Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Today was the last of our ten days in Rome with our extended Sisk and Gilchrist families, which we concluded with a visit to the Basilica of St. John Lateran. We thereby completed our pilgrimage to all four of the major basilicas in Rome (the others being St. Peter's, St. Mary Major, and St. Paul Outside the Walls). I am grateful for being able to spend this time in Rome, attending the Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter's with thousands of the faithful from all over the world, visiting the four major basilicas, and seeing again many of the other churches and holy places in Rome that I have cherished (such as Santa Maria Trastevere and Santa Maria Sopra Minerva).
And I have been reminded at nearly every holy place that the Catholic Church has always struggled with its proper place in worldly society while also seeking to transcend time and place and point the faithful to the higher things. Although I am very tired as we pack late in the evening for an early morning departure, and so I apologize if this post is poorly worded, I thought I would share these thoughts while they were fresh in my mind.
In each of the past twenty centuries, the Church has had the mission of being fully engaged with the particular society of a time and place by being a locus of coherent and integrated values, while always holding fast to the Deposit of Faith and passing on that tradition and revealed teaching through the Apostolic Succession. As sons and daughters of the Church, we on the Mirror of Justice also are confronted with the difficult task of upholding the continuing relevance of Catholic teaching for the peculiar problems arising in this particular time and place, while needing to remain sufficiently independent from political, cultural, and academic movements to be led by our faith rather than by our preferences or aspirations. Along with St. Paul, we seek “unity in faith and knowledge of the Son of God,” and want to avoid being “tossed one way and another, and carried hither and thither by every new gust of teaching (Eph 4:11-15).”
Of course, the Church has not always succeeded in every era in rising above temporal trends and temptations. From the Bronze Doors taken from the Roman Senate (Curia) in the Imperial Forum to symbolize the Church's political reign over Rome to the large statute of Constantine in the portico, the Basilica of St. John Lateran amply illustrates that the Church at times has been too willing to seek to exercise direct political power. We should learn from the Church's failures as well as its successes.
We have the opportunity on this jewel of a web site to find a way toward a uniquely Catholic common-ground in which we resist accommodation to academic or political trends of every nature and ideology and seek instead to find and apply those more transcendent values that have carried the Church through twenty centuries. Without becoming isolated from our communities and while being open to new insights into human nature and experience, we also need to remember – as one finds in the most moving and powerful of the icons and imagery and stories found in the holy places of Rome – that the Church typically is at its most effective as a counter-cultural witness for values.
As I sat today meditating in the Basilica of St. John Lateran, I found my eyes constantly returning to the statue of the basilica's namesake. As rendered in the statute, St. John the Evangelist holds his quill with a waiting hand away from the book as he looks above and listens for the voice of God. While I do not expect that any of our writing, either in academic venues or on the Mirror of Justice, will reflect the immediate revelation experienced by St. John, we too must remind ourselves to pause regularly and listen for the voice of God. We should never presume that what we say proceeds from the mouth of God, but neither should we ever write on matters of values and faith without opening our ears to that quiet and powerful voice.
Statue of St. John at Basilica of St. John Lateran (photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen)