Wednesday, August 17, 2005—First Catechesis

Animator Joan Sweeney, Ottawa, Canada

 

"In search of truth, the deepest meaning of human existence"

 

Dear young people:

 

In my presentation today, I would like you to think of me as an older brother in our common fellowship with Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord.  For I think of myself as a companion of journey of discovering God’s call in our lives.  As St. Paul would want to say, I have not yet fully achieved the goal of my life, but I press on towards the upward call in Christ Jesus the Lord.

 

This year I celebrated ten years since my nomination as a bishop, a vocation that is somewhat unusual for a Jesuit priest, for reasons that are a bit complicated to explain briefly this morning.  Prior to my appointment as auxiliary bishop of Toronto, I had been for twenty years a professor of Scripture in Halifax and Toronto.  My world was that of the university where I prepared candidates for the priesthood or other forms of ministry.  My acquaintance with the lives of ordinary people, families and individuals came about through weekend supply work in urban and suburban parishes in Halifax, Regina and Toronto.

 

My knowledge of the interests and concerns of university students came about largely due to the fact that the Newman Centre at the University of Toronto was located close to the University’s Athletic Centre.  When I taught at U of T, I traveled by bicycle, but when I became a bishop and lived in suburban Mississauga, I needed to find parking space for my car when I went for my squash games three times a week, and the Newman Centre had several free spaces.  Before he became the CEO of the 2002 World Youth Day in Toronto, Father Thomas Rosica was the chaplain at the Newman Centre.  He was only too happy to let me have free parking behind the Centre and invited me to come in for a coffee and conversation with the young men and women who formed a team with him as part of the chaplaincy that served the campus.

 

For three and a half years, the interests of university-aged students and other youth who frequented the chaplaincy became mine.  The questions young people asked about the meaning of life and existence, the significance of faith for our culture and world today became my preoccupations.  I tried to reflect on the significance of Christ for all seekers after truth in homilies preached at the Centre’s St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel, in the celebration of reconciliation with the members of the university’s parish community, in conversations over coffee or a beer after squash and in dinner table or living room chatter with the young men and women who frequented the many activities at Newman.

 

So much a part of my life did this interaction with young people become that I was very keen to assure that a Catholic presence of some kind be part of the life of the universities and colleges in the Archdiocese of Halifax and the Diocese of Yarmouth where I have been privileged to serve for seven years and three years respectively.  I would wager that Nova Scotia has one the highest proportion of universities per total population found anywhere on our planet: seven universities for a population of less than a million people; students come from all across Canada and from more than eighty countries of the world to study in our Province.

 

One of my first ministerial commitments for the university students in Halifax soon after my arrival was a mid-week retreat series, at a university where we had a Catholic chaplain in place.  I felt it was less successful than I had hoped it would be.  As well, two universities in Halifax City were without a strong Church presence in the chaplaincy.  So when I learned of Catholic Christian Outreach, a Catholic movement at universities that would have Catholic young people evangelize other youth and help strengthen the Church’s presence on campuses, I was intrigued.  What I found particularly fascinating in their annual Rise Up Festivals and other meetings were the testimony by young people to the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ to transform their lives.

 

Indeed, I can recall quite vividly today, the testimony of a young man, let’s call him Rob, who told of the joy he found through discovery of Christ: after meeting Jesus his former aspirations to wealth and fame, to relationships and life styles seemed like so much trash.  Yet, this did not rob him of his individuality or deprive him of his creativity or spirit of inquiry.   Indeed the opposite seemed true: he became more alive than ever; his joys were more intense, his sense of purpose more fulfilled.  His testimony at the Rise Up Conference in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan on New Year’s Eve 2003 was electric! It was a privilege to get to know him when he and fifty-six other university students came to Halifax for Impact Canada 2004 last summer.  Their presence over a period of sixteen weeks last year blew the socks off the Archdiocese of Halifax.  At their weekly “Cornerstone” sessions, I heard other testimonies to the search for meaning in unsatisfying ways and to the transforming power of the Gospel of Life and the encounter with Jesus Christ to change lives.  A young woman, let’s call her Melanie, spoke of the frustrations and setbacks in her life that led to the dead end of bulimia and how God set her free from this through her experience of the community of life found among the followers of Jesus of Nazareth.  I pray that through experiences like CCO, World Youth Day, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, the Cursillo movement and others, many may find Christ and, having found Him, bow down in adoration to Him as the Magi, the Wise Men, who came and worshipped Jesus, as we read in Matthew’s gospel.

 

Their journey of seeking and finding the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life is one we are replicating here in Cologne.  We will recall the end of the first part of the journey that ends only in the everlasting life of Heaven when we pass by their reliquary that has been venerated for centuries here. But the search for Christ associated with Cologne because of the Magi has other significant personalities that Pope John Paul II held out for our consideration, among whom I wish to focus on Edith Stein, now celebrated under her religious name of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.  To her life and example, I would like to add several other individuals and a couple who are not enrolled among those formally recognized by the Church as saints.  I do this because I think that each person’s quest for his or her purpose in life is in some sense, awesome, beautiful, frightening, reassuring, and challenging.

 

A brilliant philosopher, Edith Stein stopped believing in God at the age of fourteen.  Yet she was so captivated by reading the autobiography of Teresa of Avila that she began a spiritual journey that led to her Baptism in 1922. Twelve years later she imitated Teresa by becoming a Carmelite, taking the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

 

Born into a prominent Jewish family in Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland), Edith abandoned Judaism in her teens. As a student at the University of Gottingen, she became fascinated by phenomenology, an approach to philosophy.

Her teacher Edmund Husserl had also been a Jew; he had had a great religious crisis and converted to Christianity. From 1901, he served as at head of the faculty of philosophy in Gottingen, and he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for philosophy. Edith chose Gottingen in order to follow the man who was rightly held to be the greatest living philosopher of her day.

At Gottingen, Edith lived what we would reckon to be normal university life: lectures, seminars and study; conversation, reflection and excursions. But as the days, weeks and months passed by and she lived her life, a kind of transformation took place. As Borghese writes, "The face of God became faded in Edith's memory. Her religious practices stopped. The crisis did not bring her into opposition to God, in whom she never disbelieved. But she lived without God, she forgot him voluntarily, she deliberately disobeyed the urgent exhortations of her mother".

Edith did not agree with her master’s views published in his Ideas for a Pure Phenomenology. Her friends, seeing her in a despondent state, invited her to a lecture by Max Scheler, who also was a convert from Judaism and a man constantly entranced by the beauty of the Catholic faith. Edith now forgot her mealtimes, nourishing herself on ideas and hopes; she was more concerned for the spirit than for the body.

In August 1916, at the age of twenty-five she took her doctorate with high accolades. In the meantime, the First World War was wreaking its havoc on many thousands of casualties, causing Edith untold internal suffering. Among the victims of the war was her friend Adolf Reinach, the one who had introduced her to Husserl. So Edith set out on the journey to console his widow. This occasioned what we might say was her first meeting with the Cross as a reality in the lived experience of people close to her.

In the summer of 1921, she visited Conrad Martius. By chance, she found the autobiography of Teresa of Avila in the library, read it at once and was overwhelmed by it. When her friends returned, she confessed to them that she had finally found the truth. Her conversion had practically taken place. She went to church, experienced the Mass and asked the priest to be baptized at once. Edith received baptism and became a member of the Catholic Church on New Year’s Day 1922.  That same year, after having been a university teacher, she moved to a Dominican school in Speyer; for her appointment as lecturer at the Educational Institute of Munich ended under pressure from the Nazis.

After seven years there, she moved to the Marianum and immediately was on friendly terms with the sisters. One evening, when she visited a Catholic friend, she learned of the Nazis' atrocities against the Jews, and was deeply disturbed. She decided to go to Rome and inform the Pope. In the meantime, she wrote him a letter in which she said: "My people and I are facing extermination". She did not see her faith in Christ as cutting her off from Judaism but as bringing completion to her faith.

With the help of a spiritual director, she knocked at the door of the Carmel in Cologne. When the prioress questioned her, Edith replied: "I have been with the Dominican Sisters for eight years, but I have never thought of entering there. I have been given spiritual direction by the Abbot of Beuron, but I have never thought of becoming a Benedictine nun. I know that the Lord is calling me to Carmel". In 1933, Edith was received by the nuns into the Carmel of Cologne; in 1934, she received the habit, taking the name Benedicta of the Cross, making her simple profession in 1935.

When Edith entered Carmel, she intended to follow her own vocation completely in response to the call of God. She took the life of her community most seriously. When asked to engage in literary activity useful for the Monastery, she wrote articles, prefaces to books, commentaries, book reviews and philosophical interpretations dealing with Christianity. She worked on a weighty book: Finite Being and Eternal Being and was asked to write a monograph about St. John of the Cross. She began also to write her great work, The Science of the Cross.

 

After living in the Cologne Carmel (1934-1938), she moved to the Carmelite monastery in Echt, Netherlands. The Nazis occupied that country in 1940. In retaliation for being denounced by the Dutch bishops, the Nazis arrested all Dutch Jews who had become Christians. Teresa Benedicta and her sister Rosa, also a Catholic, died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz on August 9, 1942.  She had lived half of her life without Christ and the second half living that relationship of the believer in union with him to the full. Pope John Paul II beatified Teresa Benedicta in 1987 and canonized her in 1998. 

 

When I reflect on the examples of others who are members of the household of the faith, I cannot help but reflect on my own journey and how the call and the search never stops, I imagine, until one surrenders to the Lord in the mystery of death.  On Sunday, I celebrated forty-four years of religious life in the Jesuit Order.  Since I am sixty-one years old, that means I left home as a callow youth of seventeen years in 1961.  Our world then was very different from the world of today.  Youngsters made decisions about marriage, priesthood and religious life in their teens.  I grew up in the north end of Montreal in the nineteen fifties; our parish world was very Catholic and the culture supported it.  Somewhere along the line, someone suggested the importance of visiting Jesus present in the Blessed Sacrament and for some mysterious reason that echoed in me.  I would sneak into our parish church and pray to Our Lord for twenty or thirty minutes at a time; often I was the only one there.  As an altar server, I would regularly be on call to serve one of the parish’s three priests at seven, seven-thirty or eight o’clock in the morning—after I had delivered my newspapers and before school started.  In my senior year in high school I flirted with the idea of entering the Jesuits but could not decide about it, not even on a retreat weekend where I struggled with the idea for three days.  But it all ended in the last stretch of the bus ride home when the determination came to me with an unmistakable clarity and decisiveness that I have only rarely questioned and never for very long.

 

When I entered the Jesuit novitiate, our style of life was still quite monastic, including reading at table during the noon and evening meals.  Two books read during the noviceship have stayed with me.  The first was a text translated from the French as We Have Been Friends Together.  It tells the tale of Jacques and Raissa Maritain and their conversion to Christ through their friendship with Leon Bloy.

 

In that work, Raissa recounts how at the age of twenty she and her friend Jacques—both unbelievers—had come to a radical decision after desperately seeking after the meaning of life.  She was from a Jewish family and he came from a politically engaged socialist milieu.  When Henri Bergson, her philosophy professor at the Sorbonne asked what she sought, Raissa replied, “To know what is”.   Jacques experienced a deep sense of dissatisfaction in the face of his yearning for the absolute that could not be realized in the emptiness of an ideal that was confined to this world.  They had made a pact with each other to commit suicide if after a year they had not found the truth.  In God’s providence, several months later they made the acquaintance of Leon Bloy, a Christian writer who was also a convert and through him they were brought to embrace the Catholic faith and led to baptism into Christ and to life in the Church, to which they made a great contribution.

 

That book was followed almost immediately by With God in Russia, the exhilarating tale of Father Walter Ciszek, a Jesuit priest who released from prison by the leadership of the Soviet Union.  He had been a prisoner for decades in Siberian labour camps.  His Jesuit brothers had long before given him up for dead.  It was an exciting tale, full of adventures and bravado.  But several years afterwards, Father Ciszek wrote a second book entitled He Leadeth Me, in which he narrated the interior struggles and challenges that lay behind all the drama of the first book.  Now, forty years after my entry into the novitiate, I suppose I could go back and read the first book, but it is the second book that has fed me during numerous retreats.  It says that behind the bold façade of the life of the Christian, however exalted a position he or she may be called upon to serve in, the inner struggle is always to let Christ rule in our lives.  In the noviceship, as a very young man, I had the privilege of making the Spiritual Exercises and coming to know the Christ of my life more profoundly.  Some seventeen years later, after several years of priesthood, the beginnings of a career as a professor and of someone entrusted with the formation of future priests, I discovered how Christ still has many corners of my soul, my life, my being to set free with the power of his resurrection.  As a bishop I know that this becomes truer every year of my life; it is the power of Christ’s resurrection that is winning the victory in my life, but there is still a lot of terrain where I have yet to fully surrender to his will and his grace and his love—even though that is what I want most of all! And that is why we have the great Sacrament of Reconciliation, of Peace, of Penance of Confession, all of which titles cannot fully express the most under-appreciated gift Christ has given to His Church.  There, in the sacrament of his healing, Christ regularly—in my case, every ten days or twice a month—meets me under His title of Son of Man, the one who truly knows our humanity in all its complexity, who knows me in all my frailty and in all my searching and in all my deepest desires.  In this lovely, healing expression of his love, Jesus meets me and anticipates in me the judgment he will one day give at the end of my life. I consider each confession as a dress rehearsal of His Parousia, his presence to me as the completion of my life.

 

We have come here to Dusseldorf in the Archdiocese of Cologne because we have already met Christ or are seeking Him.  We may have wished to follow Christ but wandered a bit from the path he points out to us.  We may struggle with Christ’s teachings as the Church, guided by Christ’s Holy Spirit, lays them out for our times and us.  Wherever you are on the journey, I urge you to open yourselves to Christ, falling down in adoration before Him as did the Magi; reverencing the paschal mystery of suffering, death and resurrection as did St. Teresa Benedicta; searching always for Him who truly is the Way, the Truth and the Life, as over the centuries the martyrs and confessors St. Ursula and St. Boniface, St. Albert the Great and Blessed Adolph Kolping did.  These holy ones are associated particularly closely with Germany and the Cologne, but they have become models for the universal Church. May their inspiration and that of your own heroes in the faith always lead you like the Star of Bethlehem to Christ Jesus, the King of Kings and the one who is wise beyond all others and meeting Him in Word and Sacrament let us adore Him with the offering of our total selves so that we may truly live in truth, walking in the way that leads to life.