Friday 6 May 2016

Stepping into that River

In my Jesuit training, we had to take two years of philosophy. Alas, much of it I have forgotten, but I do remember learning about a Greek philosopher, Heraclitus.  He believed that everything changed – the world was in a continuous state of flux.  Heraclitus used to say, “You can’t step into the same river twice.”  That is to say, the river may still be there, it’s still made of water, it’s still this geographical feature between two banks, but it’s never quite the same river it was an instant ago.  And we can live with that understanding.

The church changes, too.  It is essentially the same, but many of its expressions, its way of doing things, its understandings, its customs, change and adapt.  The church must respond to the signs of the times or it stagnates.  It must hold onto its essential truths, but reinterpret them and express them in ways that are meaningful and appropriate for the times, the culture and the situation.  Growth is the only sign of life, as Cardinal Newman (now on the way to sainthood) used to say.  The church must grow.  A second century or twentieth century church cannot answer twenty-first century questions, or respond to twenty-first century challenges.

In the aftermath of the reflection on Pope Francis’ Exhortation on The Joy of Love, some from the school community were asking me about the possibility of change in Church teaching.  We need to remind ourselves that there have been many changes in theology over time.  One that occurred relatively recently was the dropping of the belief in Limbo.  When the new Catechism of the Catholic Church came out, Limbo just did not feature.  Theologians agreed that it had originally been devised to solve the difficult problem of where unbaptized babies went if they died before the age of reason.  But there was no real foundation to Limbo in terms of scripture or revelation.  So the theologians left that tricky problem with God and ceased proposing there was such a place as Limbo.  We reflect and we may change.  It once used to be taught that it was sinful to take interest on a loan.  Not so now.  The theology of women has certainly changed.  St Paul in the Letter to the Colossians said wives should be submissive to their husbands.  Pope John Paul, on the other hand declared this to be culturally conditioned and that husbands and wives should now be mutually submissive.  Recently the Jesuits and others associated with Georgetown, that prestigious Jesuit university in Washington, have been ashamed to discover that in 1838 the university sold 272 of their slaves – men, women and children – to help pay off debts.  But slavery was acceptable then by the Church, and not a matter of sin.  Today our theology of the human person is so much different.

Examples of such changes go right back to the early Church.  We have an account in the Acts of the Apostles of Paul challenging Peter (the first Pope) about what Jewish laws non-Jewish converts to Christianity had to obey.  Peter changed his position.  And since then we have ceased to be bound by some of those regulations proposed by Paul (like not eating the blood of animals).  The church community’s understanding of what is essential and what is not needs continuous reinterpretation, reformulation and expression.

Fortunately, Jesus has promised his ongoing Spirit in the Church community to continue to guide us after he, Jesus, was no longer bodily among us.   It is an assurance that seems to be particularly pertinent to Catholic Christians today, when we live in times of rapid cultural and organisational change, and when the church also has changed in ways that we never expected to see in our lifetimes.  It is useless to cling to the past as though faith were a matter of learning things by rote, or as though everything about the church was set in concrete and could meet the needs of all times, all places and all situations.  To have faith in the living Spirit is to expect confidently to be guided into deeper and further understanding and a clearer vision.

The same, by the way, is true for all Jesuit ministries.  In his voluminous Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, Ignatius regularly ends very serious laws or injunctions with the freedom to nevertheless let the local superior, given the context, adapt to times, places and circumstances.  Our colleges, in particular, have flourished over four centuries because the core values have been sustained whilst being expressed in different ways.  If we do not accommodate and evolve, as Fr General’s Secretary for Schools, Fr José Mesa SJ, warns, our schools will become museums.  Fr Pedro Arrupe SJ, former Jesuit Superior General, the so-called “second Ignatius” cautioned us more than three decades ago:

“I caution … about the danger of inertia.  It is absolutely essential that [we] become more aware of the changes that have taken place in the Church and in the Society, and aware also of [our] need to keep pace with these changes … That Jesuit community which believes that its school has no need to change has set the stage for the slow death of that school; it will only take about one generation.  However painful it may be, we need to trim the tree in order to restore it to strength.  Permanent formation, adaptation of structures in order to meet new conditions, these are indispensable.”

Arrupe read the signs of the times so well.  Such a perspective is of course the basis of our current Masterplan for the College.  Holding fast to what is true and time honoured.  Free to embrace the best of what is new.

Heraclitus was right.  We cannot step into the same river twice.  But when we are in it, it is still the river.  We are in the river whose flow can be traced back in continuity to its earliest origins.  At times it was narrower or broader, faster or slower, more peaceful or more turbulent, clearer or muddier.  But always the river.  The one that cleansed and nourished and refreshed our forebears in faith.  The one that will do the same for us all and for our children.  God’s Spirit will see to that.

Fr Ross Jones SJ