01-06-2009 - Traces, n. 6

Holy Land
After the pope’s journey

Peter’s Steps
in the Heart of History

Reason. Education. Testimony. More than a month after a pilgrimage whose historic importance is increasingly evident as time passes, the Italian Professor of Theology Fr. Stefano
Alberto,  reviews some of the fundamental themes addressed by Benedict XVI, speaking of the heart, freedom, and the Pope’s prayer before the Holy Sepulcher.

by Davide Perillo

“Broaden reason... The education of a new subject... Life as testimony...” More than a month has passed since Benedict XVI’s visit to the Holy Land, but the more time passes, the more those three themes the Holy Father touched upon insistently during the eight days of his pilgrimage–and highlighted in a flyer distributed by Communion and Liberation–emerge in all their significance as guidelines to examine afresh, explore more deeply, and share. Of course, they’re not the only ones, but they’re certainly among the most important, marking a moment that many rightly define as “historic.” Fr. Stefano Alberto, Professor of Introduction to Theology at Catholic University of Milan and a CL responsible, uses the same adjective: “In the coming months, we’ll realize ever more clearly that it was truly a historic visit.”

For two substantial reasons. First of all, Benedict XVI’s courage and realism gave the most beautiful testimony of what he himself had repeated recently in his famous speech to the Plenary Session of the Congregation for the Clergy: the very fact of the Incarnation establishes the content and the method of the Christian announcement. Then, for historical reasons: with his very presence, risking his safety in the most tormented region of the world, the Pope reaffirmed the possibility of peaceful co-existence starting from the religious root, strengthening the hope of the people there and reaffirming the reasons of dialogue against those of war and terrorism.

Let’s start from there, from that “religious root” of co-existence and from the relationship between faith and a “broadened” reason. In practice, it’s the line of thought opened at Regensburg. How did the pilgrimage renew that theme?
Perhaps the densest moment was the speech at the mosque in Amman. Responding to the greeting of Jordanian Prince Ghazi Bin Talal, the Pope picked up again the idea that associating God–or religion–with violence is against the very nature of God. This is precisely the theme of Regensburg, which provoked so many misunderstandings. But here, the Pope re-proposed it in a positive light, reasserting his conviction that religion isn’t a factor of division, except for those who exploit it, manipulating it for their own purposes of power. For Benedict XVI, rather, dialogue is possible precisely starting from an awareness in which faith purifies reason.

What does it mean to say that “faith purifies reason”?
It’s a fundamental idea, which the Pope pursues tenaciously: the true disease of contemporary man is a reduced use of reason, which, in turn, can have a paradoxical and dangerous effect. The great schism of the modern era between knowing and believing, which enclosed faith in the private sphere as a pure ethical or voluntaristic drive, has its counterpoint in a distorted renewal of faith in the public sphere, a renewal that–at least as risk–starts precisely from the negation of knowing, that is, of the need for reasonableness inherent in every faith. While modernity has cast faith into the private sphere as a factor of knowledge, reducing it to ethics or sentiment, the risk of fundamentalist Islam is to deny all reasonability of the act of faith.

Isn’t this a risk that we “Westerners” run as well?
Yes, because the root is the same: the reduction of your own humanity and of faith’s journey of knowledge. This is, in other words, the debasement of the adventure of discovering in life, in relationships among men, in civil society, what this broadened use of reason means and what it means to give full dignity to a faith that purifies reason. Reason is reduced to measure instead of openness, acknowledgment of the truth present.

It’s clear that you need a lot of courage to deal with these themes in the Middle East. However, deep down, the Pope did so with the same arguments he often used in the West to defend Libertas Ecclesiae: faith amplifies the horizon of the human and this protects civil society. It’s a good for everyone.
It is interesting that the Pope doesn’t use different language when speaking to people of European culture or when talking in a totally different context, like that of the Holy Land. His gaze trusts in what we have always called the “heart”–the needs and evidences that constitute the original structure of every person. He doesn’t let himself be intimidated by the risk that his person or his words can in some way be linked to ideological or political schemata. Nor is he afraid of the fact that the journey to reconquer the profound reasons of one’s own faith and humanity, above all in a context of that kind, is a very long one. This also explains his accent on the other fundamental factor: education. For example, it was very important that he participated in laying the first stone of a Catholic university, thus one also open to non-Christians. This gesture was both highly symbolic and very concrete. Benedict XVI’s vision has historic breadth. He realizes that only a profound change of the heart of each person can overcome the fear, hatred, and wounds searing the land of Jesus.
As Fr. Giussani once said, “The forces that change history are the same forces that change the heart of man”...
Certainly. In this sense, it was fascinating to see how the Pope related to the small Christian community that lives in the historic places of Christ: he reminded them of the task of testimony entrusted to that “small flock,” notwithstanding their daily difficulty and the intolerance they suffer from both Israelis and Arabs.

Why this insistence on testimony?
The Pope referred to its root: testimony is not born of a person’s effort, but of the gratitude for the initiative the Mystery Himself takes in our life. Benedict XVI repeated it in the place where the very stones cry out about this initiative of God, who made Himself the companion of us humans on our journey toward destiny. Similarly beautiful was his reminder of John Paul II’s words, “Fear not,” his constant call to hope, which isn’t a generic reaching out for a better future, but facing the arduous nature of daily circumstances, all founded on the presence of the risen Christ.

In another appeal to the heart of all Christians, not just of the “little flock,” the Pope spoke of the “courage of conviction born of a personal faith, not simply of a social convention.” This “personal faith” is what makes it possible to hope.
Yes, but this faith, as the Pope reminded us, is born of “seeing” and “touching,” that is, of the concreteness of the presence of Christ through the sacraments. This is a precious call for us Westerners, in a context still steeped with traces of Christianity but, all things considered, already “a little flock.” Before the temptation to water down the Christian announcement, reducing it to ethical consequences (think, for example, of certain emphases on hospitality or solidarity), the Pope, with great courage, reminded Christians that the contribution they can make to the co-existence of all people is faithfulness to the origin, and the origin is a person: Christ. If we forget this origin, from which we are continually generated in a vital relationship, it’s inevitable that sooner or later our faith will end up assimilated into the dominant mentality.
In fact, Benedict XVI spoke of the need for a “constant conversion to Christ”–only this changes “our actions, and also our way of reasoning.”
History, reality, and circumstances are not changed by great projects, but by the change of gaze that only the presence of Christ can bring. This is why it’s significant how the Pope showed examples of those places of education where Jews, Muslims, and Christians live together and engage in a common work: they are already a sure indication that reality can change and that the only method is the one that passes through changes of hearts.

Regarding education, there was another link underlined by the Pope, at the University of Madaba: “Without a doubt, when we promote education we proclaim our trust in the gift of freedom.” There’s a risk, then. Everything is wagered on freedom. Don’t you find this a fascinating prospect for those who are called to educate?
Fascinating, like the gaze that Christianity brings to humanity. But it’s the inevitable pendent of the appeal to reason, of the invitation to use it according to all its possibilities for openness. Freedom is its condition and affective consequence. Fear suffocates freedom. The announcement of a present good re-opens space for it. The fundamental field is precisely that of education, in which, above all, the young generations can be helped and challenged to engage their own humanity within their traditions, but acknowledging what unites people and gets them to dialogue. Without freedom, people let their original needs be suffocated. They don’t use their heart. Thus, they are more easily prey to prejudice or resentment and, in turn, generate resentment and prejudice.

What do you think was the most intense moment of the pilgrimage?
Maybe the final gesture: Peter on his knees before the empty tomb. His prayer, his collectedness, were the synthesis of the human before the place that witnessed Christ’s victory over death. There, you physically perceived that all was given back to His victorious Presence: the pain, the hardness of incomprehension, the extreme difficulty of a journey of peace. Everything was embraced by a certain abandonment that, precisely there, Christ won for ever.

And He made Himself contemporaneous to us, for ever.
It means that the last word of the human journey is a word of certainty in Him, and thus, a word of hope.