One of the things I have noted about Pope Francis from the beginning is what I might call the presentism of his remarks and, I’ll extrapolate from that, viewpoint. His homilies and addresses tend to follow a pattern: there’s a Scripture or theme of the day, and then the Pope tells us what he thinks about it all, and his thoughts tend to center on a few dependable themes: his definition of mercy; his understanding of “the peripheries,” what he calls “legalism”, walls, and the characteristics of a good Christian. He tends to pick out a quality highlighted in the Scripture of the day, talk about it for a bit, and then conclude that “if you do X you are a good Christian” or “if you don’t do X you can’t call yourself a Christian.”
There’s not a lot of attention paid to the depth and breadth of Catholic experience, past and present. It seems to be at best, irrelevant to the present moment or at worst, an obstacle to authentic faith in the present moment.
It’s an interesting method, since most people involved in teaching Catholic Stuff take a slightly different approach: Beginning with a teaching, doctrine or practice and explaining how this truth expresses the Real, whether we see it clearly in this present moment or not. Freedom = realizing who I am in this Big Picture, that this is Real Life, not the burdens that my own sin and and a sinful, limiting, narrow world lay on me.
Bottom line: Is this deep, wide, broad, rich, complex Catholic Thing the doorway to meet Jesus, or is it an unnecessary obstacle to encountering him?
It’s an important question. Asked, of course, frequently in the past, and answered with reform within the Church when deemed necessary as well as tragic and unnecessary Reformations spinning into division and schism at other times. But even with the understanding of the necessity of reform and moments of clarification within the Church, what remains consistent is a fundamental stance that Me (or the Pope or bishop or anyone) and Scripture and what I Guess I’ll Define as the Holy Spirit Right Now is not sufficient for doing the Catholic Thing.
Which, of course, is the fundamental issue underlying the disputes over Amoris Laeticia, very well laid out by Carl Olson here. The now-famous dubia presented by the Four Cardinals address specific questions, but more importantly request clarification on the continuity of what is being presented in the present moment with what has been taught as true in the past.
Not unreasonable, in a Catholic context.
So back to Ambrose.
We have just finished the Year of Mercy, and so sin and repentance and reconciliation have been in the air. These issues are also at the forefront of these AL questions. So as I explored some corners of St. Ambrose’s work last night, I settled on a treatise that seemed appropriate: On Repentance.
As is the case with most theological writings of the Patristic era, On Repentance was prompted by a problem and a challenge. Specifically, here, it was against the Novations, who were a very interesting heresy/sect, which you can read about here.
(Short version: Novatian was a 3rd century theologian and anti-Pope who believed that those who had apostasized could not be reconciled by ordinary means and must be rebaptized. His followers were widespread, sometimes co-existed, even peacefully with orthodox Catholics – one of their bishops attended the Council of Nicaea – but they preached an increasingly strict line on reconciliation, grew further and further apart and eventually died out in the early 7th century, it seems.)
So the reason you might want to look at what Ambrose has to say to the Novations is that he is writing against rigorism and in favor of the full embrace of the sinner in God’s mercy – he emphasized the “gentleness” with which the sinner should be treated – but at the same time, expresses what repentance means. There is no sense of halfway measures. Jesus invites, “Come follow me.” And the repentant sinner does so, like the apostles leaving everything behind – at once.
So, the point being: these are not new issues. The particulars of reconciliation have changed from Ambrose’s time, but not the general framework, and certainly not the understanding that we are doing is bringing Jesus’ work of reconciliation into the lives of people now.
Some passages I’m highlighting, some because they bring out these theme, and others because they are moving and lovely:
(Formatting – I don’t have time to fix it. The hyperlinks are all in the New Advent page.)
37. We see how to repent, with what words and with what acts, that the days of sin are calleddays of confusion;for there is confusion when Christ is denied.
38. Let us, then, submit ourselves to God, and not be subject to sin, and when we ponder the remembrance of our offenses, let us blush as though at some disgrace, and not speak of them as a glory to us, as some boast of overcoming modesty, or putting down the feeling of justice. Let our conversion be such, that we who did not know God may now ourselves declare Him to others, that the Lord, moved by such a conversion on our part, may answer to us:Ephraim is from youth a dear son, a pleasant child, for since My words are concerning him, I will verily remember him, therefore have I hastened to be over him; I will surely have mercy on him, says the Lord.
39. And what mercy He promises us, the Lord also shows, when He says further on:I have satiated every thirsty soul, and have satisfied every hungry soul. Therefore, I awaked and beheld, and My sleep was sweet unto Me.Jeremiah 31:25-26 We observe that the Lord promises His sacraments to those who sin. Let us, then, all beconverted to the Lord.
66. Show, then, your wound to the Physician that He may heal it. Though you show it not, He knows it, but waits to hear your voice. Do away your scars by tears. Thus did that woman in the Gospel, and wiped out the stench of her sin; thus did she wash away her fault, when washing the feet of Jesus with her tears.
This is beautiful, as Ambrose begins by drawing an analogy between the raising of Lazarus from the tomb and the raising of the sinner from his or sin, and then moves into a prayer related to his own surprising call to ministry:
70. Nevertheless if we are unable to equal her, the Lord Jesus knows also how to aid the weak, when there is no one who can prepare the feast, or bring the ointment, or carry with her a spring of living water. He comes Himself to the sepulchre.
71. Would that You would vouchsafe to come to this sepulchre of mine, O Lord Jesus, that You would wash me with Your tears, since in my hardened eyes I possess not such tears as to be able to wash away my offense. If You shall weep for me I shall be saved; if I am worthy of Your tears I shall cleanse the stench of all my offenses; if I am worthy that You weep but a little, You will call me out of the tomb of this body and will say:Come forth,that my meditations may not be kept pent up in the narrow limits of this body, but may go forth to Christ, and move in the light, that I may think no more on works of darkness but on works of light. For he who thinks on sinsendeavours to shut himself up within his own consciousness.
72. Call forth, then, Your servant. Although bound with the chain of my sins I have my feet fastened and my hands tied; being now buried in dead thoughts and works, yet at Your call I shall go forth free, and shall be found one of those sitting at Your feast, and Your house shall be filled with precious ointment. If You have vouchsafed toredeem any one, You will preserve him. For it shall be said, See, he was not brought up in the bosom of the Church, nor trained from childhood, but hurried from the judgment-seat, brought away from the vanities of this world, growing accustomed to the singing of the choir instead of the shout of the crier, but he continues in the priesthood not by his own strength, but by the grace of Christ, and sits among the guests at the heavenly table.
73. Preserve, O Lord, Your work, guard the gift which You have given even to him who shrank from it. For I knewthat I was not worthy to be called a bishop, because I had devoted myself to this world, but by Your grace I am what I am.
Go All In. No halfway measures:
But I have more easily found such as had preserved their innocence than such as had fittingly repented. Does any one think that that is penitence where there still exists the striving after earthly honours, where wine flows, and even conjugal connection takes place? The world must be renounced; less sleep must be indulged in thannature demands; it must be broken by groans, interrupted by sighs, put aside by prayers; the mode of life must be such that we die to the usual habits of life. Let the man deny himself and be wholly changed, as in the fable they relate of a certain youth, who left his home because of his love for a harlot, and, having subdued his love, returned; then one day meeting his old favourite and not speaking to her, she, being surprised and supposing that he had not recognized her, said, when they met again,It is I.But,was his answer,I am not the former I.
We have then learned that we must do penance, and this at a time when the heat of luxury and sin is giving way; and that we, when under the dominion of sin, must show ourselves Godfearing by refraining, rather than allowing ourselves in evil practices. For if it is said to Moses when he was desiring to draw nearer:Put off your shoes from off your feet,Exodus 3:5 how much more must we free the feet of our soul from the bonds of the body, and clear our steps from all connection with this world.
It’s the age-old tension, not new to anyone who ponders these things: God enters the world, and therefore our lives, through matter and flesh like our own. This is the moment for which we prepare during Advent, after all. We are creatures, and we know God through creation. But when we begin to love creation – even other people, even good healthy relationships – with the kind of love properly reserved to the Creator, we are starting to wobble, wander and stray.
In that very rich landscape in which we know the transcendent through the immanent, and in which we are weak sinners, strengthened by grace and journeying towards home with the Lord, we live in tension. But this tension is just that – a tension between what seen and unseen, between what is imperfect and what is whole. It is not, however, incoherent, as it is to say on the one hand, that we must be All In, but on the other..it really doesn’t matter that much.