CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 21 July 2018

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Asian Christians can save Christianity from Christendom

Father William Grimm MM
 
I was 16 years old when a teacher had the class read works that were not in the high school curriculum. Among them were St. Augustine’s Confessions and The Song of Roland, an anonymous French epic that dates from the 11th century, or even earlier.
 
St. Augustine’s famous line, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you,” stood out on the page. I didn’t know it was famous, I just knew I liked it. After all, restless heart could be a definition of adolescence and that line helped set a hopeful direction for my life.
 
The Song of Roland tells of Christians in the time of Charlemagne (742 to 814 AD) at war with Muslims in Spain (called in the translation I read, paynims, an archaic word for pagans and Muslims). Charlemagne’s knights utterly defeat their enemies, take their city, and “then to the font the paynim folk they drove” (after more than half a century, I still remember that line). Any who refused to be baptised were killed with sword or fire.
 
Our teacher did not juxtapose St. Augustine with Roland, but as the only Christian in the class, I was drawn to both as they somehow related to me. When I looked at them together, I realised that something wrong, very wrong, had happened between the fourth century and the Middle Ages. Christianity had morphed into Christendom.   
 
Instead of being a path to heart’s rest in God, the Church had become institutionalised power, oppression, fear and privilege, requiring submission rather than faith.
 
In another kid, perhaps, that realisation might have been enough to start one on a path out of the Church. But I had St. Augustine’s word for it that there was something more and greater to faith. There was heart’s rest.
 
However, I could not write off the message of the Song of Roland as something to ignore. After all, the attitude and practice it lauded were real. 
 
In fact, though the poem is fiction with only a few touch points in fact, Charlemagne’s efforts to conquer North-Central Europe involved offering the Saxon people, for example, the choice the poem presents: baptism or death.
 
Ironically, in later years as I studied Church history, I learned that St. Augustine himself was one of the fathers of Christendom. In his disputes over heresy in North Africa, he eventually turned to the power of the Roman Empire to coerce his opponents into resuming communion with the Catholic Church. 
 
Fortunately, by the time I learned that, I knew enough about hypocrisy in all of us, including myself, that it did not override St. Augustine’s wisdom, as it probably would have when I was an idealistically intolerant teenager.
 
Ever since I became aware of the shift to Christendom, I have been hypersensitive to its manifestations in the life of the Christian community that continue to this day. There is no escaping it. 
 
Making the Church more important than Christ and his word, the obsession with power over individuals and communities, the trampling of human rights, the willingness to sacrifice people for the good of the organisation or to abstract ideas or rules, a caste system that makes distinctions among the children of God based upon their role in the Church—these are the hallmarks of Christendom.
 
It takes vigilance to see where the tendrils of Christendom threaten even my own faith and it requires an ongoing battle to not give in or be taken in.
 
Granted, even when the power of Christendom was at its height, the People of God produced great saints and profound prayers and thoughts. Often though, those saints were men and women who confronted Christendom for the sake of the gospel. And in spite of itself, Christendom has been an instrument for passing on the gospel not only in Europe but throughout the world.
 
However, that does not, cannot, hide its abject failure.
 
The clericalism that infects the Church is a fruit of Christendom. Once when I was at a Vatican conference, I was surprised, amused and finally disgusted when I passed a Swiss Guard who snapped to attention to salute me because clergy are considered officers in the army of Christendom. Clerical culturists are those clergy and laity who believe that and act accordingly.
 
The crisis over bishops who ignored or covered up the abuse of children by sick priests for the sake of protecting the institution’s power, finances and image is not the worst of Christendom’s failures.
 
That is most certainly the Holocaust. More than a millennium of Christendom in Europe did not make such a horror impossible. In fact, Nazism grew out of the soil of Christendom’s too-frequent acquiescence in and even support of anti-Semitism. And, ironically, it grew in an area in part Christendom-ised by Charlemagne.
 
In 1943, the bishop of Berlin approached the Vatican’s nuncio in Germany to beg for help in opposing the Nazi extermination programme. The nuncio’s answer was, “It is all well and good to love thy neighbour, but the greatest neighbourly love consists in avoiding making any difficulties for the Church.”
 
The time is long overdue for the Church to cut out that cancerous growth that interferes with the Gospel’s being heart’s rest for the world. 
 
The Church is supposed to be about God, not about itself.
 
 
(To be continued...)
 
 
 
Maryknoll Father William Grimm is the publisher of UCAN and is based in Tokyo.