Mercy and “Metanoia”

Packing to move is both bane and boon. And doing so after a thirty-year residence ups the ante considerably! Yet amongst the non-discarded papers and articles saved for some never quite materialized future use, one stumbles across real treasures, even from what may seem unlikely places.

Burrowing through the umpteenth folder, I came upon a 1989 document from the Congregation for Catholic Education: “Instruction on the Study of the Fathers of the Church in the Formation of Priests.”

Despite the bland title and restricted audience being addressed, it was a refreshing reminder of the riches of the Church Fathers’ approach to the theological task – an approach the document states to be “unique, irreplaceable, and perennially valid.” I’d like to highlight some of what it evoked in me, which I think particularly relevant in our current ecclesial and theological climate.

First, the “place” of theology was for the Fathers, “in medio ecclesiae,” in the midst of the Church – with privileged status accorded the liturgical assembly. Here theology was inseparably pastoral and spiritual. How could it be otherwise since, at its heart, theology was the unfolding of the riches of the mystery of Christ. Its ultimate goal is “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Eph 3: 17–19)

Second, their theology was resolutely Christ-centered, “entirely centered on the Mystery of Christ, to whom all the individual truths are referred in a wonderful synthesis” as the Congregation’s document states. And it continues: “Everything in their pastoral action and teaching is brought back to charity, and charity to Christ, the universal way of salvation.”

Irenaeus’ persuasion that “Christ brought all newness in bringing himself” (omnem novitatem attulit, semestipsum afferens – Adversus Haereses IV, c. 34), was the common conviction of the Fathers. This joyful, exuberant affirmation of the Christic novum permeated their preaching and writing. It is, significantly, echoed by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium, 11.

Church Fathers, Kievan Rus’ illustration, 11th century

Hence, there is a decidedly “mystical” flavor to the theology of the Fathers. Most of them showed a keen appreciation for reason, for the contribution to theological reflection of Greek culture and philosophy. But, as the Congregation’s document suggests, they drew especially upon “their affective existential knowledge, anchored in intimate union with Christ, nourished by prayer and sustained by grace and the gifts of the Spirit.”

Third, then, their vision of the Good News of Christ was radically participatory. They reveled in the joy of the mystery that is, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” And, with Paul, they insist that their prime pastoral-theological task was to admonish and teach so as to “present everyone perfect (teleion) in Christ.” (Col 1:27-28)

This “Christification” is the end, the telos, of their preaching, teaching, and theologizing. And it requires conversion/metanoia and ongoing transformation. They accompanied their hearers suaviter ac fortiter, “tenderly and boldly,” because they knew intimately the goal of the journey. As Augustine would phrase it: the way and the goal are the same – Christ who is the Way , the Truth, and the Life (Jn 14:6). And we are called to become members of Christ, making up the totus Christus, the whole Christ, so central to Augustine’s preaching and theology.

The newness of Jesus Christ, who through his paschal mystery, has inaugurated the new creation, must be reflected in his body, the Church. Augustine plays magnificently upon this theme in one of his sermons: “We are urged to sing a new song to the Lord, as new men who have learned a new song. . . .Anyone, therefore, who has learned to love the new life has learned to sing a new song, and the new song reminds us of our new life. The new man, the new song, the new covenant.”

Fourth, as Augustine’s language displays, the Fathers often rise to the level of poetry in their rhapsody for Christ and the salvation he brings. Ephrem the Syrian exults: “We give glory to you, Lord, who raised up your cross to span the jaws of death like a bridge by which souls might pass from the region of the dead to the land of the living. . . .Your murderers sowed your living body in the earth as farmers sow grain, but it sprang up and yielded an abundant harvest of men and women raised from the dead.”

Lovers of Jesus, they did not shy from singing their songs of love.

For the Fathers, God’s wondrous mercy in Christ is a supreme gift, but also a daunting task. The pearl of great price requires the selling of all to make it one’s own. Moreover, the Fathers were supreme “pathologists” of the spiritual life. They were keen discerners of the myriad desires, deceptions, and deceits that impede or poison the new life. They knew the many false notes that distort the harmony of the new song.

Thus, even as they celebrated the mercy of the Father and the turning, the conversio, the metanoia, of the Prodigal, they realized that the elder brother lurks in each of us, all too apt to lash out ferociously. They carefully scrutinized Galatians 5, on the fruits of the Spirit and the works of the flesh. And they took to heart Paul’s admonitions both with respect to themselves and the people to whom they were wed, with whom they journeyed.

In their light, then, we hear today’s Gospel and consider: will mercy at last meet metanoia? Will the elder brother welcome the Father’s love and – having converted – enter rejoicing into the Father’s house to join the feast? Will we?

Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is the author of Rekindling the Christic Imagination: Theological Meditations on the New Evangelization (Liturgical Press).