Jonathan Ghaly

Jonathan Ghaly

Jonathan Ghaly is a member of the ecclesial lay movement Communion and Liberation, which was founded in 1952 by Msgr. Luigi Giussani, whose cause for canonization has been officially opened. Jonathan taught high school theology and Church History for two years, and now lives in Denver, Colorado, where he sells real estate. To contact Jonathan, email him at

Articles by Jonathan Ghaly

Have we really read Pope Benedict? The essential itinerary he left us

Mar 11, 2013 / 00:00 am

Let’s be blunt: have we really read Pope Benedict, arguably one of the greatest popes in history? I won’t inquire any further than simply raising the question. I don’t mean skimming headline quotes from media sources (which usually miss the point), but actually being challenged and educated by what he told us. If my hunch is correct, it seems that few people at all – including many of us good Catholics – have actually read and been formed by the works of this gift of a man to us. It’s as if we sometimes reduced Pope Benedict to more of a protector and keeper of Faith rather than a living witness making a unique and concrete proposal to us – to me – to follow. So many of us well-intentioned Catholics praise the now Pope Emeritus, but in the same breath shout certain phrases of ours which seem completely contrary to the novel emphases Benedict made to us in the last eight years. There is a living spring of refreshing water in all he told us as Pope which challenges us right to the core our understanding of Christianity and the faith. Furthermore, it was not merely “himself” guiding us, but Another from the very start: “My real program of governance is not to do my own will, not to pursue my own ideas, but to listen, together with the whole Church, to the word and the will of the Lord, to be guided by Him, so that He Himself will lead the Church at this hour of our history.” (i) This makes his words that much more urgent to be followed. Deep down we have a twofold temptation in front of Benedict: 1) He is way too smart for us and we simply cannot understand him (which is immediately defeated by his surprising humanity and the personality he puts into so many of his writings). 2) He really has nothing new to say to us – to me – but is simply mandated by his position to reiterate unintelligible (and seemingly irrelevant) Catholic theology in order to keep his flock from becoming heretics. But is this really all Papa Benedict has been up to the last eight years, or are we tragically missing the – dare I say – radical and novel approach he has been guiding us in? What is this unique approach guided by Christ? What has he been emphasizing so strongly? Have we allowed our freedom to be challenged – even us “good Catholics”? Have we walked the journey he has made for us? It is the goal of this terribly brief article to quickly try to synthesize the itinerary, the road map (it would be impossible to even try to synthesize his whole corpus of glory) which Benedict has laid out for us during his pontificate using his own words – a road map which is absolutely essential for us today.The freedom to question everythingThis pope didn't talk or write like any other. To the surprise of many, he begins not on the mountain-tops of unintelligible profundity and dusty theology (of anyone he is the intellectual who could do so) but with a humanity, honesty, and bluntness that is as shocking as it is refreshing. He simply does not take anything for granted, and has no problem with beginning by wrestling with those foundational human questions which most of us Catholics simply assume cannot be questioned: God's existence, the meaning of the experience of faith, who Christ is, or even more embarrassingly, what Christianity is, and what the heck it has to do with me. These kind of questions seem to us like they should be censored by the Church, but they are for Benedict the only truly human starting point. We know by experience that if we skip or ignore them, faith loses relevance for our lives, Christ becomes a distant moral teacher, and we end up simply repeating prayers and going through the motions. But his emphasis on these human questions are the beginning of a true itinerary, a map, for us modern Christians, and in fact, for modern man. “Is God just a hypothesis or not? Is He a reality or not? Why do we not hear Him?”(ii). And again, “What is faith? Does faith still make sense in a world in which science and technology have unfolded horizons unthinkable until a short time ago? What does believing mean today? (...) What is life’s meaning? Is there a future for humanity?”(iii)  And again, what can point us to the way of “true freedom ... true joy of the heart, peace with everyone”? (iv)There is a freedom in Pope Benedict which is truly radical, along with an exceptional concreteness which demands that nothing be abstract or taken for granted, but that faith be palpable, relevant, personal. “What can really satisfy man’s desire?”(v). If we – all of us – don’t stay with these fundamentally honest and human questions, we’ll never truly experience the answers, which remain absurd without the questions.Our bunkers and broadening reasonPope Benedict first sees that in modern man – yes, even in us faithful Catholics – a plague in us: we moderns tend more than ever to build our own little bunkers as he calls it, to protect ourselves from reality, other people, wonder, and ultimately Mystery. He gives the analogy: Our modern mentality “resembles a concrete bunker with no windows, in which we ourselves provide lighting and atmospheric conditions, being no longer willing to obtain either from God’s wide world”(vi). There is already in us a closedness to reality. We live life in our heads, are universes unto ourselves. Isolation is a norm, and true community, even in the Church, is rare. But Benedict is saying this sort of individualistic positivism is detrimental to us. We need no evidence but the newspapers to see what this kind of modern consciousness has led to. In order to breathe again, “the windows must be flung open, we must see the wide world, the sky and the earth once more.”(vii)  How can this happen? In his very famous and controversial lecture at the University of Regensburg, Pope Benedict said that we desperately need a “broadening (of) our concept of reason and its application.”(viii)  What he means is we moderns reduce certainty to “only the kind of certainty resulting from the interplay of mathematical and empirical elements”(ix) – what science can measure. In this way we tragically weed out the things we are most certain about in life: my mother’s love for me, friendship, my irreducible need for fulfillment and happiness. Just following reason itself – not reduced to what we can measure under a microscope – we can know for certain that we are truly “beggars for the meaning of existence” (x). This is a also a challenge on the flip side for us Catholics. We sometimes think that faith is mere blind “belief,” but not worthy to be “rational,” and actually “a source of knowledge,”(xi), a way of knowing reality with as much certainty as I know two plus two equals four. “All this leads to a fundamental change in the way of relating to reality as a whole; everything appears in a new light so it is a true ‘conversion’, faith is a ‘change of mentality’.” (xii)The pedagogy of desireHow do we make a journey to verify that faith is rational? I’ll let him say it himself. Truly this is one of the most important and liberating passages Pope Benedict has ever written, that of how to learn from our desires: “We must therefore...begin a journey...that shows how the gift of faith is not senseless, is not irrational. It would be very foster a kind of pedagogy of desire, both for the journey of one who does not yet believe and for the one who has already received the gift of faith. It should be a pedagogy that covers at least two aspects. In the first place, to discover or rediscover the taste of the authentic joy of life. Not all satisfactions have the same effect on us: some leave a positive aftertaste, able to calm the soul and make us more active and generous. Others, however, after the initial delight, seem to disappoint the expectations that they had awakened and sometimes leave behind them a sense of bitterness, dissatisfaction or emptiness. Instilling in someone from a young age the taste for true joy, in every area of life – family, of knowledge, art, the beauty of nature... Adults too need to rediscover this joy, to desire authenticity, to purify themselves of the mediocrity that might infest them. It will then become easier to drop or reject everything that although attractive proves to be, in fact, insipid, a source of indifference and not of freedom. And this will bring out that desire for God of which we are speaking. A second aspect ... is precisely the truest joy that unleashes in us the healthy restlessness that leads us to be more perceive ever more clearly that no finite thing can fill our heart.”(xiii)  “Everything, every relationship, every joy, as well as every difficulty, finds its ultimate reason in being an opportunity for a relationship with the Infinite, God’s voice that continually calls us and invites us to look up, to discover in adherence to him the complete fulfillment of our humanity.”(xiv) You must read this revolutionary General Audience from November 7, 2012. We are given a way to follow our desires and be educated by them, instead of simply suppressing them.Not a formula but an eventSo what is God’s response to this vertiginous position in which we find ourselves? “God came so close to us that he himself became a man: this should disconcert and surprise us again and again! He is so close that he is one of us. He knows the human being, he knows the ‘feeling’ of the human being, he knows it from within; he has experienced all its joys and all its suffering. As a man, he is close to me, close ‘within earshot’...Yes, He enters into our misery.”(xv)  Undeniably, one of the main challenges Pope Benedict proposed to us has been his repeated emphasis that Christianity is not a theology, morality, or formula, but an event that happened, and keeps happening presently. Perhaps the most important and quoted line from the Pope: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”(xvi) This phrase alone will have to be unpacked by the Church for decades. Not merely an intellectual assent: faith as an encounterAgain, his words are clear and beautiful, challenging our much confused and reductive understanding of faith to doctrinal assent, morality, or ‘being good’. “Faith is not a mere intellectual assent of the human person to specific truths about God.”(xvii) “This is not an encounter with an idea or with a project of life, but with a living Person who transforms our innermost selves ... The encounter with Christ renews our human relationships, directing them, from day to day, to greater solidarity and brotherhood in the logic of love. Having faith in the Lord is not something that solely involves our intelligence, the area of intellectual knowledge; rather, it is a change that involves our life, our whole self: feelings, heart, intelligence, will, corporeity, emotions and human relationships. With faith everything truly changes, in us and for us, and our future destiny is clearly revealed, the truth of our vocation in history, the meaning of life, the pleasure of being pilgrims bound for the heavenly Homeland. However – let us ask ourselves – is faith truly the transforming force in our life, in my life? Or is it merely one of the elements that are part of existence, without being the crucial one that involves it totally?... Let us make a journey to reinforce or rediscover the joy of faith, in the knowledge that it is not something extraneous, detached from daily life, but is its soul.”(xviii) “It becomes clear how the world of planning, of precise not enough on its own. We do not only need bread, we need love, meaning and hope, a sound foundation, a solid terrain that helps us to live with an authentic meaning even in times of crisis, in darkness, in difficulty, and with our daily problems. Faith gives us precisely this: it is a confident entrustment to a “You”, who is God, who gives me a different certitude, but no less solid than that which comes from precise calculation or from science. Faith ... is an act with which I entrust myself freely to a God who is Father and who loves me; it is adherence to a “You” who gives me hope and trust.”(ixx)The Church as CommunioAs co-founder of the founders of Communio: International Catholic Review, Pope Benedict has emphasized the nature of the Church for decades as much more than a building in Rome or the one you go to on Sundays, but as communio – community. Commenting on Jesus’ high priestly prayer for unity, one of the most beautiful and audacious of Jesus’ prayers, “Father ... that they may all be one, even as we are one” (John 17:11), Benedict emphasizes: “It is in the encounter with (Christ) that we experience the recognition of God that leads to communion and thus to ‘life’... ‘Eternal life’ is thus a relational event... For this the Lord prayed: for a unity that can come into existence only from God and through Christ and yet is so concrete in its appearance that in it we are able to see God’s power at work. That is why the struggle for the visible unity of the disciples of Jesus Christ remains an urgent task for Christians of all times and places. The invisible unity of the ‘community’ is not sufficient.”(xx)  Furthermore, “If we take one last look back over the whole of the prayer for unity, we can say that the founding of the Church takes place during the passage, even though the word Church does not appear. For what else is the Church, if not the community of the disciples who receive their unity through faith in Jesus Christ.”(xxi) “It is the lifelong companion that makes it possible to perceive, ever anew, the marvels that God works for us.”(xxii-a)  “I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become, his own. Communion draws me out of myself towards him, and thus also towards unity with all Christians. We become “one body”, completely joined in a single existence.”(xxii-b) This authentic communion, he says over and over again in his writings, always leads to the liberation of true freedom and joy.Who effects the New Evangelization?This is a much needed reminder for us who think our initiative is everything: “We cannot make the Church, we can only announce what he has done. The Church does not begin with our ‘making’, but with the ‘making’ and ‘speaking’ of God. In the same way, the Apostles did not say, after a few meetings: now we want to make a Church, and that by means of a constituent assembly they were going to draft a constitution. No, they prayed and in prayer they waited, because they knew that only God himself can create his Church, that God is the first agent: if God does not act, our things are only ours and are insufficient; only God can testify that it is he who speaks and has spoken.”(xxiii). “God is always the beginning. Only God’s precedence makes our journey possible... The true initiative, the true activity comes from God and only by inserting ourselves into the divine initiative, only by begging for this divine initiative, shall we too be able to become – with Him and in Him – evangelizers (new creatures). God is always the beginning.”(xxiv)For a moving exposition of what the “New Evangelization” really is, read his commentary on the encounter of Jesus with the woman at the well in his Message to the People of God at the Conclusion of the XIII Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, October 7-28, 2012.His witness of freedom in retiringFinally, in an announcement that shocked the world, Pope Benedict showed us the radical freedom that comes from putting the Church first, and being totally grasped by Christ. Not worrying about how the Church, media, or world would react, he felt free due to his physical incapacity to let go of his sacred Petrine ministry to show Who it is that truly guides the Church. In this, he is a true witness of freedom to all of us. Who doesn’t want this kind of freedom?All of Pope Benedict’s Audiences, lectures, homilies, talks, and encyclicals are available for free online (and his books for purchase). Many of which we’ve missed. Don’t forget them! A great place to start is his General Wednesday Audiences for the Year of Faith, starting October 17, 2012. He truly gave us a unique and radical proposal, and journey on which we must remain.Copyright Jonathan Ghaly, All Rights Reserved.(i) Benedict XVI, Homily, Mass and Imposition of the Pallium and Conferral of the Fisherman’s Ring for the Beginning of the Petrine Ministry of the Bishop of Rome, St. Peter's Square Sunday, April 24, 2005.(ii) Benedict XVI, Meditation during the first General Congregation XIII Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of bishops, Synod Hall, October 8, 2012.(iii) Benedict XVI, The Year of Faith: What is faith? General Audience, St. Peter’s Square, October 24, 2012.(iv) Ibid. (v) Benedict XVI, The Year of Faith: The Desire for God. General Audience, November 7, 2012.Benedict XVI, Homily, Holy Mass for the Closing of the Synod of Bishops, Vatican Basilica, October 28, 2012.(vi) Benedict XVI, The Listening Heart: Reflections on the Foundations of Law, Address During the Visit to the Bundestag, Berlin, September 22, 2011.(vii) Ibid. (viii) Benedict XVI, Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections, Meeting with the Representatives of Science, Lecture at Aula Magna of the University of Regensburg Tuesday, September 12, 2006. (ix) Ibid.(x) Benedict XVI, Homily, Holy Mass for the Closing of the Synod of Bishops, Vatican Basilica, October 28, 2012.(xi) Benedict XVI, Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections, Meeting with the Representatives of Science, Lecture at Aula Magna of the University of Regensburg Tuesday, September 12, 2006.(xii) Benedict XVI, The Year of Faith: God Reveals His “Benevolent Purpose", General Audience, Paul VI Audience Hall, December 5, 2012.(xiii) Benedict XVI, The Year of Faith: The Desire for God. General Audience, November 7, 2012.(xiv) Benedict XVI, "Not Only My Soul, But Even Every Fiber of My Flesh Is Made to Find Its Peace, Its  Fulfillment in God", Message to the 2012 Meeting of Rimini, From Castel Gandolfo, August 10 2012.(xv) Benedict XVI, Homily, Holy Mass concluding the Meeting with the “Ratzinger Schulerkreis” Mariapoli Centre, Castel Gandolfo, September 2, 2012.(xvi) Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2006, Paragraph 1.(xvii) Benedict XVI, The Year of Faith: What is faith? General Audience, St. Peter’s Square, October 24, 2012.(xviii) Benedict XVI, The Year of Faith: Introduction, General Audience, St. Peter’s Square, Oct 17, 2012.(ixx)  Benedict XVI, The Year of Faith: What is faith? General Audience, St. Peter’s Square, October 24, 2012.(xx) Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2011, pp. 84, 96.(xxi) Ibid., 101.(xxii-a) Benedict XVI, Porta Fidei, Apostolic Letter for the Indiction of the Year of Fatih.(xxii-b) Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2006, Paragraph 14.(xxiii) Benedict XVI, Meditation During the First General Congregation of the XIII Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, October 8, 2012.(xxiv) Ibid.

A Question for Catholics: What is faith and has it become obsolete?

Oct 11, 2012 / 00:00 am

In my first column we reflected on the many ways we reduce faith – essentially to good deeds, orthodoxy, morality, and evangelization – without even knowing it. These reductions are already at work in our approaches to the recently called “Year of Faith.” As Cardinal, the Holy Father surprisingly exclaimed, “The error of Pelagius has more followers in the Church today than it would seem.” (i) And as Pope, he seems to be even more insistent on the seemingly surprising fact that faith is not an ethical choice, an orthodox theology, or a set of moral achievements (see Part 1 of this article). So what is faith exactly? To face the question starkly, is it even necessary in today’s world, where it seems sometimes even to us Catholics irrelevant for our daily lives? Has faith become obsolete?I know a priest who says that every morning he wakes up, looks in the mirror and asks himself, “Why are you a priest? In fact, why are you even Christian?” Though it sounds a bit scandalizing, he is asking a very reasonable question. If we don’t have this kind of audacity, if we do not have a living, sustaining reason for why we have faith, why we need faith, then sooner or later it becomes irrelevant (which can play itself out in several ways in our lives), and rightly so. Can faith truly sustain life, or is it just another thing we add on to life, like paint? Is it as necessary as oxygen, or is it just a perfume, susceptible to losing its scent after a time? And what does Christ have to do with it all? I’m afraid we’ve proclaimed the Christ (the “answer” at the back of the book) so much so that both the question (“Why are you Christian?”) and the answer (“Christ”) no longer mean anything to us – they’re just words, which is why so many have left the Church. We no longer understand ourselves, and thus we no longer know Christ. Put in another way (let’s face this bluntly), “Whatever is irrelevant to my current experience and doesn’t touch my life now simply does not exist. It follows that a God who is not relevant to what I am living and experiencing today is an irrelevant God. He is not there, he is a God who is missing, a Christ who is missing.” (ii) So, once again, is faith even connected to life today?Let’s start simply: if we look at our experience, we can easily learn that we have certain ineradicable needs in us which no person on earth can deny, expressed in everything from music (think just as an example of some modern-young-acoustic-existentially-hypnotizing bands like The Avett Brothers, The Head & the Heart, Mumford and Sons, Bon Iver, etc., who take these needs very seriously) to a plethora of great, revealing movies, to our obsession with Facebook. These things all express the irreducible needs we all have: needs for happiness, beauty, freedom, meaning, friendship, truth, love, and fulfillment, and all of it we want to be unending. But these are not theories or ideas, they are needs, which can only be met in experience. A couple doesn’t get married because they’ve thought about love. No; they’ve experienced it. And once they’re married, thinking and reading about love, or simply doing household chores, is not enough to sustain their relationship; they must experience that love again and again. A prisoner doesn’t simply want to dream about freedom; he wants to enjoy it.  Or again, we cannot just “will” happiness like the self-help books promise: it’s a gift – we want to encounter it, and that’s why we search for it. The same goes for all our needs. We as Catholics tend to forget how needy we are, and end up “stuffing” our needs in the name of some kind of ascetical righteousness. Instead, Pope Benedict is asking the ever-important question: Is faith in Christ connected to satisfaction of the heart, or not? (iii) Can it fulfill these huge needs, or is it in the end completely disconnected, simply an add-on? “If Christ cannot fulfill us, then let’s not waste our time any longer,” advised a priest friend of mine. “What is Christianity? What is faith?”All of this begs the question: so what is faith? If we look at the origin our own faith, as well as that of the apostles’, we get a better hint: something happened to us. Whether it was a powerful experience we had, a person we met, or an event we attended, something happened to us. We can call this an “encounter,” or an “event” (two of Pope Benedict’s favorite words if you pay attention to his writings and talks). An encounter and an event happen in life, in our experience, just like all the needs explained above do. This is the “something that comes before” all else in Catholicism. The apostles met a guy named Jesus who was exceptionally fascinating to them, who made them ask, “Who is this man?” 20 centuries later, I was 18 years old and met a guy named Mike who was exceptionally fascinating to me, and made me ask, “Who is this man?” It was that same attraction to Mike’s authenticity, his freedom, his interest in me, his intensity, and the radiating joy I saw in his eyes that the apostles experienced in Christ. We found something so striking, so corresponding to what we actually wanted to live and experience in life that we just wanted to stay with Jesus and Mike and follow them wherever they went. The difference with Mike was that he wasn’t the origin of his freedom or joy - he claimed it was Christ. And I had no reason to doubt him. So I hung out with Mike – as did the apostles with Christ – for the next several months, and that experience of correspondence kept happening.  Christianity, in the final analysis, is a fact: the fact that God became a man – a real event that happened in a physical place around 2,000 years ago. Either this happened, or it did not. But it is only possible for me to experience that same fact today if it actually happened and if this “event of Christ” keeps happening, even now. But I did experience the event of Christ through meeting Mike, and through what I’m living today. Faith is essentially this: the recognition of this saving and fulfilling presence in my life, through a credible witness. And it is only if this presence of Christ can correspond to the needs of my heart and life that faith in Him can be sustainable, or more clearly, “necessary” for my life, sustaining me, and not become stale and moldy. As Msgr. Luigi Giussani says so powerfully, “I came to believe that only a faith arising from life experience and confirmed by it (and, therefore, relevant to life’s needs) could be sufficiently strong to survive in a world where everything pointed in the opposite direction, so much so that even theology for a long time had given in to a faith separated from life.” (iv) The encounter I had changed me violently (I was a new person) because it actually corresponded to all those needs of my heart, and even intensified them. I remember after I met Mike feeling like I woke up from an extremely long sleep and scales were falling from my eyes, and I could see reality in a way I never could before. My desires, too, awoke. It was as if I had been living an inhuman life, and I was becoming human again. I was more interested in people, including my own family. I felt like life finally had meaning, and a path. I met friends who in two days I felt closer to than my friends of nine years. I had a radical hunger to read everything I could about Christ, and everything else for that matter. I was happy – not the excited happiness that fades quickly, but the certainty and gladness that life was actually good, and even more than good, it was beautiful. Even more profoundly, I had a sense of self-awareness and worth that I never had before. The more I hung out with Mike and these friends, the more all of this happened. Christ gave me back my heart, my humanity. God chooses to come to us is through encounter and event – through experience. It wasn’t a program the apostles and I met. It was a man. God could’ve yelled a perfect lecture from heaven on faith so that all on earth could hear, or made a detailed book on virtue for us and drop it from heaven; but He chose instead to become a man, to meet us, to live with us, as Fr. Carron explained to my friend – who as you remember was doing all the right things (daily Mass, rosary, holy hour, etc) but was miserable and about to leave the Church – in answering “What is Christianity?” Fr. Carron went on that afternoon to explain: “God chose this method – incarnation – so we can have a relationship with somebody in which meaning is revealed. Instead of sending us what the meaning of life is, he became man to show us what the meaning of life is … This kind of freedom (in the witness we met), this kind of intensity, this kind of mercy, this kind of forgiveness, this kind of surplus, the intensity of humanity that we couldn’t imagine before. Even 2,000 years later, we met somebody who lives in such a way, and we ask, ‘Who is this? Can you explain how you can live in such a way?’ We are struck like the first time … This is the continuation of the Incarnation.” (v) And this is the continuing method He uses down the centuries to produce the recognition and experience of faith: presence, witness, encounter, correspondence.Begging and CompanionshipIt seems as though what we need more than anything during the Year of Faith is to become…beggars. We can’t force this encounter, but we can beg: to beg for Christ to show us His face again and again and again. And to beg for companions who we can follow on the journey. Once a week I meet with friends and we judge together – through the confusion and complexity of life – our lives, our work, our relationships – in short everything – and how it is that Christ is showing us His face and meeting us now, concretely (and not a focus on what we need to “do”). We beg to see this. And if we can’t see it, we ask, challenge, confront, and verify (true begging is exhausting, but in the end much more freeing than moralism). Following these friends within the Church has revolutionized my faith and my life. My identity is intertwined with belonging to this companionship (not just friends) which He has given me. And because of it, my life has changed: I look for Him more, I face relationships, work, and life differently. Even more profoundly, I look at myself differently, because of the way I’ve been looked at – with a love and a belonging that won’t let go, even when I do. I’m finally following something other than myself. It’s precisely because of my faith in Christ and my belonging to these friends within the Church that my affection, freedom, desire, and perception of things are heightened in a way unimaginable before.  Alone this is all impossible. This, it seems to me, is what we all need, because this is Christ’s way. As Pope Benedict proclaims in his apostolic letter for the Year of Faith (along with his constant emphasis on the Church as communion): “It is the lifelong companion that makes it possible to perceive, ever anew, the marvels that God works for us.” (vi) But even this companionship and this following needs a poverty of spirit in order to continue. Speaking of the first beatitude “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” the Pope explains, “These are people who do not flaunt their achievements before God. They do not stride into God’s presence as if they were partners able to engage with him on equal footing. They do not lay claim to a reward for what they have done...They are lovers who simply want to let God bestow his gifts upon them...they come with empty hands” (vii) As Msgr. Giussani says, the truest stance of man is that of the beggar: “Structurally man waits; structurally he is a beggar; structurally life is promise.” (viii)Only when Christ becomes something real again for us, something experienceable, as necessary as the air we breathe, will we become new creatures, who see differently, who live differently. During this extraordinary and loving gift to us of the Year of Faith, let us beg Christ once again to see His face, to experience His irreplaceable gaze on us through a companionship, and to correspond to our deepest needs and desires. “The greatest miracle of all was that truly human gaze which revealed man to himself and was impossible to evade. Nothing is more convincing to man than a gaze which takes hold of him and recognizes what he is, which reveals man to himself. Jesus saw inside man. No one could hide in front of Him … This also happened to Zacchaeus, the senior tax collector, the most hated man in all of Jericho (Lk. 19: 1-10). Surrounded by a great crowd, Jesus was passing by on the road, and Zacchaeus, a small man, was curious and climbed a tree for a better look. Upon reaching that tree, Jesus stopped, fixed His gaze upon him and cried: “Zacchaeus!’ Then He said: ‘Come down quickly, because I must stay at your house today.’ What suddenly struck Zacchaeus? ... Quite simply, he had been penetrated and captured by a gaze that recognized and loved him for what he was. The ability to take hold of the heart of a man is the greatest, most persuasive miracle of all.” (ix) This gaze, which continues today, is at the center of the Year of Faith. (i) Antonio Socci, “Yesterday’s Heretic, Today’s Pastor”, 30 Days, February 1991; p. 40.(ii) Giussani, Luigi, Msgr., “The Risk  of Education: Discovering Our Ultimate Destiny,” The Crossroads Publishing Company, New York, 1995, pp. 12-13.(iii) Cf. Pope Benedict XVI, Address for Welcome Ceremony, World Youth Day, Cologne, Germany, August 18, 2005.(iv) Giussani, “The Risk  of Education: Discovering Our Ultimate Destiny”, p. 11. (v) Fr. Julian Carron, “What is man that You should care for him, mortal man that You keep him in mind?”: There is no greater adventure than the discovery of one’s own humanity, Communion and Liberation live assembly, Colorado.(vi) Pope Benedict XVI Apostolic Letter “Motu Proprio Data” “Porta Fidei,” Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011, Paragraph 15.(vii) Pope Benedict XVI, “Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration,” Doubleday, Random House Inc., New York, 2007, p. 76.(viii) Giussani, Luigi, Msgr., “The Religious Sense,” McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal & Kingston, London, Ithaca, 1997, p. 54. (ix) Giussani, Luigi, Msgr., “At the Origin of the Christian Claim,” McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal & Kingston, London, Ithaca, 1998, p. 53.Copyright Jonathan Ghaly, All Rights Reserved.

'There is something that comes before': what faith and the Year of Faith are not

Oct 9, 2012 / 00:00 am

As the recently called “Year of Faith” approaches, there seem to be several different interpretations within the Church of what this year means, and furthermore, what exactly “faith” means. I myself have already heard of a plethora of talks and programs being offered in the name of the Year of Faith, including “mastering the virtues,” missionary work, evangelization, and becoming holy. While all of these efforts are good and noble, I find it fascinating how when we as Catholics hear the word “faith,” we immediately jump to its consequences: good works, the moral life, and evangelization. It’s almost as if we are uncomfortable staying for any amount of time at this level of faith, which is exactly what our brethren Protestants accuse us of. Doing this we are in fact trying to run faster than the present Pope we have been gifted with.But the Holy Father knows this, and so is giving us an entire year to be in this level of faith; to stop, to “rediscover” and “encounter” faith again, which always means “the encounter with Christ,” as the he says in his letter on the year of faith. (i) But we already know faith, and we already know Christ, right?If this is true, we are immediately left with the imposing question of why the Holy Father, of all the possible themes he could have chosen for us today – Year of Evangelization; Holiness; Charity; Prayer; Hope; Liturgy; Scripture; or the Year of Learning Latin – he chose the most elementary and fundamental theme of all: the Year of Faith. He sees something in us, and not first in those outside the Church, that we are not seeing. Again, his words are unmistakable: “It often happens that Christians are more concerned for the social, cultural and political consequences of their commitment, continuing to think of the faith as a self-evident presupposition for life in society.” (ii)Our reductions of faith … and the consequencesUnfortunately, we have taken faith for granted for so long that we really don’t even know what it means anymore, and can think only in categories of works, of what I need to do. As a good Catholic friend of mine recently proclaimed, “Dude, the whole essence of the Faith is practicing virtue!” But during his pontificate Pope Benedict has gone out of his way to constantly warn against and denounce this “Pelagian” hyperfocus on morality and human will (as Christ does plentifully and painfully with the Pharisees in the Gospels), which is unfortunately present all over the Church. This is the reason why the Holy Father is calling a Year of Faith today, in the year 2012, two millennia after Christ, when we’re supposed to have faith “down pat.”Theologically and experientially speaking, faith is not our good works, moral life, or evangelization. These things come out of the experience of faith, but they are not “faith.” There are many altruists, social workers and virtuous people who are not Christian in the world.  There is “something that comes before” these works, out of which flow these works, and that “something that comes before” is precisely the event of faith. All else, including how we think and live, flows out of our experience of faith. Pope Benedict goes so far as to say in his letter on the Year of Faith that through faith “a new life shapes the whole of human existence according to the radical new reality,” and that faith gives a “new criterion...that changes the whole of man’s life.” (iii) He goes on to say that if faith is not grounded, these works will be “sentiment constantly at the mercy doubt.” If faith is simply believing orthodox doctrine, it will remain abstract and at the level of the intellect. If faith is a powerful feeling, it will remain at the level and mercy of emotion and sentimentality. And if faith is simply a new set of moral standards and commands, it will remain at the level of the will. What all of these lack, simply … is the experience of Christ. There is something that comes before.We can see this lack in our own experience. Several of my young adult Catholic friends confide in me the struggle and weariness of “living the faith” today. There is a malaise I see on their faces. And they don’t mean primarily the struggle of living the faith in a secular culture. They mean the burden and emptiness of “focusing on all the things you have to be and do to be a good Catholic,” as a girl friend of mine recently expressed. As we know, reducing faith to all our virtue and vice, feelings, works, and knowledge (essentially: moralism, sentimentalism, voluntarism, and orthodoxism, respectively) sooner or later becomes unsustainable for our lives, and leads to our boredom, doubt, emptiness, and in fact a widening distance from Christ, which we quietly try to ignore; and all this in the midst of “practicing” our faith. We go to talks and parish programs because they are Catholic (but not necessarily interesting) and they leave us just as malaised as we were when we got there. Much of it is, frankly, not interesting (whatever happened to doing things because they were really interesting, not because we feel obligated to do them?). The zeal runs out, the sentiment is no longer enjoyed, the theology becomes distant and less relevant, and the burdens become heavier and more meaningless, and what we are left with is the option to either find something else to ease the pain (usually an addiction), or, for the stronger of us, to “strap on the boots” and white-knuckle our way to our idea of holiness by doing good deeds, reading more theology, and mastering pyramids of virtue systems. And all the time Christ remains abstract and far away. Is this enough? Is this what faith means?Furthermore, what happens when you are doing all the “right things” and they are making you ... miserable? As a close friend of mine said during an assembly we attended about faith, “I was at a point in my life where I was doing the things I was told I should do to be a good Catholic. Part of that was making a holy hour, going to adoration everyday, going to Mass everyday, saying a rosary everyday, saying the Liturgy of the Hours everyday, and if you weren't doing those things you were a bad Catholic. But when I was doing all those things I was miserable, and I was getting to the point where I was about to just quit everything. I couldn't find any peace or happiness.”He was doing everything he was told to do to be a good Catholic, using every ounce of effort he had within him, and yet he was depressed and miserable. This actually is not a unique experience; I’ve had the exact same, along with several people I know. It’s a reason why many people stop going to church, or at least begin to believe it has nothing to do with life, but is simply our just obligation due to God so as not to go to Hell. Fr. Julian Carron responded surprisingly to my friend: “The real question is what is the nature of Christianity? What is the essence of faith?” (v) In the midst of a number of things to know and learn and do in Catholicism, we have forgotten the true essence of Christianity, and the nature of faith. And this is precisely when that creeping modern nihilism, which shows its face in so many diverse ways, infects itself even into the very fabric of our faith: faith eventually becomes, like everything else: just one damned thing (or commitment) after another.A Note on the Church, Pope Benedict and PelagianismThis reductive modern-day moralism, to be clear, is one of the Holy Father’s major axes to grind. But, as he knows – being the genius theologian and historian he is – it has a much earlier origin. Even as Cardinal, he shockingly said that “the error of Pelagius has more followers in the Church today than it would seem.” (vi) Pelagius, who lived in the early 400s, was a virtuous and well-intentioned monk – even his adversary St. Augustine called him a “saintly man.” And he taught what many Catholics today would unfortunately not even see a problem with: following the 10 commandments brings us to heaven; we possess the moral strength to desire and attain the ideal of virtue; Christ came to instruct and give an example for us; and our job as Christians is to follow His example and attain the highest level of virtue and holiness that we can. (vii)“A Christian,” says Pelagius, “is one who lives according to Christ’s example: who never lies, who never curses, who never swears, who does not pay back evil with evil, who blesses those who curse him, who loves his enemies ... who has a mind clear of all evil and impure thoughts.” (viii)Sounds very holy and edifying, right? So what’s wrong with this, many might ask? Well, the Church answered, “Everything,” and condemned Pelagianism as a first-class heresy.What’s shocking is that most Catholics, most good, practicing Catholics (along with most people on the planet) would define Christianity exactly how Pelagius does. I can’t tell you how many well-intentioned Bible studies, retreats, and homilies I’ve heard centered solely around themes of “the things you need to do to be a better Catholic.” And I can’t tell you how many times during my two years of high school teaching did students, after 12 years of Catholic school education, answer my question of “What is Christianity?” with “Well, you have to be good ... and not sin ... so you can go to heaven.”  We, like Pelagius, love reducing everything to steps, formulae, and equations. Why? Because it puts us in control. We “know” what Christianity is that way. But Christianity is not us in control. If anything, it’s the opposite.“Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former.” (ix)Lord forgive us. Though we may even sprinkle Christ on it a bit, we are closer to the Pharisee in our understanding of Christianity, which in the end is not Christianity but a religion of high idyllic moral attainment. As Christ says, this cannot redeem us. Pelagianism and all understandings like it are simply Moral-ianity, not Christ-ianity. In the end you don’t really need Christ (which is why it was a heresy), you just really have to follow the commandments and practice virtue. In the end Christ is simply something sprinkled on top of a beautiful structure of ethics. But Aristotle gave us that 350 years before Christ. Time and again during his pontificate Pope Benedict has surprisingly and refreshingly questioned this widely accepted syllogism that proclaims, “If you want to be a good Catholic, then you must do all of these things.”  One of the most famous and repeated phrases of the Holy Father came from his first encyclical, in the very first paragraph: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” (x) With this powerful phrase, the Holy Father is precisely asserting the opposite of what we believe to be Christian: an ethical choice and a lofty idea. Instead, he claims that being Christian is encountering an event, or more precisely, a person, who changes life completely, even to the point of making it new.  In his first book as pope, “Jesus of Nazareth,” he asks the provocative question of whether Christ’s new commandment to “love one another as I have loved you” makes Christianity a religion of the highest moral attainment?: “No, the newness of the new commandment cannot consist in the highest moral attainment ... (T)he essential point is not the call to supreme achievement, but the new foundation of being that is given to us. The newness can come only from the gift of being-with and being-in Christ ... Thomas Aquinas observed, ‘The new law is the grace of the Holy Spirit.’ To be a Christian is primarily a gift.” (xi) There is “something that comes before.” What the Holy Father is teaching us is that Christianity is far less about what we do, and much, much more about Who we encounter, and what we are given in this encounter. (Read part two of this article entitled, “A Question for Catholics: Has faith become obsolete?”).(i) Pope Benedict XVI Apostolic Letter “Motu Proprio Data” Porta Fidei, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011, Paragraph 2.(ii) Ibid.(iii) Ibid., Paragraph 6.(iv) Ibid., Paragraph 14.(v) Fr. Julian Carron, “What is man that You should care for him, mortal man that You keep him in mind?”: There is no greater adventure than the discovery of one’s own humanity, Communion and Liberation live assembly, Colorado.(vi) Antonio Socci, “Yesterday’s Heretic, Today’s Pastor”, 30 Days, February 1991; p. 40.(vii) Cf. Pohle, Joseph. “Pelagius and Pelagianism.” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 6 Oct. 2012 Socci, “Yesterday’s Heretic, Today’s Pastor”, 30 Days; p. 42. (ix) Luke 18: 10-14.(x) Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2006, Paragraph 1. (xi) Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, Doubleday, Random House Inc., New York, 2007, pp. 63-65.Copyright Jonathan Ghaly, All Rights Reserved.

The true face of nihilism: either Christ or nothingness

Jul 31, 2012 / 00:00 am

The recent shooting in Aurora has left us all stunned and in shock, yet in a way unsurprised. We are almost accustomed to hearing about these “senseless” massacres in all kinds of places: schools, malls, even homes...and now movie theaters. Many of us have asked, “Why does this keep happening?” promptly followed by, “How can we stop this from happening again?” And we have already heard several of the common answers pouring forth from media outlets or coworkers and friends: “The man was simply psychotic.” “He was on drugs.” “He was imitating the Joker.” “Who knows? But we need higher security measures, more regulations, more laws, even more censorship...”If, however, we truly allow ourselves to stay in front of the tragedy of this event, the deepest and most urgent human questions begin to emerge from our awakened hearts and become immediately more pressing: What is life? What is my life for? Is there any true meaning to life, or is it just random? Is reality good, or ultimately ugly? Though we all feel these questions emerging, how many of us distract ourselves from them, and instead find ways to simply cope with a life experienced as “just one damned thing after another”? But our silence in front of these most basic and fundamental questions of our own human existence reveals a nihilism that is subtly invading all our lives.This nihilism is not an abstract philosophical nihilism, but the seeming meaninglessness of our very own lives – yes, even us Catholics: the daily confusion and lack of certainty about anything, the apparent triviality of our jobs, the boredom of our relationships, the empty routines of our days, and the forgetfulness of our very own hearts, and what they truly yearn for. Not only is it a reduction of reality, but ultimately it is a reduction of our very selves in the worst way.This “subconscious nihilism” – as subtle as the air we breathe – is extremely powerful, but is not essentially different from the nihilism which caused that “senseless” act of massacre on July 20, 2012. Was this horrendous act simply a result of one man’s isolated issues? No. It’s just the next logical step. This incident – along with the numerous deplorable shootings of recent years – is a symptom of something broader, in fact, the true face of this nihilism that is claiming us all as a society.We’ve pointed fingers long enough. The problem is not an external one – not him, or her, or them – but has to do with our own hearts, our own “I,” our very selves. Where then can we go for this nihilism within ourselves to be conquered, to find the truest help for us and for our society? To whom can we turn so that our hearts don’t remain numb to life? What will truly change us and generate us, even to the point of giving us “a clear and loving perception of ourselves, charged with awareness of one’s destiny and thus capable of true affection for self,” as Msgr. Luigi Giussani, founder of the movement Communion and Liberation, has so often repeated? This gaze of tenderness and affection upon ourselves and our hearts is not one which we are very familiar with, but it is one that is so desperately needed in the midst of our creeping nihilism. From where can we experience this gaze? Is it once again more laws, more regulations, higher security, more censorship that can awaken our hearts in this way?As the infamous nihilist in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” makes clear, “Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead…and He shouldn’t have done it. He threw everything off balance. If He did what He said, then there's nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then there's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can – by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.”This happened. In the words of Samuel Aquila, Archbishop of Denver: “In the chaos of the moment, people poured from the movie theater into the darkness of the night – the darkness of confusion, of ambiguity, of despair.” He continues, “Only Jesus Christ can overcome the darkness of such evil.”In a world in which hope has become merely another word, and the certainty of any true meaning or value in life is considered impossible, a world in which faith has been reduced to moral code and pious devotions, Christ stands as the only source of hope, the only One who saves life, Who answers the needs of our aching hearts, Who gives everything true meaning, Whose love and gaze is capable of sustaining us and our lives, and even saves death. For it is this Jesus of Nazareth, resurrected from the tomb, Who, as Pope Benedict XVI says, “is God made flesh...the greatest miracle of the universe: all the love of God hidden in a human heart, in a human face.”Yet how does this God-become-man Jesus not remain abstract for us, mere pious feelings, or beautiful words? In his book, “At the Origin of the Christian Claim,” Msgr. Giussani explains:“It would be impossible to become fully aware of what Jesus Christ means if one did not first become fully aware of the nature of that dynamism which makes man human. Christ presents Himself as an answer to what ‘I’ am, and only an attentive, tender, and impassioned awareness of my own self can make me open and lead me to acknowledge, admire, thank, and live Christ. Without this awareness of what I am, even Jesus Christ becomes just a name.”Christ makes no sense to us until we take our own heart seriously: these irreducible needs for beauty, justice, love, truth, friendship, happiness, and freedom. But it is precisely these needs that have been awakened in us in the face of the recent tragedy. And it is only Christ Who saves and responds to these needs.For, there is something even worse than death: living a long life of quiet desperation. The awakening of these urgent questions within us is already a sign of His saving presence working in our lives. Only He can conquer our nihilism.