We were reminded at one juncture early in the meeting of the manner in which the stranglehold of ninth century family dynasties in dioceses and religious communities was in fact broken during the early middle ages by the practice of celibacy. Some fresh facet of the Gospel has often resolved human difficulties in new ways, even though the culture of the time seemed to be a stone wall of deterrence.
I thought of the pastoral heartache in the early church when penance was simply presumed to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for reconciliation with God and the church after serious sin … and when that sacrament was then reframed and redefined, out of the pastoral need of the time, to become part of a person’s lifetime process of repentance and turning away from sin. Just as baptism is both a single event and a lifetime process, so is penance and reconciliation.
Dominican St. Thomas Aquinas couldn’t imagine how Mary could be without sin from the first moment of her life if she preceded in time the saving redemption achieved by her divine Son. It took others like Franciscan St. Bonaventure to reframe the question and resolve the issue.
More currently, the deep inner conflict between the church’s recognition of the ongoing spiritual vitality of Judaism into the modern world, and our simultaneous conviction regarding the universal redemption achieved in Christ lifts up another apparent paradox without easy resolution. Rediscovery of the depths of the Jewishness of Jesus may yet open an unexpected door beyond the impasse.
Imagine my delight toward the end of the conference when I listened to a thoughtful and brilliant report on the thinking of early medieval Dominican monks who had lived in the midst of Islamic communities of the Near East and who had wondered if indeed the Qur’an represented yet another expression of revelation for us … only to discover (when she tapped me on the shoulder at a later sectional meeting) that I had in fact confirmed her in West Allis not too many years ago! Thoroughly Catholic and inspired by faith and reason, she brought new insights to an old question. The gifts of the Spirit are many and wonderful!
Just as Jesus delighted his early followers by reframing questions to find new answers … such as the problem of work on the Sabbath transformed into the question of doing good, or the question of taxation by checking the image on the coin … our faith can still be open to new answers to ancient questions.
At the end of the conference Fr. Massingale was installed as president of the society and all those in attendance returned home to ponder the imponderables, enlightened by the summons to prayer from a wise Carmelite contemplative!