Sense & Nonsense: Grace Has Appeared

Several months ago, I received a letter from Proofessor John Schrems at Villanova University, an old friend and classmate. A couple of years ago, the two of us had gathered together the remarkable academic essays of Father Charles N.R. McCoy (On the Intelligibility of Political Philosophy, Catholic University of America Press, 1989). McCoy had been teaching at Catholic University during the time we were both graduate students. McCoy remains one of the hidden and most incisive intellectual presences in the American Church and in American political philosophy.

In any case, in connection with this project, Professor Schrems had received a communication from Monsignor Francis Schmitt in Nebraska about a brief essay that McCoy had written in the old journal Orate Fratres in June 1941. We had not known of this essay when we were doing our book. In this brief essay, entitled “Let Israel Hope in the Lord,” in words that remain both familiar and pertinent, McCoy wrote:

We feel the tension and instability of these times—the uncertainty of getting a job, of providing for a family, the fear of war, the bewilderment and resentment at propaganda. And in these circumstances there is a peculiar danger to our confidence in God, not the danger so much of our losing that confidence, but a danger more subtle and not uncommon. It is the danger of a sort of religious connivance with skepticism. We are likely to regard the whole world as unregenerate—that world in whose redemption we are actually supposed to be co-sharers with Christ.

That is a remarkable phrase, “a religious connivance with skepticism.” We are likely to regard, as a consequence, the whole world “as unregenerate,” in which case we will conclude that the whole project of salvation is inner-worldly and up to our own talents and enterprise. But we are redeemed. We do not have to do it all ourselves, even when we do something ourselves.

 

At the end of this essay of McCoy, Orate Fratres added as a kind of filler a brief account from the “Third Rhythm on the Nativity” of Saint Ephrem. It is such a lovely passage at Christmastide.

The Bread that He brake exceeded the world’s needs, for the more it was divided, the more it multiplied exceedingly. With much wine also He filled the waterpots. They drew it out, yet it failed though it was abundant: though of the Cup that He gave the draught was small, very great was its strength, so that there is no stint thereto. A Cup is He that containeth all strong wines, and also a Mystery, in the midst of which is He Himself. The one Bread that He brake hath no bound, and the one Cup that He mingled hath no stint. The Wheat that was sown, on the third day came up and filled the Garner of Life.

That is the Mystery, in the midst of which “is He Himself.”

At Midnight Mass in Saint Peter’s in 1984, John Paul II’s homily was entitled, “Grace Has Appeared!” In this marvelous Homily, the Holy Father, that wonderful and wise man, said to us,

Nearly two thousand years now divide us from “that time”. And behold we still come, we still gather together at midnight. We recall from afar that one unique Night in the history of humanity. We belong to that generation that has openly shifted the emphasis from God to the world, from eternity to temporal things….

Yes, we do belong to this generation of humanity, we often are in “connivance” with skepticism, precisely “religious” connivance. The problems of the world are primarily to be found, I suspect, in the hearts of the believers, of those shepherds, pastors, and flock on whose faith the world depends. When they are not faithful, the world remains “unregenerate” in practice. For they are not there; they have “openly shifted the emphasis from God to the world.” The danger is “more subtle and not uncommon… the danger of a sort of religious connivance with skepticism.”

The Holy Father continued, “Some people think, are we not perhaps already in a post-Christian era? Some people have made atheism the program for human progress.” Yes, we are in a post-Christian era. Atheism is proposed as progress. We who “recall from afar that one unique Night in the history of humanity,” we know that human progress has replaced God as our idol. And yet, the replacement is not working. We have seen the fall of Marxism and yet have learned little. It is a remarkable lesson, our blindness.

The following day, Christmas Day, 1984, in his message Urbi et Orbi, the Holy Father added, “Are there not today, all over the world, many ‘rich people’ who are ‘frighteningly poor’?”

An old letter from a friend of mine I came across of late reminded me of Mother Teresa’s book of Daily Meditations—which in turn reminded me of something she said about the rich who are frighteningly poor. In recent years, I have been rather insistent on the fact that the poor are human beings. They are not simply automata of theories and ideologies. That is, just because people are poor, “frighteningly poor,” does not mean that the whole drama of salvation, of freedom, of human worth and honor, is not still theirs. Neither the rich nor the middle class are closer to God than the poor. And, by the same token, however difficult it is for the rich to gain the Kingdom of God, they can do so. They, too, are more than ideological integers.

“The spiritual poverty of the Western world is much greater than the physical poverty of our people,” Mother Teresa said. “You in the West have millions of people who suffer such terrible loneliness and emptiness. They feel unloved and unwanted.”

In a recent column in the New York Guardian, Christopher Hitchens wrote that this same Mother Teresa is a “dangerous, sinister person… whose ostensible works of charity… actually are an exercise in propaganda.” I would hate to be someone who sees such good as evil. My friend wrote of Mother Teresa:

I was quite struck with Mother Teresa’s diagnosis of loneliness being the worst disease. She is so right. It is the most emaciating disease whose metastasis goes from spirit to will. Actually, I have been reflecting on your delight in, enthusiasm for, her book of meditations. She loves others more than she loves herself. I cannot help but connect these meditations from Mother Teresa with the education of women. I really do believe that a woman’s education is important only if it potentiates her ability to love. A woman’s ability to love others more than she loves herself is the identifying trait that separates women from feminists, mothers from career women, wives from lovers, real sisters from nuns who would be priests. And it is this capacity to love, generating from the very essence of woman, which motivates her to give more than she will ever receive and in so doing receive more than she ever realized possible. Mother Teresa is probably the greatest educator of women in the twentieth century—not because of all she knows but because of all she loves.

If this be the “propaganda” of Mother Teresa, as it is, the world depends on its truth and will not solve its poverty and its loneliness without it.

“Are there not today, all over the world, many ‘rich people’ who are ‘frighteningly poor’?”

“Behold we still come, we still gather together at midnight.”

“A cup is He that containeth all strong wines, and also a Mystery, in the midst of which is He Himself.”

“Grace has appeared!”

“The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us”—this is from the Prologue of Saint John that we read at the Mass during the Day of Christmas. “And we saw His glory, the glory that is His as the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.” Let us still recall “from afar that one unique Night in the history of humanity,” that Night of Christ’s Birth among us who remain within the history of humanity, still approaching the Third Millennium, as the Holy Father constantly reminds us.

James V. Schall

By

James Vincent Schall, S.J. is an American Jesuit Roman Catholic priest, teacher, writer, and philosopher. He was, most recently, Professor of Political Philosophy in the Department of Government at Georgetown University.

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