturgy nor prolonged catechetical instruction are sufficient to obtain this fruit. The "active sharing", of which Vatican II speaks, appears to us to be an ideal at which we must always aim, without deluding ourselves that one or other concrete reform is sufficient to obtain it. On the contrary, we have realised that a claim to explain all the ceremonies, and in some way make everything accessible, does not take into account that "otherness" of the mystery which always remains beyond human means and is a gift of the Spirit. Assessing positively all the reforms introduced by Vatican II and anticipated by Rosmini in a prophetic spirit, we feel that, in this period of liturgical renewal, it is necessary to move beyond reforms and short-lived hopes and enter the deep world of symbols which unites the great driving forces of humanity with the enduring divine plan of salvation. Liturgy is not simply a series of ceremonies, words, gestures, rites and sacred acts: rather than having its contents analysed, it is a bosom, a womb, a sacred universe which involves us and which permeates us.

 

Incidentally I am still talking about the first wound, and I have been very struck by the impassioned pages which Rosmini devotes to the education of the people: "Christ wishes that the truth be taught prior to the practice of worship& So the lack of a full, living instruction given to the Christian people ( impeded by the pagan prejudice that it is better to keep them half ignorant as incapable of absorbing the great truths of the Christian faith), is the first cause of that wall of division which has been built up between it (the people) and the ministers of the Church"(n.17). Rosmini rightly insists on "full and convincing instruction". Speaking about catechisms which he recognised as a common help at the time with their advantages and disadvantages, he asked: "Doctrine has been summarised; its dogmatic expressions have been refined to perfection; formulas have been fixed and rendered unique, but is the result any more comprehensible to the man in the street?" And he goes on: "So has the modern use of catechisms caused more harm than good to the Church?" (n. 18).

 

We accept the caveats arising from the debates over the last forty years about catechisms and catechesis, debates which are not yet settled, even if efforts have been made to overcome the learning of formulae by rote. It is a difficult problem; not even the Synod on Catechesis of 1977 (with the following apostolic exhortation Catechesi Tradendae of 1979) has found a complete solution. Limiting ourselves to what we can derive from the pages of Rosmini, two things are of particular importance. The first is that the Bible (and especially the Gospels and Psalms) is, and remains always, the first great book of catechesis. Nothing can take the place of direct contact with these texts in a spirit of faith and prayer. Rosmini says, "At the beginning of the Church's existence holy scripture was the only textbook for popular and ecclesiastical instruction. Scripture which is indeed humanity's own book THE book (Bible), the writing, as its name tells us. In this document humanity is described from beginning to end& humanity experiences itself in all the moods of which it is capable, and discovers precise, sure and even evident answers to all the big questions it has posed itself. The mind can rest satisfied with the knowledge and mystery contained in the Bible and his heart with law and grace" (n.38).

 

Nothing, then, can supply for the immediate contact(??) with this book, not even quotations used to introduce the ordinary topics of catechetics..

 

In a parallel way nothing can take the place of the active communication of faith from one mind to another, and especially from one heart to another which is the witness that the catechist can give. Rosmini says: "The teacher who repeats by heart what he doesn't understand may recite exactly what he has learned, but he will chill his listeners with frozen teaching rather than warm them" (n.18). At this point I would like to quote what I read just yesterday in a little book written on the occasion of the Eucharistic Congress of Bologna last September, in which the author, Luigi Pedrazzi, relates his journey in faith and his acquaintance with the scriptures and affirms the irreplaceable value of oral teaching regarding the knowledge and love of the Bible. "And it is my relationship-he says- with these two (supportive??) families mentioned [that is the Little Family of the Annunciation and the Families of the Visitation] that has helped me in the most effective way: more by listening than by reading and meeting people. I am much better acquainted with daily scripture reading by the way they live it and know how much I fall short of practising it." (Il mio vissuto eucaristico, Bologna 1997, p.56). It is a further argument for the impact of living tradition which is Church education and which both accompanies and supports the knowledge of the Scriptures.

 

2.The Education of Clergy and People

 

The second theme is closely connected to what I have already said. We deal with what Rosmini entitles as the second wound, the "Insufficient education of the clergy". I maintain that this theme should rather in our day be the necessary education of the clergy and the Christian people. We have already recalled, a little earlier Rosmini extolling the Scriptures as the first book of Christian education. Today we ought to say much more about this than Rosmini was able to say when he prophetically perceived the return to the Bible.

 

I have mentioned this subject on other recent occasions, especially when speaking to the Italian bishops last May on the theme of the Bible in Christian life. I believe that familiarity with the Scriptures is the great remedy which Providence has reserved for our times which are characterised by a loss of the sense of the transcendent, and by silence on the eternal destiny of humanity. Today biblical helps are available to all and theoretically problems which flared up at the end of the last century have, for the most part, been dealt with. But there still remains a lot to do to attain the ideal stated in Vatican II of a prayerful familiarity of all Christians with Scripture. (Dei Verbum n.25). Many Christians are not yet aware that Scripture is "the text of popular and ecclesiastical instruction", in Rosmini' words.(n.38) The whole question of the education of the Clergy and the people must begin with the principle that Scripture is the first book of Christian education and that all other forms of education by which Christianity is explained must be referred to it and be gauged by it.

 

Rosmini devotes an important part of the chapter on the second wound to the theological education of the clergy and to manuals of theology. His criticisms of this form of transmission of theological knowledge is caustic and almost ruthless: "Scripture, fathers, scholastics, theologians: these are the steps by which we have arrived finally at the wonderful books we use in our seminaries today. Their would-be knowledge is on a par with their contempt for our elders. I believe that in centuries to come, which contain the hopes of the imperishable Church, these books will be judged the most miserable, feeble works written in the eighteen centuries of the Church's history. They lack principles, style and method& Finally, because they lack all appeal to feeling, talent and imagination, these books manifest not a single episcopal or priestly characteristic& " (n.40).

 

Theology has progressed a great deal from those times to the present day and perhaps it would be difficult to find a century such as ours which abounds in such a great amount of creative and searching theology, especially if we take into account catholic as well as Protestant and Orthodox studies. But there remains the problem of finding the best method of introducing theological students to a scientific and living knowledge of Christianity which speaks to the mind but does not wither the heart. Probably a valid, ideal method does not exist, but it will be necessary to combine prayerful reading of the Scriptures with reading the Fathers, and a familiarity with the theologians, particularly those of the great mediaeval tradition and the more recent ones, in a synthetic description that does not lessen their impact.

 

What Rosmini says about priestly formation is certainly important: the catholic priest "supposes a Christian existence. The first grade of the priesthood is in fact the Christian himself" (n.26). The educational scheme of a diocesan seminary such as that of Milan, is based on a principle such as this. It is conscious of ensuring the believer's journey in faith (and of not assuming it as already there) in order to guide him gradually towards the

priesthood. Romini is very severe on a system of education which presupposes that the faith of the seminarian is already firm. He says: "This explains the complete lack of ecclesial understanding in candidates for the priesthood, and their clear grasp of worldly ideas; they have never known anything else. Moreover, the worldly spirit, concealed by their good behaviour, that they bring with their secular ideas is disguised for a time by their clerical dress" (n.26).

 

One point of Rosminian teaching, relating to the second wound and which poses a problem for the bishop is that of the education of the clergy by the bishop himself. "In the first centuries the bishop's home was the seminary for priests and deacons. The holy life and presence of the leader of the Church was a continual, sublime and burning lesson during which the bishop's learning and pastoral practice were imparted together" (n.27). Apart from the idealisation of the evidence regarding the early Church this is certainly a point which is very close to the heart of the bishop: that is, his mission of being primarily the formator of his clergy and of not delegating this to anyone else, even if it might mean enlisting the support of his more mature assistants. It proves a senstive problem especially in large dioceses but also in small ones which need to erect regional seminaries. It is necessary to temper the essential relationship between bishop and seminarians with the equally necessary specialised and fruitful formation which entails the continual presence of many suitable teachers chosen by the bishop. In any case the criticisms of Rosmini are always valid and prick the consciences of all those responsible with formation.

 

3. Union among the Bishops

 

I come now to the third theme which was given to me, namely, union among the bishops. This subject is entitled by Rosmini in a more polemical fashion. He calls his third wound "disunion among the bishops". Thanks be to God, times have changed also in this regard. Prescinding from countries ruled by dictators or totalitarian regimes, almost everywhere bishops are free to come together, to hold synods and provincial councils and to express themselves through episcopal conferences etc. Such a freedom was very much less in Rosmini's time and one can well understand the heat of his criticism. But this does not take away from the fact that union among bishops is always necessary and in need of growth. In fact formal relationships, even in conferences and synods, are not enough to being about that friendship, deep unity and mutual faith which are always necessary in proclaiming the gospel to a secular world. I have personally noted that the more simple, informal contacts and the friendships among bishops made, for example, at conferences and episcopal European synods, foster harmony. This is of great help in facing the complex problems of our society with a united mind and agreement in decision making.

In any case there cannot be enough occasions where bishops of a region, nation, continent or the entire world can exchange, freely and simply, opinions and deeply held beliefs. The method and form of the Synods, begun by Paul VI since Vatican II and firmly continued by John Paul II, have been further improved and perfected to produce those fruits which Rosmini desired and which arise from a deep union of mind and heart of all the bishops of the Catholic Church.

 

I would still like to stress what Rosmini presents as one of the elements of union in the early church, that is, the authority of the metropolitan bishop "the metropolitan had authority over the bishops of a province, while greater sees had several provinces and metropolitans subjects to them. The orderly grading of church government was a powerful factor in unifying and knitting together, as it were, the whole body of the Church. The hierarchy was a compact and effective body, not a unity in name and title alone" (n.55). This ecclesiastical structure has been preserved in the Eastern Churches but has become much weaker in the West. It will be important to recover it in the years to come, even if it isn't easy to see how it can fit in with the current concept of the national or regional "Episcopal Conference". Anyway Rosmini's points continue to be of great value.

 

4. The Nomination of Bishops

 

I will say only a few words on the fourth theme faced by Rosmini in the fourth wound, namely the "nomination of bishops". The situation here has changed greatly for the better. The privileges of governments in the election of bishops has been reduced or abolished in many places and we see the great advantages predicted by Rosmini for local churches. One can only admire the great courage with which he expressed his disagreement a century and a half ago at great sacrifice and personal risk. But the problem of suitable methods for a good choice of candidates for the episcopate always remains. Rosmini had very great and fine views on the responsibility of the bishop and offers arguments and means for an election which would avoid names not acceptable or names of good but not appropriate people. He has been accused of provincialism because he does not seem to admit that a good bishop could even come from outside the diocese. At any rate the basic principle which he explains at length, also in his other writings, is that "the clergy judge, the people advise" (n.77). Today general canonical norms and an accurate investigation which precedes elections support this, but the question remains an open one, and the care of the Church for the choice of suitable candidates will always be a preoccupation of the utmost importance for the whole people of God.

 

5. The Poverty of the Church

 

The pages which Rosmini devotes to the poverty of the Church are also burning and impassioned ones and relate to the fifth wound: "restrictions on the Church's free use of her own temporalities" . Regarding this also, the situation has developed much for the better, particularly in Italy since the last Concordat. The sad situation of past centuries, which Rosmini mentions, has been overcome: "what corrupts and debases the clergy is not the free use of wealth, but restrictions on it. Restrictions on temporalities are the miserable cause of the Church's incapacity in maintaining her ancient standards governing her possessions, in keeping her affairs in order and disposing goods according to her own spirit" (n.131).

 

But the thoughts of Rosmini are very much to the point as regards the examination that the Church must constantly make on the relationship between its actual needs which are undeniable and which must not be underestimated and the economic possibilities which it has at its disposal, for worship and the upkeep of the clergy and also for charity and also simplicity in the use of its goods and of what he calls: "generous giving and hesitant acceptance of wealth, which is the Church's nature" (n.160). At the present time the development and the prestige of organisations such as Caritas and other big, international organisations devoted to charity exemplify these principles as also the "simplicity" which Rosmini continually stresses with regard to the customs of the early Church. Such ideas regarding the goods of the Church are so dear to Rosmini that he mentions them also in relation to the other wounds. For example, as regards the third wound he concludes with this cry: "Perhaps catholicism would have been saved in some nations if it had been freed of the wealth endangering it - as ships in storms are lightened at all costs for the sake of saving human lives" (n.73) Rosmini jotted down similar thoughts but then erased the following words perhaps because they seemed too outspoken: "Such noble feelings appear out-of-place nowadays, but there are hearts ready to accept them. The seed sown will not die without bringing forth fruit because the word of God never returns empty" (n.73 note 39).

 

At the present time we have seen with our own eyes that some of the good seeds sown on arid soil by Rosmini have born fruit and we hope that there is more to come. But I would not wish to end these remarks without mentioning how much we wait for a prophetic work similar to "The Five Wounds" to show that in other spheres the Church has moved on quite a lot. This work lacks any positive mention of the ecumenical problem, the great wound of division among Christian Churches, its implications and healing. There is no mention of the wound of the first division with Israel which was for Paul a cause of "great suffering and unceasing anguish" (Romans 9,2). There is no mention of the hopes issuing from dialogue with the great religions, with the consequent overcoming of an attitude of outright condemnation. These remarks are sufficient to remind us that if the book has been prophetic in several matters and partly stands unfulfilled, in other ways the journey of the Church has also been prophetic in its turn and has fulfilled its own more daring expectations. The words of Rosmini, quoting scripture, are valid here, too: "since the word of God never returns empty".

 

Carlo Maria. Cardinal Martini

 

 

 

1 This talk was given Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini at a convention at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart of Milan, 27-28 November 1997. (Translator) TEXT

2 Cf., Antonio Rosmini, The Five Wounds of the Church, trans. Denis Cleary, Fowler Wright Books, Leominster, 1987.TEXT

3 Cardinal Martini has written many books and is a renowned biblical scholar. (Translator).TEXT