Christ Brings All Newness

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I studied theology in Rome during the heady days of Vatican II (1962-5). At the Gregorian University, which I attended, I was privileged to have some world-renowned professors – men like Bernard Lonergan, Francis Sullivan, and René Latourelle. Their courses were still given in Latin, and, for the most part, these brilliant thinkers read boringly from their own manuals. But though the pedagogy may have been wanting, the content was substantive.

Yet of all the courses taken over four years, the one that has been most influential upon me personally, and upon my ongoing theological reflection, was offered by a Patristics scholar by the name of Antonio Orbe, S.J. The semester I took the course, Father Orbe lectured on Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, the second-century father of the Church. Irenaeus has been a guide and inspiration ever since.

Though Irenaeus died about 202 AD (possibly martyred) as bishop of Lyons in Gaul (modern France), he was originally from Smyrna in Asia Minor. He himself tells us that, as a youth, he sat at the feet of Polycarp, the venerable bishop of Smyrna, who himself had known “John who had seen the Lord.” Thus Irenaeus represents in his person and writings the apostolic tradition of the Churches of both East and West. He brought this tradition to bear in his major work Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies). There he refutes the false views of those claiming a special revealed knowledge (particularly the Gnostics), not present in the public faith of the Church.

John Behr, the Patristics scholar and Dean of Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary, writes in the conclusion of his recent important study, Irenaeus of Lyons: Identifying Christianity: “It would be hard to overstate the importance of Irenaeus of Lyons, both with respect to what came before him and for the history of theological reflection and identity thereafter.”

In the 1960s and 70s, words quoted from Irenaeus often appeared anonymously on felt banners in churches. The intent seemed to be to coax those attending Mass to “feel good” about themselves. Hence the banners proclaimed: “The Glory of God is Man Fully Alive!” (“Gloria enim Dei vivens homo.”) You may still come upon the sentiment today, rendered now, of course, in appropriately inclusive language.

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In those less than halcyon years, however, I don’t recall ever having seen the second part of Irenaeus’s sentence. Perhaps it did not fit the flimsy banners or the anthropocentric Zeitgeist. In any case, the second part, the climax of the affirmation, reads: “but the life of man is the vision of God” (“Vita autem hominis visio Dei.”) The human person can only find true fulfillment in union with its Creator and Redeemer.

 

For Irenaeus, it is essential to keep Creator and Redeemer, old covenant and new, together. For those against whom he was writing sought to sunder them. Those “gnostic” enlightened ones attributed the material creation to the wretched god of the Hebrew Scriptures, and extolled the true God who liberates the divine spark from the messiness of matter and history.

Irenaeus not only insisted upon the unity of God’s creative and redemptive work, he celebrated its culmination in the coming of Christ who recapitulated (a favorite Irenaean insight and theme) all people and history in himself. Christ who is present in the Church is not absent from creation and history.

So what, then, his opponents charged, is new about Christianity? What did Christ bring that makes a real difference? And Irenaeus, in a sentence that never ceases to thrill and inspire me, responds: himself! “Christ brought all newness by bringing himself” (“Omnem novitatem attulit, semetipsum afferens”).

This confession and conviction of Irenaeus seem also to thrill and inspire Pope Francis. Towards the very beginning of his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, the Pope quotes this very sentence of Irenaeus and comments further: “With this newness Christ is always able to renew our lives and our communities, and even if the Christian message has experienced periods of darkness and ecclesial weakness, it will never grow old.”

The Jubilee Year of Mercy, just begun, is a time of grace to implore the Lord to renew us and our communities through a new adhesion to Jesus Christ, indeed, a renewed love for Jesus Christ. For, as Francis insists, “The primary reason for evangelizing is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to greater love of him.” And, he pointedly asks: “What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known?” (Evangelii Gaudium, 64)

As Pope Francis never tires of preaching: Christ is at the Center, and we must be de-centered from self so as to be re-centered in him. Advent is a time of de-centering and re-centering, a holy season of love renewed. That is why John the Baptist figures so prominently in Advent: “He must increase, I must decrease.” (Jn 3:30)

The Christian paradox, of course, is that only in such “decreasing” do we become “fully alive.”

Fr. Robert P. Imbelli

Fr. Robert P. Imbelli

Robert Imbelli, a Priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College. He is the author of Rekindling the Christic Imagination: Theological Meditations for the New Evangelization.

  • Tom Williams

    Thank you Fr. for a very inspiring and thought provoking article. I have difficulty however in believing that this idea is the central message Pope Francis is conveying. I would like to believe it is, but with so much lack of clarity in statements and actions attributed to him around doctrinal Truths, I struggle with where he is coming from.

  • Linda Wolpert Smith

    Thank you, Father Imbelli. Please continue to teach boldly as you have done in this post, “in season and out of season”. You have credentials and standing that are not easily ignored or waved away. Please do “reprove, rebuke, and exhort” against the tide of disbelief and confusion that is overwhelming many people of faith.

  • Dave

    I appreciate the intent, but I’m not buying it: Christ insisted on the indissolubility of marriage over against the Pharisees who supported divorce (and remarriage) “because of your hardness of heart.” One is hard-pressed to think that he would support the easy solutions offered by Francis, especially after the painstaking efforts of Pope St. John Paul II to ensure a legal process that was both scrupulous and just. The same Jesus who told us not to judge also told the adulterous woman not “who am I to judge?” but “go and sin no more.” One searches in vain within Francis’ corpus for a call to personal conversion and personal holiness: it’s all about sin against the poor and sin against the environment. It was Jesus who told us all to obey the laws – fulfill our duties, pay our taxes, render to Caesar what was his: one searches the NT in vain for passages that say it’s ok to immigrate illegally. One searches the Gospels and the NT also in vain for any passage that would exalt Mother Earth over Mother Mary, the necessity of a Christian ecology notwithstanding: where are the links to the Mother of Mercy to the Year of Mercy that began on her Solemnity? Yes, one can find passages within Francis’ writings and speeches that fully accord with Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. But there is plenty that is edgy, questionable, confusing, and, let’s be honest, mean (who lambasts subordinates in a Christmas message? who calls for free and frank conversation then at its conclusion lambasts those who differ with his conclusions?) There should be no doubt that he belongs to the progressive wing, to those who hold to the hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture, to those who think that anything prior to the Council is questionable at best. The best, and, in my view perhaps the only, good thing he has done so far is to establish the Year of Mercy — only let it be a year of mercy that leads to authentic conversion and growth in holiness and not to an embrace of the intramundane, anti-transcendental and thus ultimately anti-God agenda of the progressive left.

    • Manfred

      Thank you Dave. Well done.
      When one adds Fiat Lux Illuminating Our Common Home, the light display on the facade of St. Peter;s basilica the evening of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, any pope who would allow that desecration is no Catholic. Neo-Catholicism is out of business.

  • Chris in Maryland

    Thank you Fr. Imbelli for reminding us of John the Baptist…I strongly believe that the Church needs to recover the veneration of this great saint…the man of whom Jesus himself said: “There is none greater born of woman.”

    As John the Baptist gave witness, preparing to receive Christ means I must confess my sins…or I am unworthy to receive Christ.

  • Linda Wolpert Smith

    I have encountered, in just the last few days, friends, people of good will, education, intelligence, who consider the gospels “made-up” stories. As did Thomas Jefferson, they want the teachings but not the man; not at least as “Son of God” – a good man, perhaps (if he did actually exist) but not divine.

    With loss of belief in Jesus Christ, as “Redeemer of the world” in mind, I read Fr. Imbelli’s post as a ray of light in a very dark time. “Christ brought all newness by bringing himself” is a thrilling teaching. I am not surprised that it inspired and continues to inspire Fr. Imbelli. His reference to it inspired me as well.

    Fr. Imbelli refers to the Pope’s teaching of “Christ as the Center”. He is in a position to know much more about the Pope than those of us who are being “force-fed” so to speak, isolated fragments taken from casual conversations. These fragments do create confusion, even fear. My question is: What dark power would be served by schism? Who is sowing fear and confusion? Who will rejoice in it? What can be done to prevent it?

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    Your article Fr Robert cites Saint Irenaeus whom I’ve come to greatly admire particularly after reading the books of Princeton professor Elaine Pagels namely Beyond Belief containing her comments on the apocryphal Book of Thomas the Contender and other books she authored that outlay the thesis for feasibility of Gnostic beliefs. I name her in my book as a major proponent of Neo Gnosticism and its affinity with much that is contained in New Age thought, particularly the notion of apotheosis. Christ is presumed merely a signpost to finding the divinity within oneself. She considers in Beyond Belief the Gospel of John doctored to fit in with Irenaeus’ efforts to construct the basic architecture of Christianity. Her rhetorical argument is that although John’s Gospel clearly describes the Jesus of Christianity the segment on Thomas affirming His divinity after the Resurrection was an insertion perhaps by the Apostles or later by Irenaeus. The Apostle Thomas in the Book of Thomas the Contender instead gives us the apotheosis argument of self revelation. Unfortunately apotheosis is popular in New Age thought including Catholics. My question is does Pope Francis’ reference to his spiritual “surprises” have affinity with apotheosis.

    • samton909

      Father Paul Mankowski, S.J., is “a lector in Biblical Hebrew at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. He obtained a B.A. from the University of Chicago, an M.A. in classics and philosophy from Oxford, an M. Div. from Weston Jesuit School of Theology, and a Ph.D. in Semitic philology from Harvard.

      He had this to say about Pagels:

      “The Gnostic Gospels, like those portions of Pagels’s later work with which I am familiar, is chock-full of tendentious readings and instances where counter-evidence is suppressed. The example of “creativity” here discussed may fairly be called a representative specimen of her methodology, and was singled out not because it’s the worst example of its kind but because it’s among the most unambiguous. No one who consults the source texts could give Pagels a pass, and that means she forfeits the claim to reliability as a scholar. Attractive as her ideological sympathies may be to many persons — including many academics — she does not deserve to be ranked with serious textual scholars like Claremont’s James Robinson, and her testimony on the accuracy of inventions such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code cannot be solicited without irony.

      I am not calling for academic sanctions but, more simply, for clarification. Pagels should be billed accurately — not as an expert on Gnosticism or Coptic Christianity but as what she is: a lady novelist. Her oeuvre is that of fiction — in fact, historical romance. Had New York Times reporters sought Barbara Cartland’s views on discoveries in Merovingian religion or paleography, most of us would find it odd, but we’d expect them to make it plain that was romance, not history, in which she had the right to an opinion.”

  • William Beckman

    Thank you. A Jubilee renewal rooted in Divine Mercy and richly informed by St. Irenaeus is most welcome. We can start by dispatching the chronological concept of “year of mercy” and embracing the magnificent and surpassing gift of Jubilee. It’s a distinction Irenaeus would recognize immediately.

  • samton909

    I think you must be wrong when you say Christ is at the center. I have been listening to Archbishop Cupich, and he seems to be saying that each person and their conscience is at the center. His thought is quite penetrating. When asked if this meant that those who participate in gay marriages can go to communion, he reminds us “They are human, too”. This is very deep, and although some say that response is blindingly irrelevant, you have to admit no one can argue with his logic, such as it is. Apparently being a human is the only requirement for going to communion now. At least we in the Catholic church can unite around the idea that dogs may not go to communion. Beyond that, it is all up for grabs.

    • Ernest Miller

      Samton909

      It is one thing to be human, it is quite another to be in God’s Grace.

    • Manfred

      samton909: You are on very dangerous ground. In 1946, Pius XII declaimed “the loss of the sense of sin.” Cupich’s remarks are heretical. How can two men or women, in a same-sex ‘marriage”, which cries out to heaven for vengeance, be in the state of Grace, which is the requirement for one to receive the Body of Christ? The very purpose of this imposter Bergoglio and his appointment of Cupich, among others, is to lead as many people to Hell as possible. If you dpn’t change direction, you are well on your way.
      See an F.S.S.P. priest as quickly as possible The life of your soul is at stake.

      • Michael DeLorme

        I believe Samton909 was being tongue-in-cheek, though he might have made that a little more apparent. I believe he understands, just as you do, that the papacy has devolved from St. John Paul and Benedict to the precarious Francis.

        As for Chicago…it seems the “Bernardin Machine” has leap-frogged—in fact pole-vaulted—over the great Cardinal George, in an attempt at reconstruction in the un-towering Cupich.

  • Dave Fladlien

    I want to make a suggestion, not because I am 100% convinced it is right, but because I think we need to seriously consider it, or variations on it. That suggestion is we agree to disagree.

    To me, the real main enemy we face today isn’t liberals or conservatives, isn’t Catholics, Protestants or Evangelicals, or various interpretations of things Pope Francis says (I too find them confusing and internally contradictory). The real enemy we face is the militant anti-God secularism we find everywhere today. We all recognize it: prayer in schools banned, efforts to remove the Name of God from the pledge to the flag and even from our money, etc. We see it too in people who ostracize, sue or even jail those who hold a position of conscience.

    I’m in no way saying that particular beliefs don’t matter, or that one set is as good as another. But I am asking if — rather than focus on a centuries-old quest to get everyone to agree on everything — something we aren’t doing very well at — we can simply be brothers and sisters who differ on some (even some very important) things, and yet be *basically* united in our respect, love and liking for Jesus Christ. On other points we won’t compromise our beliefs, because we can’t, nor will others because they can’t either, but we will all unite as Christians, and wage the real fight that we have to win, which I isn’t the fight between ourselves, it’s the fight against those who hate God and especially hate Jesus Christ.

    Can we seriously consider that possibility? Before the real enemies of Christ wipe us all out while we busily fight each other?

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    Again on the topic of Gnosticism and its modern resurgence Mani 3rd cent Persia [from whom Manichaeism derives and Augustine formerly a disciple] taught Jesus was a diabolic impostor. The true Jesus was aeon or cosmic. He did not possess a body and did not suffer. Fast forward 1989 Fr Matthew Fox OP who preached a Cosmic Jesus impersonal and omnipresent. He was censured by then Cardinal Ratzinger. The point is New Age which embodies Gnostic principles is present in our culture and has unfortunately influenced Catholicism particularly apotheosis.

  • Elijah fan

    In this year of mercy, please have mercy on yourself and deceased family members through the new (1967) nuances of reaching a plenary indulgence right at home frankly as to the goal act. Confession and Eucharist and prayers for the Pope’s intentions ( one Hail Mary and one Our Father suffice ) ,detachment from all venial sin, one half hour of devoutly reading scripture is the goal act aside from the above requirements. There are other goal acts and one is a half hour of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. A plenary devolves to a partial if one fails the detachment from all venial sin. Make this paramount in your year ahead…to seek these plenary indulgences for especially you and deceased family members.

    • john

      Thank you for this reminder. Fulfilling the requirements for the plenary indulgence seems almost too easy (considering the payoff), until I remember that it is Christ’s intentions and merits…not mine.
      The Church seems willing to bend over backward to get us into Heaven…kicking and screaming. All it takes is a simple “Okay, I will do this”

      • Elijah fan

        And you have a 20 day leeway ( recent Vatican ruling ) for the process though I doubt the young can detach from all venial sin for 20 days. I just did the process in three days because the detachment was a strong gift and
        I wasn’t taking any chances with this gift from God.
        Many Catholics don’t realize that Confession foregives all sin but does not remove all punishment due to sin. Purgatory is severe though Hope filled but its severity ( fire in one NT description) is avoidable through plenary indulgence especially if one dies suddenly without last rites as in an auto accident or via a sudden heart attack. I refer it to Christ’s assertion taken broadly…” whose sins you shall loose on earth, will be loosed in Heaven”.
        Imagine being in purgatory and realizing a periodic half hour of scripture reading with the other requirements would have nullified this fire and as you note through the superabundant merits of Christ and by the way of the saints. But we’ll spend hours on gadgets instead.

  • Manfred

    “The primary purpose for evangelizing is the love of Jesus which we have received,..”
    “As Pope Frfancis never tires of preaching: ////christ is at the C…”enter,
    Just a few days ago the Vaticak issued “The Gifts and Calling of God are irrevocable.” stating that we should make no effort to convert Jews to Catholicism. It seems that Jews can attain Heaven through The Father without having to come through Christ. Ergo, Christ is really not the Center, or is He? JESUS WAS THE MESSIAH TO THE JEWS.
    The Nazis destroyed Jewish bodies:the Vatican appears to be destroying Jewish souls.

  • rick

    I hate to be negative but Francis’ evangelization leaves me uninspired. Although sympathetic to, or at least willing to seriously consider, his harsh criticism of global capitalism, I find his exhortations more negative than positive, more critcal towards those with whom he disagrees than substantially enlightening about the mercy of God. There is no “unity between God the Creator and God the Redeemer” if the Creator’s standard of justice is discarded, or rendered moot by legalistic sleight of hand. Absent loyalty to Christ’s direct teachings (on marriage, to take just the most topical example) there is nothing for the Redeemer to redeem us from, unless by “redemption” Francis means the allieviation of material inequality. I get a faint inkling that Francis’ Christ is more a Confucian Wordsworth, to quote Charles Williams, than the Word, as extolled in the Gopsel of John.



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