Continuity and Development - Notes and Quotes from the Year of Faith

Dudley Plunkett FAITH Magazine September – October 2012

To begin our new column, which develops from and replaces our "Road from Regensburg" column, Dudley Plunkett explores some implications and contrary forces in undertaking to spread the virtue of Faith during the Year of Faith. He concludes with some practical experiences and observations which we hope to develop upon in this column. Mr Plunkett is senior academic tutor at the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham.

Doubt or Believe!

Discordant voices are being raised about the Year of Faith announced by Pope Benedict.[1] The Pope sees his proposal in the context of his whole pontificate as a commitment by the Church to "lead people out of the desert"[2] of "a profound crisis of faith" (Porta Fidei, 2), but there is also a sceptical challenge from those who perceive an intent to impose a backward-looking theology, a "hermeneutic of retrenchment".[3] By identifying, as Fr John Sivalon alleges, a "trilogy of the demonic: secularism, relativism and pluralism" Pope Benedict "dreams of a re-established, romanticised culture of Mediaeval Europe". The former Provincial of the Maryknoll Missionaries continues to his egregious punch-line: "While it is said to be a time of renewal, the 'Year of Faith' is really dedicated tothe idolatry of doctrine, power and hierarchy." These assertions could perhaps be dismissed as a fanciful tantrum if they did not manifest a problem notably cited by Pope Benedict, namely that reason "manipulated by ideology" tends to the "marginalisation of religion" and its relegation to the purely private sphere.[4] Such secular reasoning has found its way into the Church, and Catholics are divided as to what constitutes the essence of religion. Deference to secular thinking becomes an obstacle to the reaffirmation of Christian faith and mystery, and to ignore that this is happening only exacerbates the crisis of faith.

How Can This Conflict be Resolved?

In the first place it is inconceivable that a resolution will come from arguments about who is right or wrong, because in such arguments there is already an implicit acknowledgement by both parties that secular reason is the arbiter. Theology has to insist upon its own perspective, prescinding from the rules of the game set by rationalists who, in their own act of faith, disbelieve in the mystery of Christian faith. Secondly, however, the authoritarian imposition of doctrines that is being alleged by progressive voices is not an acceptable option, and the despotic imposition of secular ideologies dressed up as "spirit of Vatican II" theology is an even worse prospect. The third scenario would seem to be where the two tendencies continue, each on its own path, in a dynamic but notnecessarily destructive tension, with secular rationalists seeking to discredit the motives and actions of the Church leadership in the post-Vatican II era, while those who affirm a hermeneutic of continuity urge that the Good News be understood as primarily concerned with eternal life rather than secular interests.

The Pope's striking effort to evangelise secular culture in Westminster Hall can be seen in this context as a basic text, since it seeks the same resolution. Reason, or more properly "secular reason", needs faith, because it is faith that will save the values and convictions of civilised western society from being trodden under foot by ahistorical pragmatism, relativism and totalitarianism. Secular reason is the agent of political power; faith is the agent of transcendental values. Consistent with these arguments, the Year of Faith is aimed at truth, justice and goodness, not centralising power. It is not offering a strategy of political influence, but of conversion. It is more a matter of living the faith than proving it, as the document clearly states repeatedly with full scripturalauthority: "'Faith working through love' (Gal 5:6) becomes a new criterion of understanding and action that changes the whole of man's life (cf. Rom 12:2; Col 3:9-10; Eph 4:20-29; 2 Cor 5:17)." (Porta Fidei, 6)

Catholics who read Porta Fidei in the light of the documents of Vatican II can see how consistent it is with Council teaching, and also with the Catechism and with the project of a faith-filled pastoral and evangelising programme, these being the three main criteria that Pope Benedict proposes for the Year of Faith. Then they will be in a position to decide whether to lend their energies to a coalition of secular reasoning and "progressive" thinking in the Church, or to rally instead to the prophetic vision being put forward by Benedict XVI. And if the latter, they must ensure that they do not minimise the vision and risk jettisoning its spiritual power.

A Prophetic Vision

It surely cannot be denied that the Holy Spirit is at work in these times, in which the western world at least has fallen into atheism, a real spiritual darkness, and that He is guiding the Church in its response to humanity's real needs. This is a vision that offers the prospect of unity and spiritual renewal for the Church. Moreover, it impels the Church towards the new evangelisation of people and cultures that the last two popes have so strongly advocated, and that Pope Benedict now reaffirms: "Today too, there is a need for stronger ecclesial commitment to new evangelisation in order to rediscover the joy of believing and the enthusiasm for communicating the faith." (Porta Fidei, 7)

To nullify the authority claims of the Church that stem from Jesus's commission and the Spirit's Pentecostal anointing is to buy into secular reasoning. Even if it is inconceivable to the secularist that the Church should be allowed to claim its own authority, outside as it were of all rational proofs and empirical evidence, the Church has nevertheless to insist that its authority comes from God, that humanity must render unto God what is God's, and that it is not enough for the Church to be a goodwill agency spending its energies on social and compassionate action while ignoring the other three pillars of the faith affirmed in Acts 2:42, and adopted by the Catechism of the Catholic Church as its basic, cohesive structure: doctrinal truth, sacramental reality and the postulate of adeeply personal relationship between each human being and his Creator.

The error of endorsing the social and moral action of Christianity almost exclusively, as engaging most directly with secular world agendas, is fatal for faith, only deepening the crisis and abandoning the challenge to the faithful to believe Jesus's words: "I am the way, the truth and the life." Porta Fidei leaves us in no doubt on this point: "The Year of Faith... is a summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord, the one Saviour of the world." It is therefore not to be a year simply of assertion of doctrines, and certainly not of ideologies, but of faith in the message and mystery of Jesus Christ and a response to its practical implications: "By faith [author's emphasis], countless Christians have promoted action for justice so as to put into practice the word of theLord, who came to proclaim deliverance from oppression and a year of favour for all (cf. Lk 4:18-19)." (Porta Fidei, 13)

The Pastoral Challenge

A CDF Note summarises the practical challenges of the Year of Faith as concerning the universal Church, the dioceses, parishes and other church bodies.[5] At the global level, the key event is to be the XIII General Assembly of the Ordinary Synod of Bishops in October 2012 dedicated to The New Evangelisation for the Transmission of the Christian Faith. Other major events are the World Youth Day in Brazil, in 2013, and initiatives intended to foster ecumenism and Christian unity. Further, a Secretariat is being established within the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelisation to coordinate all new evangelisation initiatives. However, the CDF Note is a broadly conceived document that offers little to guide a specific parish or church group setting out its own Year ofFaith programme beyond recommending such general categories as prayer, catechetical events, opportunities for reflection on the Catechism and Vatican II documents, relevant homilies, focus upon the liturgy, especially the Eucharist, and evangelising activities. The Working Document for the Synod[6] offers a diagnosis of the "silent apostasy" of many Church members (Instrumentum Laboris, 69) and a much fuller statement of principles to guide the new evangelisation, but any more practical pastoral recommendations from the Bishops and the Pope will only be forthcoming later.

It may therefore help enflesh the essentially pastoral concern of this article to reflect on how one church group is seeking in the meantime to engage in the new evangelisation and respond to Porta Fidei. The Faith Alive group in Southampton has in the past decade initiated Alpha courses, an ecumenical programme sharing ideas about leadership, formation and outreach methods with other denominations, a city guildhall event with a Catholic inspirational speaker and prayer teams, a city mission, an introductory programme for "new seekers", that is people interested in the Church and who might wish to continue with the RCIA, displays outside a church on a main road and a manned gazebo to provide information and resources to passers-by during the papal visit, and the Anchor catecheticscourse making use of the "way of beauty" for evangelising parishioners, seen as a primary target. The group is now considering how to form leaders for the Keeping in Touch (KIT) programme which reaches out to inactive Catholics.

However, it must be admitted that such work often suffers from a lack of coordination and continuity, and indeed wider inspiration. Church activities depending upon volunteers tend to be spasmodic and often dependent on self-formed leadership, so that parishes are increasingly seeking to appoint people to full-time pastoral roles to coordinate catechetical and evangelising initiatives and to form volunteer leaders and teams. Also, while there is increasing support for parish-level catechetical programmes on the internet, local online interactive approaches are much rarer, and yet can be very effective in gaining the interest especially of young seekers. And, finally, parishioners engaging in such evangelising initiatives depend upon the encouragement of their priests and bishops andtheir own openness to the Holy Spirit who is the main resource for the Church's new evangelisation mission. As Porta Fidei affirms: "It is the gift of the Holy Spirit that makes us fit for mission and strengthens our witness, making it frank and courageous." (Porta Fidei, 10).

[1] Benedict XVI, Apostolic Letter Porta Fidei, (\_father/benedict\_xvi/motu\_proprio/documents/hf\_ben-xvi\_motu-proprio\_20111011\_porta-fidei\_en.html).
[2] Homily for the beginning of the Petrine Ministry of the Bishop of Rome (24 April 2005): AAS 97 (2005), 710.
[3] I take as an example a recent article of a kind that is likely to become commonplace: John C Sivalon, “Vatican declares ‘Year of assault'" (National Catholic Exporter (, 4 June 2012).
[4] Benedict XVI, Westminster Hall Address, 17 September 2010 (\_father/benedict\_xvi/speeches/2010/september/documents/hf\_ben-xvi\_spe\_20100917\_societa-civile\_en.html).
[5] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Note with Pastoral Recommendations for the Year of Faith (2012) (\_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc\_con\_cfaith\_doc\_20120106\_nota-anno-fede\_en.html).
[6] Synod of Bishops, XIII Ordinary General Assembly, The New Evangelisation for the Transmission of the Christian Faith, Instrumentum Laboris, Vatican City, 2012 (\_curia/synod/documents/rc\_synod\_doc\_20120619\_instrumentum-xiii\_en.html).

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