Going through some of the religious websites I look at once in a while, I occasionally find interesting reflections on Religioscope run by Dr Jean-François Mayer of the University of Fribourg. There are articles in English and French on this site. The tone is quiet and non-polemical, which makes me think that some of the reflections will be all the more credible for it. Now, I will touch on a real hot potato. That is the issue of trying to convert the world to Christianity by political means. I’ll point my finger to the Americans and the French, but there are culprits for other places too.
The particular article I find of interest is United States: sociologist finds Christian activism and politics ineffective and damaging. In other words, does throwing a hand grenade into an abortion clinic do something to promote the Gospel, any more than Guy Fawkes’ intention to destroy the English King and Government by blowing them up? Do violence and bitterness witness to the love of Christ?
I don’t know anything about the ideas or beliefs of this sociologist by the name of James Davison Hunter, but the article rings a bell in my mind. Pope Leo XIII saw problems in American religion and came up with the concept of Americanism, denounced by Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae of 1898. Ironically, Americanism began, not in the United States, but in France when Leo XIII asked Catholics to accept the Republic and not to make too much use of activism and politics. We find something in common between France and the USA to explain the extreme polarisation and dialectic way of looking at things.
I have observed many fine ideas among intellectuals in both France and America promoting action in the cultural dimension and in politics. We often feel that we need to resort to such activism to combat the increasing secularism in issues like abortion, feminism and the gay agenda. However, the more Catholics and other Christians fight and show hostility, the more anti-clericalism grows among ordinary and otherwise fair-minded people.
As activists, we will certainly have less and less influence. When I saw the photo of a Catholic priest being dragged away from an American University, because President Obama had been invited to give a speech, it rather turned my stomach. The priest was looking for some kind of “martyrdom”, but did that piece of witness convert anyone to Christianity?
Something that has caught my attention here in France, a country where parish life in most places is nearly dead, is the fact that contemplative monasteries are full. And, not only the traditionalist communities using the Latin liturgy, but many other communities giving priority to contemplation and the other-worldly life. France is a country where there have been many innovations in religious life.
Some of us know the story of Blessed Charles de Foucauld, the French convert soldier who took to the most austere possible monastic life in the Sahara Desert. In those days (1907), he had to have permission from the Holy See to say Mass alone. Before obtaining this permission, he had gone for years without Mass and the Sacraments! His life was incredibly harsh, even for a former soldier, but his message was clear – his vocation was one of intercession and obtaining for others the grace of conversion by means of prayer and self-sacrifice. In 1916, he was assassinated by fanatical Muslims at the door of his hermitage! In the whole of his time in the desert as a priest and a monk, he made not one single convert, and not one single person came to join him in the monastic life.
The apostolate of Blessed Charles was unique and prophetic. He refused to preach the Gospel to a population who would have only a superficial interest in the Holy Scriptures. His way was a silent and hidden presence in infidel lands. "My life is not that of a missionary, but that of a hermit." Further on, he said: "I am a monk, not a missionary, made for silence and not for words." One might be tempted to think he was selfish and unconcerned for the people around him. Not at all. He gave everything for his dear nomads, without asking for anything in return, not even conversion to Christianity. He knew the limits of proselytism. He lived in a country of Islamic people, learned their language, made himself loved.
That priest lived his contemplative life in an absolutely hostile environment. What we need to live in our hostile environment (whether we are attacked or ignored) is a new form of contemplative life, open not only to monks and nuns, but also to secular priests and lay people. Of course, there have always been Third Orders in most religious communities for centuries. There used to be confraternities of penitents and all sorts of ways to help people structure a disciplined religious life. In some places these confraternities still exist and their members are very serious in their commitment.
Only a couple of days ago, Pope Benedict XVI had these profound words to say:
In terms of what we today can discover in this message, attacks against the Pope or the Church do not only come from outside; rather the sufferings of the Church come from within, from the sins that exist in the Church. This too has always been known, but today we see it in a really terrifying way: the greatest persecution of the Church does not come from enemies on the outside, but is born from the sin within the church, the Church therefore has a deep need to re-learn penance, to accept purification, to learn on one hand forgiveness but also the need for justice. Forgiveness is not a substitute for justice. In one word we have to re-learn these essentials: conversion, prayer, penance, and the theological virtues. That is how we respond, and we need to be realistic in expecting that evil will always attack, from within and from outside, but the forces of good are also always present, and finally the Lord is stronger than evil and the Virgin Mary is for us the visible maternal guarantee that the will of God is always the last word in history.
I am brought to think of the great Saint Benedict who civilised the world through monasteries and the contemplative life. We can retreat to the desert, the mountains or the sea – or we can go into the cities and identify with the poor, living according to the way of St Francis of Assisi. In all things, we need to rediscover simplicity and prayer.
Perhaps hard-selling as a method of evangelisation works in some places, but not here in Europe. People are cynical and case hardened. The more we push, the more they will kick against the pricks to borrow the expression of Acts ix.5.
I would say we Christians would have a greater chance of doing good through our “faithful presence” like Fr Charles of the Desert and seek the common good through our respective vocations. Sometimes, circumstances will allow us to establish schools, hospitals and businesses that put people and jobs before obscene wealth for the few. That is something contemplative Christians have always done when they got half a chance. The liturgy, a prayerful life and self-effacing service to humanity do more than anything else to propagate the Gospel and make Christ credible.
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