Face To Face with Death. How To Share the News That the World Does Not Want To Hear
(s.m.) Published as received. Professor Leonardo Lugaresi is a scholar of the New Testament and of the Church Fathers highly appreciated by the readers of Settimo Cielo, who at the end of this letter will find links to all of his previous contributions.
The letter from the French priest who scoffs at the “medieval” anguish he attributes to Professor Pietro De Marco and contrasts with the lesson of his “modern” Christianity (“la religion n’est pas le lieu de transfert de ses angoisses”) grasps in spite of himself, and I fear entirely without the author’s knowledge, the heart of the problem.
The world today is indeed in the grip of an anguish of death. The Covid-19 pandemic that is terrorizing everyone is not the absolute leading cause of death and probably will not be in the future, despite its feared development. More men die on our planet for a thousand other reasons, every year in the tens and tens of millions. This does not distress us because it is, so to speak, the death of others. […]
Death from coronavirus, on the other hand, is our death. The one that at any time and in spite of all caution could touch me and you. The invisible and ubiquitous virus brings about, as a universal possibility, the constant imminence of my death. That is, precisely what modernity has systematically claimed to exclude from its horizon.
What is unbearable, for us moderns, is in fact the condition of substantial defenselessness in which we have found ourselves overnight. The instinctive and general use of the metaphor of war to represent the present condition of humanity also betrays our unconscious need to have weapons in hand. Which we probably will have, perhaps in the near future, but not now.
This condition, however, as much as it is abhorred by modernity, belongs essentially to human life in its relationship with death, and this must be said.
The point, today as yesterday and as always, is that man is defenseless in the face of death, first of all because he is unable to think of it, of death. The maxim attributed to La Rochefoucauld: “Il y a deux choses qu’on ne peut regarder fixement, le soleil et la mort,” corresponds to such elementary evidence that anyone at any time could have uttered it. Death is, in itself, unthinkable. One can naturally think infinite things around it (from the idea that it doesn’t concern us at all because when it is there we are not and vice versa, to the one that our being-in-the world is to be understood as a being-for- death, etc., etc.) but death cannot be thought of. And in this collapse of human thought, the modern subject fails. For this reason, he absolutely needs to admit it to his horizon only as the death of others.
Does the Church have a word to say about death? Yes she does, and she is the only one who holds onto it because she has received it from Christ, who is the only one able to pronounce it because he is the only one who knows what death is, through having undergone and defeated it.
But this unique word is also a hard word, which the modern world does not want to hear. Paul put it this way: “None of us lives for himself and nobody dies for himself, because if we live, we live for the Lord, if we die, we die for the Lord. Whether we live or die, therefore, we are the Lord’s.”(Romans 14: 7-8).
We are the Lord’s: here is all that is essential to know in order to live and to die, and the virus that scares us so much does not negate at all but rather makes more stringent the literal truth of this statement, which is the linchpin of the whole Christian life. We could even be exhausted by fear and not find any apparent psychological comfort from the faith, from the practices of piety, from the words and actions of the Church, but all this does not detract from the objectivity of the fact that “we are the Lord’s.”
Perhaps, to make the meaning of this statement even clearer, we could translate “kyrios” as “master”: “we are the Master’s,” that is, we belong to an Other, we are not our own stuff. To the extent that our consciousness adheres to this reality, fear will also retreat, it will stop being decisive. It will remain, but as an instinctive reaction of the flesh that does not want to perish; it will remain, so to speak, out of the soul. Fear will remain, not the anguish anymore.
In this sense, I believe I share Professor De Marco’s concern about the current lack of a public presence “of the Church ‘mater et magistra’ that would measure up to its universal motherhood and teaching office.” But I also have the impression that in recent weeks, despite the initial defeat, at least communicative, of the visible, institutional Church, an invisible flowering of gifts of grace has occurred by contrast in the mysterious depth of many hearts, which might surprise us if we were able to measure it.
This really is the Great Lent, and who knows what “mirabilia Dei” are being accomplished, without us noticing.
But there is more: the defenselessness that is so intolerable for modern man constitutes, on closer inspection, the normal condition of the Christian in the world, and the acceptance of this condition is the premise for the witness – that is, martyrdom – that the Christian makes to the world. To use Paul’s words again: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Perhaps tribulation, anguish, persecution, hunger, nakedness, danger, the sword?” (Romans 8:35). The virus that scares us so much does nothing but add to this list, making it finally concrete for each of us, this time no one excluded.
In recent days I have returned to a book that is very dear to me and that, half a century after its publication, seems to me more timely than ever, “Cordula” by Hans Urs von Balthasar, from which I draw these illuminating sentences:
“Immediately after charity comes joy, […] joy in defenselessness, a defenselessness without worry, in which a mysterious superiority becomes visible. […] There is nothing negative except sin, which however is carried in the heart of the Lord. Every suffering, even the darkest night of the cross, is always enveloped in a joy, perhaps not felt, but affirmed, known in faith. […] Death gives form to life. This was not known before; but after the good thief it will be known until the end of the world. Does the Christian therefore have the unprecedented possibility of giving form to life on the basis of its final form? […] What matters is the defenselessness, […] the defenseless exposure of the Church to the world.”
For this reason I believe that ever more, in today’s non-Christian world, the form of the Christian minority’s presence will again be the “martyrial” one of its defenseless exposure to the hostility of the “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:18) . And for this reason I am afraid that I disagree with Professor De Marco where he seems to oppose “the ideology of a Church as prophetic minority” – which he calls, I do not know why, “inevitably utopian” – to the concept of “a Church ‘militans’.”
We probably mean two different things by the term “prophetic minority.’’ I would prefer to say: critical minority, with reference to the “krisis,” that is, to the Christian judgment that enters into the things of the world, discerns good from evil and “keeps what is good,” teaching its correct use. But his statement that “a true, prophetic biblical minority is a reality in dialectic with the People of God extended to the ecumene” leaves me perplexed in two respects.
The first refers to the fact that from the beginning (see the Petrine kerygma of Acts 2:14 ff.) the Church is constituted as fulfillment of the promise of the universal outpouring of the prophetic spirit linked to the advent of the messianic time. Peter says that Joel’s prophecy is fulfilled on the day of Pentecost, and from that moment all Christians are called to be prophets. So I do not see how a dialectic can be established between a “Catholic ecclesiosphere” and a “prophetic minority.” If a prophetic minority, or one claiming to be such, thinks of itself as a “sect,” it places itself ipso facto outside the Church, even before or without condemnation by the authority. That this is always an impending risk is unfortunately true, and the sad parable that so many new foundations and so many new charisms overwhelmed by scandals have experienced or revealed in recent years is there to prove it. If De Marco intended to point out this danger, I am in full agreement. But the fact remains that the Church is, by definition, entirely and always prophetic.
The other aspect on which I have reservations is that image of a “‘Catholica,’ which is potentially made up of the majority of men (in conformity with the ‘missio’), held together in the communion of the Mystical Body,” of which De Marco speaks. An image that is theologically always true, let’s be clear, even when there were 120 Christians in the whole world (as they are reckoned, with biblical-symbolic values but probably according to a plausible order of magnitude, in Acts 1:15) and even if we should again become so few. But an image that historically and sociologically is ever less plausible in the present circumstances.
From the human perspective, Christians in the near future will be ever fewer in a world ever less Christian. Knowing and conceiving of oneself as minority and “creative minority,” according to an apt expression used also by Benedict XVI, is therefore essential in my view in order that we may do, in a not unrealistic way, what De Marco rightly recalls at the end of his contribution: be “co-responsible for the infinity of ordinary men and for the baptized in the first place,” and speak to them the words that are really needed, meaning “those of age-old sacred history” and not those of “utopia, proudly founded in the myth of the future, in the not-yet-existing that alone gives meaning, [which] are exhausted quickly and miserably.”
With cordiality and esteem.
The previous writings of Professor Lugaresi on Settimo Cielo and on http://www.chiesa:
> Pachamama and the Gods of Ancient Greece. The Lesson of Paul in Athens (13.11.2019)
> The Wrath of God Is Not Taboo. Even Pope Francis Admits It(28.2.2019)
> How To Be a “Creative Minority” Today. The Example of the Christians of the First Three Centuries (17.2.2018)
> Thespian, Throw Away the Mask! (20.2.2011)
> The New Polytheism and its Tempter Idols (9.12.2010)