by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
This week’s January 3rd edition of The New York Times carried a lengthy opinion piece entitled “Is Paganism Replacing Christianity?” For me it was just the right essay for the beginning of a new year – however disturbing its title.
The turn of a year in history lends itself to serious thoughts about our existence, purpose and destiny – all wrapped up in our belief systems, religious or not. We make New Year’s resolutions, a sign that we’re taking stock and “beginning again”. This is a very personalized habit that implies the deeper reflections which a new year provokes.
The article in question is a review of a book written in French, the title being (roughly translated), The End of the Christian World. That title and the reviewer’s op-ed headline bring up several reflections. The subject has important implications for all of us who try to live as Christians, personally and as part of Pax Christi.
The book and its review in The Times make it clear that the reality of western civilization with its supposed Christian ethic is being questioned, even declared irrelevant. That brings one prior question: how long has our culture had any legitimate claim at being rooted in a Christian ethic?
All of this led to a rereading of the commentary on Karl Rahner by theologian Elizabeth Johnson in her book, Quest for the Living God. Rahner quite clearly maintains that our Christian civilization has long since disappeared for all practical purposes. He says that the situation for modern Christians is a “wintry season”. Our former easy and almost instinctive claim to be Christians no longer holds. To mention a small but telling indication of this: remember when many of us identified ourselves as members of such-and-such a Catholic parish?
But Rahner’s analysis, much clearer than the article in The Times, does not lead him to a fatalistic conclusion. He goes on at some length with his description of our having been stripped of the external, popular devotional practices of the past; then as a thinking Catholic/Christian believer, he deals with positive challenges of this “wintry season”. His conclusions are worth probing as we increasingly find ourselves in non-Christian (not to say pagan) environments. This is where modern people of Christian faith – Pax Christi included – have to find renewed purpose.
Rahner contends that in such a wintry season believing people must get back to basics, return to the center, the inmost core that “still warms the heart”. That is, to what one great missionary once called “the naked Gospel” in referring to his catechetical approaches. In calling for this stark, unadorned living as disciples of Christ, Rahner goes to great lengths in calling us out of the superficiality which too often keeps that message from actually being “the good news” to the modern world. He is particularly critical – even caustic – about the way Christ’s message is presented in Christian churches today. In one famous statement he writes that preachers’ words fall powerlessly from the pulpit, “like birds frozen to death and falling from a winter sky”. He yearns for our messages about God, Christ, life, and the Reign of God to be intelligible, accessible and dynamic for the people of our time.
This is the ongoing task of Pax Christi today, something which Pax Christi has striven to do since its beginnings in France and Germany, countries which needed Christ’s message of reconciliation after the cataclysm of World War II. We have both a shining example of this relevance in the person and message of Pope Francis. We also have the healthy and challenging tools of Catholic social teaching on which to draw.
Together with wishes for a Happy New Year, we might well add a prayer for one another: “MAY GOD GIVE US THE WORDS THAT MAKE THE GOOD NEWS MEANINGFUL IN THIS TIME.”
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.