Pope Benedict recently gave his yearly Christmas address (h/t whispers) to the officials of the Curia, who run the various offices in the Vatican. It is often a speech in which he touches on the events in his schedule for the past year. What struck me most this year was right at the end, when the Pope reflected on his trip to the Czech Republic, and floated some ideas for extending the Church’s ministry in a new way to agnostics and atheists. Could people who do not feel part of Christianity, yet seek beauty and truth, have some real place in the Church?
The Pope said:
Finally, I would like once again to express my joy and gratitude for my Visit to the Czech Republic. Prior to this Journey I had always been told that it was a country with a majority of agnostics and atheists, in which Christians are now only a minority. All the more joyful was my surprise at seeing myself surrounded everywhere by great cordiality and friendliness, that the important liturgies were celebrated in a joyful atmosphere of faith; that in the setting of the University and the world of culture my words were attentively listened to; and that the state authorities treated me with great courtesy and did their utmost to contribute to the success of the visit. I could now be tempted to say something about the beauty of the country and the magnificent testimonies of Christian culture which only make this beauty perfect. But I consider most important the fact that we, as believers, must have at heart even those people who consider themselves agnostics or atheists.
The Pope was clearly impressed by the usual events of his visits: masses, lectures, conferences, the warm reception. Yet what struck his heart was that he knew many of those who were receiving him warmly do not find God and Christ to be a presence in their lives, and some explicitly deny the existence of God. What can the church do for these people? Explicit evangelization can be counter-productive:
When we speak of a new evangelization these people are perhaps taken aback. They do not want to see themselves as an object of mission or to give up their freedom of thought and will. Yet the question of God remains present even for them, even if they cannot believe in the concrete nature of his concern for us.
One of the things the Pope points to is that often evangelization starts too far down the road – by preaching Christ, or taking for granted God’s care. He points the Church’s outreach to a deeper place, which he calls “the question of God,” and elsewhere, “the quest for God.”
In Paris, I spoke of the quest for God as the fundamental reason why Western monasticism, and with it, Western culture, came into being. As the first step of evangelization we must seek to keep this quest alive; we must be concerned that human beings do not set aside the question of God, but rather see it as an essential question for their lives. We must make sure that they are open to this question and to the yearning concealed within it.
“The first step of evangelization” – this is crucial. I do not think that people move from agnosticism to belief in some sort of regimented pattern, but I do think that many who might have been attracted to faith are pushed away by the sense that Christians themselves have forgotten the quest for God. Jesus is the answer, yes – but have we forgotten the question?
The Pope continues:
Here I think naturally of the words which Jesus quoted from the Prophet Isaiah, namely that the Temple must be a house of prayer for all the nations (cf. Is 56: 7; Mk 11: 17). Jesus was thinking of the so-called “Court of the Gentiles” which he cleared of extraneous affairs so that it could be a free space for the Gentiles who wished to pray there to the one God, even if they could not take part in the mystery for whose service the inner part of the Temple was reserved. A place of prayer for all the peoples: by this he was thinking of people who know God, so to speak, only from afar; who are dissatisfied with their own gods, rites and myths; who desire the Pure and the Great, even if God remains for them the “unknown God” (cf. Acts 17: 23). They had to pray to the unknown God, yet in this way they were somehow in touch with the true God, albeit amid all kinds of obscurity.
What a powerful analogy to our time! In a world in which consumption is all around (the moneychangers in the Temple), it is hard not to think that the witness of consumer Christians (myself first among them) is a basic distraction from the question – the question that pulls at our hearts.
I think that today too the Church should open a sort of “Court of the Gentiles” in which people might in some way latch on to God, without knowing him and before gaining access to his mystery, at whose service the inner life of the Church stands. Today, in addition to interreligious dialogue, there should be a dialogue with those to whom religion is something foreign, to whom God is unknown and who nevertheless do not want to be left merely Godless, but rather to draw near to him, albeit as the Unknown.
This is the most challenging proposal of all. What does this “Court of the Gentiles” look like? It seems as if the Pope is calling for some creative thinking in our parishes and our ministries that reaches out directly to those who are seeking, in the most raw and basic sense. My mind is spinning with possibilities, especially as I think about many of our Jesuit parishes located in newly gentrified neighborhoods filled with gleaming towers of 30-something professionals who have no use for “religion” but are all about the “spiritual.” What are we doing there?
Of course, some days more than others, I think that what we are doing here at WD is attempting to reach out into the world of people who are seeking in this way. I think too that a huge part of my work as a high school religion teacher is to spark my students not only to a relationship with Christ and his Church, but also to keep pushing them toward those questions of the human heart that are only answered in God.
What ideas do you have, dear WD readers? What is the Pope pushing us toward? What is the modern “Court of the Gentiles”?