For those who have not yet seen it, here is the translation from Sandro Magister’s website of the Holy Father’s extemporare remarks at the opening of the Synodus Episcoporum. It is a far superior translation to that offered by the Vatican itself, an example of which makes the title of this post.
Dear brothers and sisters, on October 11, 1962, forty-eight years ago, Pope John XXIII inaugurated Vatican Council II. Back then, October 11 was the feast of the Divine Maternity of Mary, [I enjoy the way the Holy Father so often refers to the older calendar, in an entirely natural way] and by this action, on this date, Pope John wanted to entrust the entire council to the motherly hands, to the motherly heart of the Virgin Mary. We are also beginning on October 11, and we also want to entrust this synod, with all its problems, with all its challenges, with all its hopes, to the maternal heart of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. [The feast still has relevance, and Mary’s maternity in a special way makes the date an appropriate one.]
Pius XI had introduced this feast in 1930, sixteen hundred years after the Council of Ephesus, [431, which condemned Nestorius and declared the Virgin Mary Theotokos] which had legitimated Mary’s title of “Theotókos,” “Dei Genitrix”. In this great expression “Dei Genitrix,” “Theotókos,” the Council of Ephesus had summarized the entire doctrine on Christ, on Mary, the entire doctrine of the redemption [An amazing summary of the work of the Council, which locates the Virgin Mary’s divine maternity in the context of Christ, of the Church and so as a soteriological mystery. This was what was essential for the Fathers in the quest to safeguard Orthodoxy: that to stray away from the truth about Christ was to risk Man’s salvation]. And so it is worth it to reflect a little, for a moment, on the message of the Council of Ephesus, the message of this day.
In reality, “Theotókos” is an audacious title [the atheistic philosopher Bertrand Russell was fond of pointing out that Ephesus was most famously a city devoted to the Goddess Diana (Artemis)]. A woman is Mother of God. One might say: how is this possible? God is eternal, he is the Creator. We are creatures, we are in time: how could a human person be Mother of God, of the Eternal, given that we are all in time, we are all creatures? So one realizes that there was strong opposition, in part, against this expression. The Nestorians said: one may speak of “Christotókos,” [some modern Protestants, in particular Evangelicals, take this position today] yes, but of “Theotókos,” no: “Theós,” God, is beyond, above the events of history. But the Council decided this, and precisely in this way brought to light the adventure of God, the greatness of what he has done for us. God did not remain within himself: he came out from himself, he united himself so much, so radically with this man, Jesus, that this man Jesus is God, and what we say about him we can always say about God as well. He was not born only as a man who had something to do with God, but in him God was born on earth. God came out from himself. But we can also say the opposite: God has drawn us into himself, so that we are no longer outside of God, but we are inside, inside God himself. [The Holy Father points here also to the mystery of the Ascension, which is now a somewhat underdeveloped aspect of the Incarnation. To say we are “inside God” must mean that, together with Christ, in his Body, the Church, we have really been “taken up” into the Godhead so that humanity is now also part of the nature of his being God, and in consequence our ability to be truly human is consequent on, tied up with, the complete mystery of the Incarnation, birth, death, Resurrection, ascension, Parousia.]
As we know well, Aristotelian philosophy tells us that between God and man there exists only a non-reciprocal relationship. Man exists in reference to God, but God, the Eternal, is in himself, he does not change: he cannot have this kind of relationship today and another kind tomorrow. He remains in himself, he does not have a relationship “ad extra,” he does not have a relationship with me. It is a very logical reflection, but it is a reflection that makes us despair. With the incarnation, with the coming of the “Theotókos,” this has changed radically, because God has drawn us into himself, and God in himself is relationship and makes us participate in his interior relationship. So we are in his being Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are inside his being in relationship, we are in relationship with him, and he has really created a relationship with us. In that moment, God wanted to be born of a woman while still remaining himself: this is the great event. And so we can understand the profundity of Pope John’s action when he entrusted the conciliar, synodal assembly to the central mystery, to the Mother of God who is drawn by the Lord into himself, and so all of us with her.
The council began with the icon of the “Theotókos.” At the end, Pope Paul VI acknowledged the Virgin Mary with the title “Mater Ecclesiae.” And these two icons, which begin and conclude the council, are intrinsically connected, they are, in the end, a single icon. Because Christ was not born as an individual among others. He was born to create a body for himself: he was born – as John says in chapter 12 of his Gospel – to draw all things to him and in him. He was born – as the letters to the Colossians and to the Ephesians say – to recapitulate all the world, he was born as the first-born of many brothers, he was born to reunite the cosmos in himself, such that he is the head of a great body. [The Church is a cosmic mystery, and the destiny of creation itself is bound-up with the fate and salvation of Man and the Church. “Worlds are not made to last forever” wrote CS Lewis; they have their time and there are times before and after a world – even this world – exists. But, the Incarnation has altered what will come after this, after Man; everything has turned a corner because Christ became Man, because in him everything is on the way to unity.] Where Christ is born, there begins the movement of recapitulation, the moment of the calling, of the construction of his body, of the holy Church. The Mother of “Theós,” the Mother of God, is Mother of the Church, because she is Mother of the one who came to reunite all in his risen body.
Saint Luke helps us to understand this in the parallelism between the first chapter of his Gospel and the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, which repeat the same mystery on two levels. In the first chapter of the Gospel, the Holy Spirit overshadows Mary, and so she gives birth and gives us the Son of God. In the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, Mary is at the center of the disciples of Jesus who are all praying together, imploring the cloud of the Holy Spirit. And so from the believing Church, with Mary at the center, is born the Church, the body of Christ. This twofold birth is the one birth of the Christus totus, of the Christ who embraces the world and us all.
Birth in Bethlehem, birth in the cenacle. [Vatican translation: Last Supper. But this cannot be right, for here the Holy Father is talking about the Upper Room at Pentecost where the Church is made “dazzlingly manifest” (Leo XIII Divinum Illud 5); indeed this would seem to fit better with the context. “Birth” here as used by the Holy Father easily may mean “manifest” for just as Christ was God all the time secretly in the womb of Mary and not “uncovered” until his birth in Bethlehem, so too the Church existed in pectore until the fire of Pentecost.] Birth of the Child Jesus, birth of the body of Christ, of the Church. They are two events, or one single event. But between the two really stand the cross and the resurrection. And only through the cross does the journey toward the totality of Christ take place, toward his risen body, toward the universalization of his being in the unity of the Church. And so, keeping in mind that it is only from the grain that falls to the ground that the great harvest comes, from the Lord pierced on the cross [many of the Fathers explain the Church “begins in the wounded side of Christ” (de Lubac, Splendour of the Church, p. 54)] comes the universality of his disciples gathered into his body, put to death and risen.
Keeping in mind this connection between “Theotókos” and “Mater Ecclesiae,” our attention shifts to the last book of Sacred Scripture, Revelation, where, in chapter 12, this very same synthesis appears. The woman clothed with the sun, [in God and the World Ratzinger interpreted “clothed with the sun” as clothed with the light of Christ] with twelve stars on her head and the moon [in the same book he interprets the moon as the transient, passing away things of the world] under her feet, gives birth. And she gives birth with a cry of pain, she gives birth with great suffering. Here the Marian mystery is the mystery of Bethlehem extended to the cosmic mystery. Christ is always being born again through all the generations, and so he takes up, he gathers humanity into himself. And this cosmic birth is realized in the cry of the cross, in the suffering of the passion. And the blood of the martyrs belongs to this cry.
So, at this moment, we can take a look at the second psalm of this midday hour, Psalm 81, where a part of this process can be seen. God stands among the gods, still considered as gods in Israel. In this psalm, in a great act of concentration, in a prophetic vision, the gods are seen to be stripped of their power. What appeared to be gods are not gods, and they lose the divine character, they fall to the ground. “Dii estis et moriemini sicut nomine” (cf. Psalm 82 :6-7): the weakening, the downfall of the divinities.
This process, which took place over Israel’s long journey of faith, and is summed up here in a remarkable vision, is a true process of the history of religion [in which true philosophy has played its part!]: the downfall of the gods. And so the transformation of the world, the knowledge of the true God, the weakening of the forces that dominate the earth, is a process of suffering. In the history of Israel, we see how this liberation from polytheism, this recognition – “only he is God” – takes place amid much suffering, beginning with the journey of Abraham, the exile, the Maccabees, up until Christ. And it continues in history, this process of weakening spoken of in chapter 12 of Revelation; this speaks of the fall of the angels that are not angels, are not divinities on the earth. And it is truly realized precisely in the time of the emerging Church, where we see how with the blood of the martyrs there is a weakening of the divinities, all these divinities, beginning with the divine emperor [the Holy Father begins to link false worship, with the world of politics; for always in late societies it seems that a particular political theory (be it Emperors or “democracy”) take on divine qualities which insist on being idolised as if they offered the solution to all human questions]. It is the blood of the martyrs, the suffering, the cry of the Mother Church that knocks them down and so transforms the world.
This downfall is not only the knowledge that these are not God. It is the process of the transformation of the world, which costs blood, costs the suffering of the witnesses to Christ. And, if we look closely, we see that this process is never finished. Even today, in this moment, in which Christ, the only Son of God, must be born for the world with the downfall of the gods, with suffering, the martyrdom of the witnesses.
We think of the great powers of today’s history, we think of the anonymous capitals that enslave man, that are no longer something belonging to man, but are an anonymous power that men serve, and by which men are tormented and even slaughtered. They are a destructive power that threatens the world. [These words should shake up some of those Neo-cons who believe that laissez-faire style capitalism is any more compatible with Catholic teaching than Obamacare!] And then the power of the terrorist ideologies. Violence is done apparently in the name of God, but this is not God: these are false divinities that must be unmasked, that are not God. And then drugs, this power that, like a ravenous beast, stretches its hands over all parts of the earth and destroys: it is a divinity, but a false divinity, which must fall. Or even the way of life promoted by public opinion: today it’s done this way, marriage doesn’t matter anymore, chastity is no longer a virtue, and so on. [A comprehensive list, on which I think most Catholics could surely agree – these are the false gods we are fighting today.]
These ideologies that are so dominant that they impose themselves by force are divinities. And in the suffering of the saints, in the suffering of believers, of the Mother Church of which we are part, these divinities must fall, what is written in the letters to the Colossians and Ephesians must come true: the dominations and powers fall and become subjects of the one Lord Jesus Christ. [Christus vincit, regnat, imperat… of the Holy Church the perpetual saviour!]
This fight in which we find ourselves, this weakening of the gods, this fall of the false gods, who fall because they are not divinities but are powers that destroy the world, are spoken of in chapter 12 of Revelation, and with a mysterious image for which, it seems to me, there are nonetheless different fine interpretations. It is said that the dragon directs a great stream of water against the fleeing woman, to sweep her away. And it seems inevitable that the woman will drown in this river. But the good earth absorbs this river, and it can do no harm. I think that it is easy to interpret what the river stands for: it is these currents that dominate everyone, and want to eliminate the faith of the Church, which seems to have nowhere to stand before the power of these currents that impose themselves as the only way of thinking, the only way of life. And the earth that absorbs these currents is the faith of the simple, which does not allow itself to be swept away by these rivers and saves the mother and saves the son. This is why the psalm says, the first psalm of the midday hour: “The faith of the simple is true wisdom” (cf. Psalm 118:130). This true wisdom of simple faith, which does not let itself be devoured by the waters, is the power of the Church. [When he was Prefect of the CDF, Cardinal Ratzinger often said he saw his vocation as protecting the faith of the simple, something he regarded as a great treasure and almost a latent power in the Church; here we see why he considered it so important: to see the Kingdom of Heaven we must approach faith in Christ with the spirit of simple, humble openness] And we have come back to the Marian mystery.
And there is also a final expression in Psalm 81, “Movebuntur omnia fundamenta terrae” (Psalm 82 :5), the foundations of the earth are shaken. We see this today, with the climatic problems, how the foundations of the earth are threatened, but they are threatened by our behavior. [Coming back to the “human ecology” he has spoken of before, the Pope challenges people to seek a “wholistic” solution, rather than taking issues such as the environment in isolation.] The outer foundations are shaken because the inner foundations are shaken, the moral and religious foundations, the faith that leads to the right way of life. And we know that the faith is the foundation, and, without a doubt, the foundations of the earth cannot be shaken if the faith, the true wisdom, stands firm.
And then the psalm says: “Rise up, Lord, and judge the earth” (Psalm 82 :8). So let us also say to the Lord: “Rise up in this moment, take the earth in your hands, protect your Church, protect humanity, protect the earth.” And let us entrust ourselves again to the Mother of God, to Mary, and pray: “You, the great believer, you who have opened earth to heaven, help us, open the doors today as well, so that the truth may be triumphant, the will of God, which is the true good, the true salvation of the world.” Amen. [Amen!]