Traces N.6, June 2001

The Great Sacrifice of the Journey

It very often happens that intellectuals, theologians, and other representatives of that category which Charles Péguy called the “clerical clericals” set themselves to criticizing what the Pope says or does. They claim to represent “the simple faithful” and offer their reservations or attacks on questions of doctrine or the Magisterium: the Pope is wrong about morality, is wrong to apologize, is wrong to be–as Eliot wrote about the Church–hard where men would like him to be soft and soft where they would like him to be hard.
The same scene was repeated on the occasion of John Paul II’s recent, historic journey to Greece, Syria, and Malta. Even the international press reported criticisms and grave reservations that had been raised over what the Pontiff was about to do.
But, once again, the gesture was more persuasive than any presumably intelligent analysis. The “method” of presence bore greater fruit than anyone foretold. First of all, the Pope’s gestures had the effect of opening new frontiers, even for that difficult process which is the unity of Christians in history. Surprising even his somewhat diffident interlocutors, in Athens the Pope cleared the field, on his side, of prejudices and rigid stances, offering the chance for a new relationship.
Then, secondly, the “simple faithful” (i.e., those who maybe have a “moderate” faith, as Eliot says, or a “moderate” life) were struck by John Paul II’s walk–full of sacrifice and of certitude–into the Areopagus, the Mosque, to the tomb of the Baptist. “Immense sacrifice,” Fr. Giussani wrote in a telegram to the Pope, that “gives concrete form to Catholic ecumenism, which is boundless openness to the truth of everyone and everything.”
A sign of contradiction, in an impressive analogy with what St. Paul says about himself: “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all… I have become all things to all men.”
Intellectuals, theologians, and clerical clericals use a million words to try to say something about Jesus. They pour into the ears of the somewhat bored faithful a vast repertoire of commonplace phrases and oily advice, mistaking Christianity for that slightly saccharine and predictable thing that has turned so many people, especially youth, away from the faith. Or they get together and make forecasts and theoretical programs, imagining the Church and men as they should be instead of starting with what they are.
By his gestures, the Pope showed what is meant by “humanity touched by the Christian event.” He demonstrated the humble yet sure tending forward that Paul tried to explain in this way: “…but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
It has been written that the Church, instead of being one of the protagonists of history, can become its courtesan. Many among the powerful of the earth would like to have her in their own court, as a noble decoration, a useful support, or literally a credit card. The Pope knows that the true protagonism of the Church does not depend on the amount of earthly power or prestige that the world attributes to her, but on her attachment to the only power, to her only richness and true reason for existence: to be the Body of Christ in history. Because for two thousand years her step on the road, her word, and her exceptional way of treating life have brought forth in the hearts and onto the lips of men–even the toughest and most undesirable, even prostitutes and kings, men of the right and of the left–the sign of an unparalleled devotion of the heart: “My Lord and my God…”