Monday, August 20, 2007

Benedict on Basil... and Brotherhood

While the rest of the global north's been reveling in the traditional "silly season," it could well be said that Summer '07 has been the Vatican's "social season"... and not because of the feste and holiday-making, either.

Between the Holy See's upping its green quotient, Angelus catecheses which, by turns, have addressed the imperatives of peace, disarmament and the evils of greed, and the recent leak that Encyclical #2 of this pontificate will likely offer a critical view of economic globalization, Benedict XVI has quietly, yet deliberately, set out on a reiteration of the church's social Magisterium that might've surprised no small number of observers... least, among the handful who've remained attentive through these waning dog days.

More than a gentle reminder that the deposit of faith cannot be subjected to (nor pieced apart by) the political and ideological cleavages of any fleeting age, the messages have served to underscore the Pope's statement at his late July Q&A with Northern Italian priests that "the exact meaning of Catholicism is 'synthesis,'" a contrast to the "great forms of exclusivism" that errant presentations might reflect.

The synthetical thread -- which Benedict also referred to as the "great 'et-et' [both-and]" -- has even reached into his General Audience talks. Both before and after his July hiatus in the Dolomites, the pontiff focused a set of two Wednesday meetings on the life and writings of St Basil the Great, praising the 4th century bishop-doctor as both a legend of faith and the liturgy and "one of the fathers of the church's social doctrine": one whose example and witness, he emphasized, remains keenly relevant today.

Part 1; Part 2 -- snips:
In reality, St. Basil created a special kind of monasticism, not closed off from the local Church, but open to it. His monks were part of the local Church, they were its animating nucleus. Preceding others of the faithful in following Christ and not merely in having faith, they showed firm devotion to him -- love for him -- above all in works of charity. These monks, who established schools and hospitals, were at the service of the poor and showed Christian life in its fullness. The Servant of God, John Paul II, speaking about monasticism, wrote: "Many believe that monasticism, an institution so important for the whole Church, was established for all times principally by St. Basil -- or that, at least, the nature of monasticism would not have been so well defined without Basil's decisive contribution".

As bishop and pastor of his vast diocese, Basil constantly worried about the difficult material conditions in which the faithful lived; he firmly condemned evils; he worked in favor of the poor and marginalized; he spoke to rulers in order to relieve the sufferings of the people, above all in moments of disaster; he looked out for the freedom of the Church, going up against those in power to defend the right to profess the true faith. To God, who is love and charity, Basil gave witness by building hospitals for the needy, much like a city of mercy, that took its name from him "Basiliade". It has been the inspiration for modern hospital institutions of recovery and cure of the sick.

Aware that "the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows", Basil, though he was concerned with charity, the sign of faith, was also a wise "liturgical reformer". He left us a wonderful Eucharistic prayer (or anaphora) which is named after him, and helped to organize the prayer and the psalmody:

Because of him the people loved and knew the Psalms, and came to pray them even during the night. In this way we can see how liturgy, adoration and prayer come together with charity, and depend upon each other.

With zeal and courage, Basil opposed heretics, who denied that Jesus Christ is God like the Father. In the same way, contrary to those who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit, he taught that the Spirit is also God, and "must be numbered and glorified with the Father and the Son". Because of this, Basil is one of the great Fathers that formulated the doctrine of the Trinity: one God, because he is love, he is God in three persons, who form the most profound unity in existence, divine unity.

In his love for Christ and his Gospel, the great Cappadocian also worked to heal the divisions within the Church, working so that all might be converted to Christ and his word, a unifying force, which all believers must obey....

The resplendent light of the divine mystery is reflected in man, the image of God, and exalts his dignity. Looking at Christ, one fully understands human dignity.

Basil exclaims: "[Man], be mindful of your greatness, remembering the price paid for you: look at the price of your redemption and comprehend your dignity!" ("In Psalmum" 48, 8: PG 29, 452b). 
Christians in particular, conforming their lives to the Gospel, recognize that all people are brothers and sisters; that life is a stewardship of the goods received from God, which is why each one is responsible for the other, and whoever is rich must be as it were an "executor of the orders of God the Benefactor" (Hom 6 de avaritia: PG 32, 1181-1196). We must all help one another and cooperate as members of one body (Ep 203, 3).

And on this point, he used courageous, strong words in his homilies. Indeed, anyone who desires to love his neighbour as himself, in accordance with God's commandment, "must possess no more than his neighbour" ("Hom. in divites": PG 31, 281b).

In times of famine and disaster, the holy Bishop exhorted the faithful with passionate words "not to be more cruel than beasts ... by taking over what people possess in common or by grabbing what belongs to all ("Hom. tempore famis": PG 31, 325a).

Basil's profound thought stands out in this evocative sentence: "All the destitute look to our hands just as we look to those of God when we are in need".

Therefore, Gregory of Nazianzus' praise after Basil's death was well-deserved. He said: "Basil convinces us that since we are human beings, we must neither despise men nor offend Christ, the common Head of all, with our inhuman behaviour towards people; rather, we ourselves must benefit by learning from the misfortunes of others and must lend God our compassion, for we are in need of mercy" (Gregory Nazianzus, "Orationes" 43, 63; PG 36, 580b).

These words are very timely. We see that St Basil is truly one of the Fathers of the Church's social doctrine.

Furthermore, Basil reminds us that to keep alive our love for God and for men, we need the Eucharist, the appropriate food for the baptized, which can nourish the new energies that derive from Baptism (cf. "De Baptismo" 1, 3: SC 357, 192).

The Eucharist, an immense gift of God, preserves in each one of us the memory of the baptismal seal and makes it possible to live the grace of Baptism to the full and in fidelity....

Finally, Basil was of course also concerned with that chosen portion of the People of God, the youth, society's future. He addressed a Discourse to them on how to benefit from the pagan culture of that time.

He recognized with great balance and openness that examples of virtue can be found in classical Greek and Latin literature. Such examples of upright living can be helpful to young Christians in search of the truth and the correct way of living (cf. "Ad Adolescentes" 3).

Therefore, one must take from the texts by classical authors what is suitable and conforms with the truth: thus, with a critical and open approach -- it is a question of true and proper "discernment" -- young people grow in freedom.

With the famous image of bees that gather from flowers only what they need to make honey, Basil recommends: "Just as bees can take nectar from flowers, unlike other animals which limit themselves to enjoying their scent and colour, so also from these writings ... one can draw some benefit for the spirit. We must use these books, following in all things the example of bees. They do not visit every flower without distinction, nor seek to remove all the nectar from the flowers on which they alight, but only draw from them what they need to make honey, and leave the rest. And if we are wise, we will take from those writings what is appropriate for us, and conform to the truth, ignoring the rest" ("Ad Adolescentes" 4)....

Dear brothers and sisters, I think one can say that this Father from long ago also speaks to us and tells us important things.

In the first place, attentive, critical and creative participation in today's culture.

Then, social responsibility: this is an age in which, in a globalized world, even people who are physically distant are really our neighbours; therefore, friendship with Christ, the God with the human face.

And, lastly, knowledge and recognition of God the Creator, the Father of us all: only if we are open to this God, the common Father, can we build a more just and fraternal world.
It may still be summer, but the B16 school has clearly remained open, and in full session.