The drama of salvation is one in which we all play a part, whether we like it or not

In the August 24 edition of the print version of The Catholic Herald I wrote an article which dealt with the necessity of evangelisation in the face of declining Catholic practice in the United Kingdom. This attracted two replies in the letters column of the paper the next week, one of which came from Fr Andrew Pinsent, of Oxford University. What he says is so interesting, I thought I would reproduce it here.

Fr Pinsent identifies two problems which have led to our current state of affairs:

First, there has been an almost complete loss of any sense of the “drama of salvation”, namely that the eternal outcome of our lives is an open question. If you ask churchgoers today what they think happens to them when we die, many of them will say that we go to heaven, not judgment (cf Hebrews 9:27).

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He is completely correct in this and puts his finger on something important. I remember once being in the Cathedral of Torcello, which boasts a huge mosaic of the Last Judgment. I was resting my weary feet while a guide explained the significance of the mosaic to some tourists. The person next to me said: “He is explaining it from the outside.” In other words, modern people look at the Last Judgement as a picture in which they themselves are not present.

But in every picture of the Last Judgement, if we look carefully, we will see ourselves depicted. This is a drama in which we will play a part, whether we like it or not. To imagine that heaven follows life on earth almost as a matter of course is to delude oneself.

Here one might add that the Church needs to tread carefully: we need to challenge people’s idea that salvation is automatic, without driving them away. We must of course stress God is Love and Mercy; but we must also stress that he is perfect Justice as well, and that in Him charity and justice coincide without any contradiction.

Fr Pinsent goes on:

Second, there has been a loss of any distinction between the life of nature and the life of grace. Much teaching and pastoral example today implies that being a Catholic is simply one way to cultivate civic virtue and good manners. What has largely been forgotten is the meaning and importance of sanctifying grace, by which we become adopted children of God, enjoying the gift of second-person relatedness to God, the ultimate fruit of which is to enter the communion of saints in heaven.

Again, I find myself in complete agreement. While it is true that religion is socially useful, we must resist all attempts to understand religion as purely a socially useful phenomenon. You become a Catholic to experience God’s grace at first hand in the sacraments, not because Catholics are a nice bunch of people, or because they have good schools. All the social and secular activities of our parishes must be subordinate to this one end – the reception of divine grace; indeed that is the only reason behind the social structures, to make the sacraments more accessible to people.

Fr Pinsent concludes:

This combination of lethargic universalism and loss of grace, aided and abetted by certain perverted theological writings of the last century, drains much of the urgency out of Catholic life and mission and cuts us off from most Christians of previous ages. Unless we recover an appreciation of such principles, I fear that even serving better coffee after Mass will not arrest the decline.

I wonder which theologians he has in mind? But of our contemporaries, let me point the finger at whoever invented the phrase “faith-based initiatives”. This implies that people have faith and so go on to found schools or hospitals. But it is the faith that matters more than the initiative. The phrase subordinates faith to socially useful works, which is dangerous. Faith matters.

This danger crops up in certain missionary ambiences, where the Church can be hugely successful in building schools, hospitals, and model farms, all great faith-based initiatives. But in the midst of this success, the missionaries can lose sight of what it was they came for: not any physical structure, but the proclamation of what Fr Pinsent so rightly terms “the drama of salvation”.

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