By Brother Enzo Biemmi
For a faith “not necessary but crucial”
In order to deepen the conversion required from us regarding the faith we live and propose in our mission, I think it is useful that we be helped by the thought of two theologians: André Fossion and Christoph Theobald, both Jesuits.
André Fossion writes in a precious book:
«Christian faith – and consequently its proclamation – stands on a paradox: it is radically not necessary for salvation, yet it is radically precious for life, for the transfiguration which it allows to live. Radically not necessary, radically precious: this, it seems to me, is the statute of Christian faith as well as that of its proclamation»
We find ourselves in front of a paradox. A paradox is a way of expressing oneself based on an apparent contradiction (in this case: faith not necessary – faith radically precious), which goes against a truth considered evident. The paradox pushes us towards a deeper understanding of truth itself, beyond appearances and ways of thinking and acting that have become habitual, given for granted. Faith “radically not necessary but radically precious” (and by consequence also its proclamation) is one of those paradox which help us verify our vision of Christianity and its proclamation.
Here is what André Fossion affirms:
«With regard to the main exigency, that is charity, faith in God is secondary. In fact, the essential aspect, since God is love, is that of charity. Charity represents the exercise of a primordial grace which, in itself and for itself, is sufficient for the coming of God’s Kingdom, even when God is not recognized. Yet, if God’s recognition is not necessary to generate its life, this appears, anyway, as a supplementary grace which enriches further the life which God gives. This perspective is based on a theology of grace which, by definition, is excessive. The fact that God, without making Himself necessary, generates us giving us life, is already a first grace. That He makes Himself recognized, in freedom, by the living person as a benevolent Father, it is a second grace. […] It is in the logic of this supplementary grace, not necessary but extremely revealing of God’s love, that the proposal of Christian faith can be listened to within the multi-religious context of today, characterized by the most diversified convictions».
What is the meaning of this paradox which risks to destabilize us, given the formation we have received?
God is in himself love, communication. The characteristic of this divine communication, ad intra and ad extra (within and without), is its overflowing character: God’s love is excessive, exceeding. Communication “in God” becomes then communication “of God”, in Christ first and then in the Spirit: human history springs from the communication in God who gratuitously shares Himself.
It is the nature itself of the God of Jesus Christ, his deep identity, bringing Him to love every man and woman in an absolutely gratuitous manner, without linking His love to adherence and explicit recognition. Therefore, the Christian God is a God who has decided to make Himself “not necessary”. And here we are at the heart of this paradox: human life cannot exist without the excessive love of God (who is, then, necessary), but in the logic of kenosis, this love does not impose itself and does not oblige anyone to recognize Him (He offers Himself as “not necessary”). The Father of Jesus Christ makes Himself available to all through His Spirit, without exception and without imposition: He is the one who is always available without ever imposing himself. He is totally gratuitous (gratis).
B. A faith radically precious
What is the consequence of this vision of God’s love? Very simple: if the grace of God is exceeding, at this point, Christian faith itself becomes not necessary in order to generate to the life of God, but at the same time it is radically precious for life. It transfigures it and it allows it to live in a radically new way. The paradox of a necessary God who decides to make himself not necessary, is translated into an adherence to Him (faith) « not necessary but determining» for human life.
A faith not necessary
This phrase means that, in itself, faith is not necessary to enjoy God’s love and therefore to live one’s existence humanly well. This affirmation could be shocking, but in the end it is very simple: the explicit recognition of salvation in Jesus Christ is not a condition to be its beneficiaries. The explicit adherence to the God of Jesus Christ is not a condition for Him to love and to save every man and woman. The central affirmation of Christianity is not denied: Jesus Christ, crucified and Risen, is the Savior of all. But the explicit recognition of the God of Jesus Christ during this life is not a compulsory condition in order to receive His life in abundance. There is, then, a ‘first grace’ which works in all (in all persons, cultures, religions) and a ‘second grace’, that is, an explicit adherence to Him for those who have this supplementary gift. The first grace has been given to all, the second grace to some in addition. We are among these.
This is what the II Vatican Council had already authoritatively affirmed.
«For, since Christ died for all men, and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery» (GS 22).
The expression « we ought to believe » is an affirmation of the Council, and therefore normative. And the content of this dogmatic declaration is that all have the possibility of being associated to the paschal mystery. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, after quoting the text of the Council, utilizes a very efficacious expression: «God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments» (CCC 1257).
A faith radically precious, that is, determining
Placing faith within the order of things “not necessary” does not mean reducing it to the nature of superfluous or secondary things. It means, instead, situating it in the field of human experience of what is “more than necessary”: in fact, the ‘not necessary’ as totally gratuitous is ‘more than necessary’ in our life, it is something precious that we cannot give to ourselves but, when added, it radically transforms our existence. Let us imagine two persons who love one another without telling one another, without knowing it. These persons can live in this way, but the love declaration, even if it does not create love, already existing, changes everything. The declaration transfigures life and love itself in the moment it is declared, recognized, manifested. The term ‘transfiguration’ expresses well the effect of this supplementary grace, which is not necessary to life but, like the precious pearl of the gospel, once found it makes life incomparably much fuller. He who has access to explicit faith experiences what John says in his prologue: «from his fullness we have received grace upon grace» (Jn 1:16). Explicit faith in Jesus then is a second grace, a grace radically precious which is added to the first grace of existence filling it with joy and meaning.
>C. A style of Church and of evangelization in the register of grace and not of necessity
Which consequences all of this has for us, for our style of mission? It will have to be a mission not within the register of the necessary (we announce the gospel to save others), but in the register of supplementary grace, as a gift which, as it has made us happy, it can also make others happy.
It is difficult to sustain the idea of a necessary Church if her necessary God has offered himself to the world through his decision not to be necessary and if the faith in Him is radically not necessary while, at the same time, radically precious. Instead, it will be a Church which conceives herself as not necessary, that is relative to God’s Kingdom, yet radically precious and therefore also determining. We could define the Church as a « necessary sign », efficacious but limited in time, so that in history there may be a place in which the exceeding love of God can be confessed and lived in favor of all and where it is proclaimed that this love is not only for some but for all and it will be the destiny of all.
Such a vision of the Church necessarily leads us to a relationship with present culture, with men and women of today, based on “reciprocal hospitality”. In many languages, the term “host” has two meanings: it indicates both the one welcoming and the one being welcomed. In human language itself is thus inscribed the necessity of reciprocal welcome. Evangelical hospitality has a theological foundation. We could call it “hospitable sanctity” (according to the expression of Theobald). We are called to do what St. Ignatius of Loyola was saying: to know how to see God in all things. In her mission the Church knows that she is preceded by God’s grace diffused in all hearts and she “recognizes” it. Her assignment is that of “unveiling” the face of God hidden in everyone, “to remove the veil” so that all may arrive to say, like Jacob: «God was in my life and I did not know it» (cfr. Gen 28:16). But this “recognition” of a grace preceding her, becomes for the Church herself a new grace: she has to allow herself to be reached by the Word of the Gospel kept in custody for her in the heart of men and women of today, starting from those who are poor and far from her.
It is for this theological reason that we are called never to assume aggressive attitudes towards the cultures in which we live, but to inhabit them with hope, because only by assuming the culture and leaning on some of its categories, the Christian faith will save the culture and will save itself: that is, it will remain faithful to its identity, since it does not exist for itself but it exists to evangelize.
D. Necessary Evangelization
At this point a question arises: if it is like this, then, and if God mysteriously saves all, what is the use of proclaiming the Gospel? And how to interpret the command of the Risen Lord to his disciples: «Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned» (Mk 1:15)? Right the faith which we have defined as not necessary but determining renders evangelization absolutely necessary.
We identify three reasons by which the gratuitous (“not necessary”) proclamation of the Gospel is ever more necessary.
a) Paul VI was thus expressing himself:
«It would be useful if every Christian and every evangelizer were to pray about the following thought: men can gain salvation also in other ways, by God’s mercy, even though we do not preach the Gospel to them; but as for us, can we gain salvation if through negligence or fear or shame- what St. Paul called “blushing for the Gospel” – or as a result of false ideas we fail to preach it?» (EN 80).
The meaning of this text is as follows: God can save and He saves beyond our proclamation; but if we do not proclaim, will we be saved? Not because we fail to do a duty, but in the sense that we, gracious beneficiaries of the second grace, we have not made it our own, it has not reached us. Then the question regarding our salvation is legitimate. If the encounter with the Lord Jesus has reached our life, this cannot be kept for ourselves. If we keep it for ourselves it means that it has not reached us really, and therefore the question on our salvation is legitimate.
Therefore, evangelization is necessary for us, for our deeper identity.
b) The second reason for the necessity of proclamation stems from the joy for what we have gratuitously received. It is what John says at the beginning of his first letter: «That our joy may be complete » (1 Jn 1:1-4). This text makes us understand that something will always be missing to our joy if others cannot have our same luck. The Church is not really happy until when all can enjoy the same happiness, that of having encountered and recognized the Lord Jesus.
Therefore, we evangelize for an intrinsic exigency of happiness.
c) And there is a third reason, which Pope Francis well highlights.
«Enthusiasm for evangelization is based on this conviction. We have a treasure of life and love which cannot deceive, and a message which cannot mislead or disappoint. It penetrates to the depths of our hearts, sustaining and ennobling us. It is a truth which is never out of date because it reaches that part of us which nothing else can reach ….. it is not the same thing to have known Jesus as not to have known him, not the same thing to walk with him as to walk blindly, not the same thing to hear his word as not to know it, and not the same thing to contemplate him, to worship him, to find our peace in him, as not to. It is not the same thing to try to build the world with his Gospel as to try to do so by our own lights. We know well that with Jesus life becomes richer and that with him it is easier to find meaning in everything. This is why we evangelize» (Evangelii Gaudium, 264-266).
The third reason why evangelization is necessary is, then, the love for people, the need to give them whatever most precious we have received, because “it is not the same thing”, and if it is not the same thing for us we cannot keep this treasure for ourselves. In the end, speaking about a faith which is radically not necessary but radically precious, can be explained and understood through the simple language of Pope Francis: « It is not necessary, but it is not the same thing »!
For us, who have inherited the Christianity of duty and that of commitment, such a proposal requires a deep conversion of mentality.
We can then summarize. Faith in the style of gratuity, of the “not necessary but determining”, renders evangelization necessary for three reasons:
- first of all for ourselves, for our salvation;
- then for our joy, that is, for an exigency of gratitude implicit to the gift of faith: « that our joy may be complete » (1 Jn 1:4);
- lastly, for our charity, which gives to others the most precious things it has.
We evangelize to take care of ourselves, of our joy, and because we love the persons we meet.
I have tried to delineate briefly the content and the style of evangelization which, as religious, we are called to promote. Whenever I speak about this in institutional places of the Church, I always feel interest on one side and a series of perplexity on the other. But we, religious, must not be afraid of the prospects which Pope Francis is entrusting to us. We are called by vocation to underline the overflowing of grace by the work of the Holy Spirit. For this reason, in our mission we are more free and we exercise a role of prophecy, of anticipation. We are located by the Lord in the space of what is not yet realized but which is promised to all. Of this we are witnesses in the world, this is our mission. A text of M. Teresa of Calcutta well expresses this prophetic assignment entrusted to us. Speaking about herself and her sisters, she writes:
«Our purpose is to bring Jesus and His love to the poorest of the poor, independently from their moral situation or the faith they profess. Our measure in helping them is not their faith but their need. We never attempt to convert to Christianity those we are helping, but in our actions we bear witness to the presence of God’s love; if for this Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists or unbelievers become better persons – simply better – we are satisfied. By growing in love they will be closer and closer to God and they will find Him in His goodness…. Some call Him Ishwar, others call Him Allah, others simply God, but we all must become aware that it is He who has made us for greater things: to love and to be loved. What matters is to love».
Here we find ourselves in the field of prophecy. We are a step ahead in the task of evangelization, or better, we are at the final result of evangelization. We are prophetically in the future of God, where all religions will have terminated their task and with them also the Church. Faith, in fact, passes, and also hope. Only love remains.