In Formation

Wednesday, December 17


Nemo dat quod non habet

No Latin maxim has changed the way I think about my life today and my future ministry more than that one. The translation is "one cannot give what one does not have." In earlier days in the seminary, they paraphrased the principle this way: "Nemo dat what he ain't got." The phrase is a Roman principle of law, and the legal application is obvious enough.

But the applications to ministry, to education, to preaching, to life itself are, on my view, of infinitely greater importance. If a preacher or teacher does not know Christ, he or she cannot help others know Christ. If one has not experienced the merciful love of God, one will be hard-pressed to help others experience that mercy. When one does not have love, one cannot give love away.

The flip-side of the argument is just as powerful. One can only give what one has. If persons are bitter, depressed, fearful, angry, and/or judgmental, those will be the things they will "give away" in their interactions with others. In this context, Jesus' words seem particularly apt: "A good tree does not bear rotten fruit, nor does a rotten tree bear good fruit. For every tree is known by its own fruit . . . . A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good, but an evil person out of a store of evil produces evil; for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks" (Luke 6:43-45).

The challenge for those of us who seek ways to evangelize the world is to really live the gospel, to really embrace and cultivate the life of Christ. Only then will we be able to draw others into that life and give that life away. Hans Urs von Balthasar believes the challenge of evangelizing the culture is not primarily about getting the arguments right, so much as living the right sort of (Christian) life. The burden of the priest (and the layman) is fundamentally to live the faith in persuasive, compelling ways; to be, in other words, living witnesses of the faith. Our lives of faith are, in that sense, the best "argument" for the truth of the Gospel we proclaim.

The hidden test [of faith] is for the living tradition not less important than the spectacular martyrdom; it occurs . . . wherever, as Christianity is lived out . . . Christian imagination thinks out creatively new ways by which the Church may come to men. Such ways are discovered not principally as a result of disappointments with the old ways which have become unpassable, but as a result of the mysterious, lived experiences of the reality of Jesus Christ. And, because you either do or do not have experiences, there is scarcely room here for debate; one does not argue about experiences, one can at the most invite other men to share them. (Elucidations, p. 124)

The power of a life truly lived Christianly is that it can, indeed, awaken an appetite in fellow believers and non-believers for the Divine life we share. Moreover, when Christians are actually living the life of faith, and listening attentively to the concerns and interests of non-believers, they will be well-positioned to invite others to enter into the experience of faith.

God surely wants us to spread the Gospel message. But we can only do that if we are living in the heart of the Gospel, the Paschal Mystery. The lesson is as simple as nemo dat quod non habet. We cannot give the world what we do not have.

The world needs Christ, and we need to be living in Him to bring Him to them. In other words, evangelizing the world demands that we live the good news. As an incarnational faith, nothing could be more obvious. If we do that, if we immerse ourselves in the Paschal Mystery, if we lift up in our lives and words the One who was lifted up from the earth, then we have every reason to hope that the Son of Man will use us "to draw all men to himself."

posted by Fr. Steve | 12/17/2003 |

Tuesday, December 16


The artist, image of God the Creator

None can sense more deeply than you artists, ingenious creators of beauty that you are, something of the pathos with which God at the dawn of creation looked upon the work of his hands. A glimmer of that feeling has shone so often in your eyes when--like the artists of every age--captivated by the hidden power of sounds and words, colours and shapes, you have admired the work of your inspiration, sensing in it some echo of the mystery of creation with which God, the sole creator of all things, has wished in some way to associate you.

That is the way John Paul II began his letter to artists Easter Sunday April 4, 1999. Perhaps partly in response to the Holy Father's call to artists, St. Linus Review, a forthcoming semi-annual publication of orthodox Catholic poetry and prose, is making plans for Fall 2004 publication. I wish them every success in their endeavor.

posted by Fr. Steve | 12/16/2003 |

Sunday, December 14


Finding a balance the Balthasar way

Over on Amy's Open Book last week, there was a conversation in the comments about how to communicate the message of the Gospel in ways that are both faithful to the truths of the faith and responsive to the needs of the faithful (and those who may have doubts about the faith). In other words, Amy and her commentators were wrestling with the problem of evangelization in a pluralistic age.

It seems to me that the challenge is learning to speak the beautiful truth of the Gospel in ways that others can hear. The point is not proving (to ourselves or others who have their orthodoxy meters set to highest sensitivity) that we are right, but faithfully conveying the complexity and relevance of the truth to those who are asking real (and difficult) questions about the Gospel we proclaim.

In this regard, I think that Han Urs von Balthasar can help us sort through the challenges of contemporary evangelism:

Anyone who wants to survive in this world must know languages. And whoever wants to be well versed in the intellectual world must have a command of its "languages": the languages of thought and concepts that change from culture to culture, age to age. Catholics who feel a responsibility for preserving intact the deposit of faith dare not shirk their duty here; they especially of all people must make the strenuous effort it takes to learn the languages of the spirit, and not least the "modern languages". If they do not, they will only be able to gesticulate and shrug their shoulders if one of their contemporaries should ask the way, perhaps because the only language they know is "Medieval-ese".(Theology of Karl Barth, p. 12)

Aggiornamento does not mean assimilating oneself to the atheist Enlightenment (to the point of declaring the autonomy of human consciousness); instead, it means being abreast of the times in order to give the Enlightenment an authentic response. (Short Primer For Unsettled Laymen, p. 127)

What Balthasar says about the Enlightenment here could as easily apply to the countless men and women, boys and girls who are mystified by what the Church teaches. The problem, as I see it, is that we are often not as concerned about preaching the Gospel as we are proving to ourselves that we have the "truth" and that others don't. We must learn, in Balthasar's words, to give authentic responses to the questions of those around us.

The other side of this balance is ensuring that we don't compromise on the truths of the faith, simply to win a hearing. Again, Balthasar states the case clearly, this time in an essay called "The Priest I Want" in Elucidations:

This is the first quality that the priest I am looking for would have to have; for he would have to be a priest, or at any rate he would have to have been commissioned and authorized from above, by Christ, to confront me with God's incarnate word in such a manner that I can be sure that it is not I who am making use of it; I have to know that I have not from the very outset emasculated it by psychologizing, interpreting, demythologizing it away to such an extent that it can no longer create in me what it wills. No, what I am looking for is a man who can confront me with it in such a way that I cannot escape its demands, because I meet then in concrete form of the authority of the Church which, as a serving authority, actualizes the concrete form of the divine authority. It may perhaps be that I have reached the point of being confronted with this demand. But he must also help me to stand firm, not to run away, by sitting it out with me with an unrelenting love. With a terrible love which again and again says to me, "But that is what you really want." With a love for which in one's heart of hearts one gives thanks because it cannot be replaced by anything else . . . .

The humble priest will not be tempted to offer me anything other than the word of God for me; the zealous priest will not tolerate my attempts to slide away from this word. He will make me stick to my last, and I can easily accuse him of intruding and interfering, but what intrudes and interferes in truth is only the word of God itself. If I find the one I want, then I cannot reasonably object if he behaves toward me with a confidence which is not appropriate for a man.

Balthasar provides for me (as I anticipate my future as a priest) a healthy vision for the balance of what it means to listen well to the questions of men and women (as noted in the excerpts I offered above) and (here) discerning and proclaiming God's word for those men and women. For my money, Balthasar is one theologian who can help us think productively about what it takes to preach the word to both believers and nonbelievers in our time.

posted by Fr. Steve | 12/14/2003 |