Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Christ's Primacy Accentuated for the Sake of the Life of the World

Respect for Legitimate Differences: The Catholic Agenda

UCU – Ecumenical Social Week – Lviv, Ukraine

     Opening Ceremony –

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

          One of the truly positive characteristics of UCU and its family, including the Institute of Ecumenical Studies, is their ability to make work seem enjoyable. I am sure old Aesop has a fable to illustrate this skill, but given my own background, what comes to mind is Mark Twain’s account in his classic novel of Tom Sawyer tricking the boys of a Saturday morning into whitewashing the fence in his place.
My special greetings to those who have succumbed to the invitation of the Institute of Ecumenical Studies to come and work this week and my best wishes to all for a fruitful sixth edition of the Ecumenical Social Week here in Lviv!
          This Opening ceremony bears the title: Otherness as a Gift: Challenges of Modernity in Europe and Ukraine. Truth to be told, I find this title questionable, as it reminds me of my years in Berlin at the beginning of this 21st century and the application of the expression “multikulti” (multicultural) to almost everything from pickup football games in the park of a Sunday, to block parties with potluck supper, to summer street carnivals. Reveling in differences in and of themselves hardly seems to be of value: once you have discovered that no two snowflakes are alike, it is pretty well safe to get on with life. With people, the simple fact of being different, tall/short, fat/skinny, smart/not so smart, hardly seems important; being different is a given, the gift of which must perforce lie elsewhere.
          In point of fact, and rightly so I believe, basic Catholic teaching accents what by God’s Will from all eternity we share in common. The Church teaches as fundamental the truth that I share a God-given dignity, equality, with the other, which draws us together in a human project which is not transitory but ordered on eternity. Basic catechism motivates my option or obligation to see the other as gift not on the basis of our “otherness”, but because we are more the same than we are different. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states it in summary fashion as follows:
1934 Created in the image of the one God and equally endowed with rational souls, all men have the same nature and the same origin. Redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ, all are called to participate in the same divine beatitude: all therefore enjoy an equal dignity.
1944 Respect for the human person considers the other “another self.” It presupposes respect for the fundamental rights that flow from the dignity intrinsic of the person.
1945 The equality of men concerns their dignity as persons and the rights that flow from it.
1946 The differences among persons belong to God’s plan, who wills that we should need one another. These differences should encourage charity.[1]

Concerning our theme, then, it is no small question for me as to whether or not the accent has been misplaced. How is it that “otherness” can be shared and appreciated in interpersonal and social relationships? How do I or can I come to respect the diversity of persons if not through sacrifice, motivated and justified rather by what we have in common? It seems wrong-headed to say that the diversity from me or among us as persons, communities, societies or cultural traditions is to be seen as a package come in the mail unexpectedly to be simply opened and enjoyed. With that said, I wish to get back to our theme which deserves ample and straightforward treatment.
Let it be said that I find the English translation of the title for today’s proceedings, Otherness as a Gift: Challenges of Modernity in Europe and Ukraine, to be perhaps simply somewhat of an understatement. The problem is that word “challenges” in the plural; the “gift” of otherness is not just another challenge, as if it were no more than keeping your salad dressing mixed by stirring or shaking a bit. Too often if not just about always, differences among us must be laid at the door of our first parents and their fall from grace through disobedience to God’s Will.  To my way of thinking, we could better entitle today’s encounter: Otherness as a Gift: Perhaps the Challenge in Europe and Ukraine Today.
Most places in Europe, future spouses choose their husband or wife on the basis of their commonality and/or attraction to each other (this in part at least, though not solely, was also the case in olden days with arranged marriages). Having common ground and sympathies doesn’t make the lives of a couple together later in marriage all that much easier; ongoing effort to keep their marriage bond going and growing is required. Analogously, projects like Europe or Ukraine would be tough enough if all participants in the adventure had chosen one another. That is not the case. From a Christian perspective, the gift lies in the sacrifice, the heroic sacrifice which renders the adventure life-giving and bent on eternity, in communion with our Creator, Redeemer and Friend/Bridegroom, Jesus Christ.
          Too often we neglect to take our brokenness into sufficient consideration. We may even deny the extent to which accidental differences become the pretext for painful divisions or “irreconcilable differences”, as the divorce decree sometimes reads. As a young man in Vienna in the late 1980’s, being a monsignor already, on a couple occasions I was admitted to the salon of some of the old Habsburger hangers-on, not immediate family but rather people very different from Otto von Habsburg, nice people who would have had you believe that World War I and what followed had changed little of their societal environment and that they had grown up at court like their parents or grandparents, having lived in all the capitals and speaking all the languages of the Empire. On one occasion as I listened to them bounce back and forth in clever repartee from German, to Hungarian, to Czech, to Italian, I got the impression that they actually were fluent in all those languages and more, and undoubtedly felt at home most any place in Central or Eastern Europe. For all the good intended or pretended, I still couldn’t bring myself to believe that paradise was lost with the breakup of that empire.
I have been told that St. Stephen of Hungary long ago touted the overriding value of kingdoms/empires made up of various peoples, languages and customs. True or false? And why? Granted, such a mix did gift peoples with a lot of common words for everyday things, Riebieseln, Kukurutz… but was “otherness” really a gift in and for the empire? Was this type of familiarity the real equivalent of knowing and esteeming the other? How did otherness play out to the advantage of the once great kingdoms and empires spanning Europe from east to west, from north to south? How does otherness work today in Switzerland, in Italy, in France or Spain or Belgium? Have you ever tried in Louvain to ask in French for street directions? 
           “Diversity and Respect: the European Challenge today”? or “Ukraine, quo vadis”? I honestly fear that much militates against, yes, even yet today in our enlightened world, I fear that much militates against real and adequate respect for diversity. You just can’t call otherness a gift and proceed from there. Permit me to qualify that word “diversity” and namely as not just any difference or distinction but rather as “legitimate differences”. A reasonable social project demands on all sides a willingness to seek out the other, draw near to the other and establish something in common with the other.
          I can remember getting to know a fine, old Belgian Salesian Father in Rwanda, who explained the origins of his habit of asking his salary from the Nunciature in small bills such that he could easily distribute the money to the poor waiting outside the gate on payday. He said he lived from his mother’s example, who, before his father had returned from the front at the end of World War II, she alone with a raft of small children would simply place on the bench at the kitchen table with her children any man who wandered in at mealtime in days when so many men (former soldiers, slave laborers and other victims of war) were displaced and struggling to find their way home. Otherness was not the accent but rather commonality. The priest’s mother could have been thinking that perhaps her husband, the children’s father, found himself somewhere on the road in similar straights, perhaps a neighbor’s son or a brother somewhere half across Europe, alone, exhausted, hungry and maybe confused or fearful. The gift seems to reside in being able to overcome or bridge legitimate differences and fears of the unknown for the sake of mutual understanding and esteem.
          Any kind of dealings, in the best sense of that term, dealings with the other, demand proximity. Either we seek each other out mutually and establish common ground or I reach out to you in some way, unconditionally, heroically really, to reduce the distance between us, to eliminate, if possible, the barriers between us. Otherness is more likely a barrier than it is a gift; it must be overcome, in the sense that bridges must be built between us. I must learn another language; I must come to appreciate someone else’s customs and culture. Hurdles have to be cleared; there has to be an exchange between us. I may be different but I cannot insist on playing strange; I must find a place to stand together with the other. Otherness’ gift seems to come in meeting the challenge of overcoming it and establishing common ground.
          The rest of the title of my words today refers to the “Catholic Agenda”, well, presumably for gaining respect for legitimate differences. Not long ago, I was asked in an interview how a change of popes changes Church policy. And I responded that to my way of thinking popes do not make the difference in basic Church policy; we as Church seek to proclaim the Gospel; that is our policy. All else is basically a matter of emphasis or accent.
          Many of us have pictures in our mind of Pope John Paul II during the Holy Year 2000, very much crippled though still walking, confessing faults and asking forgiveness in an effort to overcome barriers. What he sought to teach by word and example, Pope Benedict XVI further elaborated in his magisterium and Pope Francis seeks to attain through availability and proximity to ordinary folk. It’s like the Christmas slogan, “the gift is in the giving”. Otherness, even legitimate differences deserve our respect, but they become gift to the extent we can overcome them.
          That said: it would be ingenuous of me to claim that our Catholic Agenda is self-evident. I cannot but think of Blessed Pope John Paul II and the amount of effort he expended in trying to teach people, especially in a Europe divided, the path to reconciliation through what he called “the healing of memories”, that is, memories treated as divisive burdens still conserved and still carried from the past. Many of us can remember not understanding what he was trying to accomplish; otherness induced by bad memories is not an easy concept to grasp once you get past yesterday or last year. Collective memory of the distant past is totally beyond a boy like me who grew up on the slogan “Go west, young man!” In today’s genealogy craze, it doesn’t even seem to trouble people much to discover that their grandfather left behind, in Ireland or even elsewhere in the United States, a wife and children, lying to their grandmother about practically everything in his past, when he proposed marriage to her. I know people like that and I know people who discover that their antecedents were brothers who hated each other so much that the younger brother changed the spelling of his family name to increase difference or distance: my friends could only shake their heads and smile at a discovery which had no memory to be healed for them. Healing memories is not about the past or about our DNA; healing memories is a polite way of challenging people to let go of their, perhaps, one-sided recollection of the past, used solely as a pretext for being “other” and in a hostile way. While not disclaiming the past, I refuse to let it hold me hostage; I let go, with “sacrifice” and confessing my own fault, if needs be, for the sake of common cause as our overarching strategy to move ahead, freed from shackles and chains so as to choose the other and allow myself to be chosen, for the sake of a common agenda. Call it Europe or call it Ukraine; I have the luxury to call it Catholic/universal and allow my stance, my choice, yes, my sacrifice to inform my social or interpersonal project.
In seeking reconciliation (where present offence exists), in seeking to bridge the gap of historical or cultural differences (whether or not they have been aggravated through some offense), it is not pronouncing judgment, in the here and now in the name of truth or integrity concerning the objective and personal culpability from the past which is at stake, but rather it is and must be the clearing of present barriers of hurt, indifference, ignorance, wrong… It must be the overcoming of otherness in the present moment which is the key, regardless of whether the pretext for that alienation is historical or actual. I really don’t think the Pope’s thoughts about healing memories were all that esoteric, but in choosing a neutral expression like healing memories he was reaching out and fighting against a mountain of resistance mostly sinful, characterized by animosity toward the other. “Otherness”, defined as a certain propensity on the part of people to make strange, to distrust, as protagonism over and against the other, is not a value. The gift part comes in surmounting difference as obstacle and most likely doing so through great, yes, great personal sacrifice.
          “Respect for Legitimate Differences: The Catholic Agenda”: as tempted as I am to limit appropriate quotes to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, I wish to make my point and close, referring you to an ecumenical document, on Christian witness in a multi-religious world. It is a very short document (just a seven page paper from 2011), stemming from a shared awareness of the tensions between people and communities of different religious convictions and the varied interpretations of Christian witness. The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID), the World Council of Churches (WCC) and, at the invitation of the WCC, the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), met during a period of 5 years to reflect and produce this document to serve as a set of recommendations for conduct on Christian witness around the world.[2]
I do not find it a document of compromise, watering down in any way the Catholic position, but rather a consensus document which is firm on Christian identity vis-à-vis others with whom we live and work and to whom we wish to witness, to whom we are bound to witness about the truth, about Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, the Savior of the world. The paper concludes with six recommendations to Christians as to how they should proceed in giving witness to the Gospel in a multi-religious world. Three of these stand out as particularly important:  
        “2. build relationships of respect and trust with people of all religions
3. encourage Christians to strengthen their own religious identity and faith while deepening their knowledge and understanding of different religions
4. cooperate with other religious communities engaging in interreligious advocacy towards justice and the common good…
As a Catholic, an ineluctable part of my raison d’être has to be proclaiming the truth about Jesus Christ and His Church. In our world, that may make me different (Oh, how pertinent the insight of Benedict XVI concerning the tyranny/dictatorship of relativism!), but I am and must be different, and legitimately so; my “otherness” is not assumed or overlaid, but it is a part of me, if you will.
Others more expert than me need to lay out their thoughts on Union-building: read “Europe” and on Nation-building: read “Ukraine”. My plea would be that you do so with an eye to the truth which comes to us from God. Neither agnosticism nor relativism is worthy of the human project. Personally, I am in favor of approaching the challenge from a Catholic perspective and with a Catholic agenda, one which seems to enjoy a certain ecumenical consensus.
From my difference, I reach out to others in boundless joy, knowing that I possess the “pearl above price”, which out of sheer respect for others, who do not share this gift in common with me, I wish to share with them. Their “otherness” is a gift and a challenge to me to the extent that I engage them, respecting them most assuredly, but engage them nonetheless and “for the sake of the Name which is above every other Name”.
Thank you for your attention!

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church: Second Edition (pp. 522;525). U.S. Catholic Church (2012-11-28). The Doubleday Religious Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2]www.vatican.va_roman_curia_pontifical_councils_interelg_documents_christian_witness_in_multi- religious_world_english

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