In the Seventh Book of his Confessions, Augustine recounts a crucial breakthrough in his intellectual and spiritual itinerarium in Deum. Providentially, he was introduced to “some books of the Platonists translated from Greek into Latin.”
Reading them, he experienced a true intellectual conversion. He found resources to overcome a metaphysical materialism, however subtle, and to affirm the reality of a truly spiritual realm. In effect, he found among the Platonists the realization that “In the beginning was the Word,” that the Logos permeated the universe and was the instrument of God’s Creation.
This intellectual recognition had a liberating effect on Augustine’s spiritual life. It not only enabled him to see the goodness of Creation but to appreciate the depth of his own spiritual being as creature.
Yet important as this discovery was, it was still radically insufficient. Augustine states both the merit and the deficiency of those intellectually stimulating books of the Platonists, by quoting the Gospel of John. “I found in them that the Word, God, was ‘born not of flesh nor of blood, nor of the will of man, nor of the will of the flesh, but of God’ (Jn 1:13); but I did not find that ‘the Word became flesh’ (Jn 1:14).”
The absence of the saving name, the reality of Jesus, the humble Savior, made the books of the Platonists ultimately futile. They pointed out a way, but could not provide the Way.
In a passage whose spiritual and poetic fervor resonates across the centuries, Augustine cries:
I sought a way to gain the strength needed to enjoy you. But I could not find it until I embraced the “mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus” (1Tim 2:5), “who is above all things, God blessed forever.” (Rom 9:5) He called out to me, saying, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” (Jn 14:6) And the food I was too weak to receive, he mingled with our flesh – for “the Word was made Flesh” – so that the Wisdom, by which you created all things, might provide milk for our spiritual infancy. (Confessions, VII, xviii)
These recollections of Augustine were prompted by my ongoing concern regarding a Christological “amnesia” that for years now seems to have afflicted some Catholic colleges, organizations, and journals. It manifests itself in vapid mission statements and generic-brand editorial exhortations. It is as though one blushed to mention the Name, lest one be considered crassly triumphalist or lacking in ecumenical sensibility. It results in what Bishop Robert Barron has called “beige Catholicism.”
Now I am certainly not advocating a mere rhetorical invocation of the Name of Jesus, but a realization that “no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid: that foundation is Jesus Christ.” (1Cor 3:11) And the Apostle warns: “let everyone take care how he or she builds upon it.”
A “Catholic” college or university that strives merely to ape its secular “competitors” is building upon straw and will be tried in the conflagration. A “Catholic” journal that dimly echoes the agenda of the New York Times only displays spiritual dross, however cleverly camouflaged. Unless Christ is the sure foundation, they have nothing to offer a secular age. For, as Vatican II insists:
The Church firmly believes that Christ, who died and was raised up for all, can through His Spirit offer man the light and the strength to measure up to his supreme destiny. Nor has any other name under the heaven been given to man by which it is fitting for him to be saved. She likewise holds that in her most benign Lord and Master can be found the key, the focal point and the goal of man, as well as of all human history. (Gaudium et spes, no. 10)
The apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium is rightly considered Pope Francis’ inaugural address. It self-consciously echoes Paul VI’s great, Evangelii Nuntiandi. And both documents passionately testify to the Christic heart of Vatican II.
Thus, at the very beginning of his Exhortation, Francis urges:
I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord.” The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms. (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 3)
Now, there is scarce reason to suppose that so socially-minded a pope would issue this invitation only to individuals, as though Catholic faith were a merely private enterprise. As a student of Henri de Lubac, whose monumental Catholicism has as its original subtitle, “The Social Aspects of the Dogma,” the pope surely intends institutional conversion and commitment as well.
Nor can the various forms of injustice, highlighted in the Church’s social teaching, be reckoned the sole “social sins.” The diverse versions of apostasy that sunder the body of Christ must be so accounted as well.
Is it not, then, a spiritual exercise required of institutions that claim the title “Catholic,” to discern carefully whether the vision and mission embodied in their initiatives and endeavors reflect a distinctive Christic conversion and commitment? Or must they, and we, confess with honesty that we have indeed “fallen from our first love” (Rev 2:4)? That passionate and defining love of Jesus’ Name that impels us to become his witnesses, in both our individual and our institutional identities.
*Image above: Augustine of Hippo by Cecco del Caravaggio [Museo Dell’Abcazia di Casamari, Lazio, Italy]
Fr. Imbelli on this (IHS) memento: “I . . . bought it in Montalcino. It would be placed over the door of the house . . . in response to the preaching of Bernardino of Siena.”