“Extra mundum nulla salus—There is no salvation outside the world.” That was the final message of Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., to his theological colleagues at a symposium held in his honor in Leuven, Belgium, in December 2008. That conviction captures the love of the world and the “grace-optimism” that characterized the life’s work of this Flemish Dominican, who died at the age of 95 on Dec. 23, 2009.
From his groundbreaking first book, Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter With God, to the final volume of his Christological trilogy, Church, the Human Story of God, Father Schillebeeckx helped readers grasp the core sacramental insight disclosed by the Incarnation: The mystery of God is to be encountered in human life and creation. Throughout his teaching career and in his writing, Father Schillebeeckx emphasized that we experience God’s love, the creative and saving presence of God’s grace, wherever human persons minister to one another, especially to the neighbor in need. Human love is an embodiment, a sacrament, of God’s love. These human “fragments of salvation,” as he called them, are a share in the final triumph of God’s grace, which was promised in a definitive way in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Christians are called to participate in the living story of Jesus by “writing a fifth Gospel with their lives.”
This sacramental view of the world, and of the church’s role within the world, remained at the heart of Father Schillebeeckx’s writing, preaching and teaching for over seven decades. It was also central to the vision of the Second Vatican Council, which he helped to shape as an advisor to Cardinal Bernard Alfrink and the Dutch bishops.
In the decades following the council, Father Schillebeeckx was acutely aware of how difficult it had become for many to believe that God holds open a future full of hope amid a world of radical suffering, especially when the church’s own witness had been compromised. In the face of those real stumbling blocks, Father Schillebeeckx reminded his readers that “God is new each moment” and that in situations of injustice (whether in the world or in the church) the Spirit of God is actively at work, prompting resistance, hope, courage and change.
May this gifted theologian and preacher of the Gospel now enjoy the fullness of life that he once described as “God’s eternal surprise.”
Mary Catherine Hilkert, O.P.
The Vatican Secret Archives have that appellation not because they are secret (in the sense that no one may see them) but because of the Latin word secretum, meaning “personal” or “private.” Still, any mention of them in the media (or Dan Brown’s novels) is catnip to the curious, critical and conspiracy-minded. Perhaps as a sop to those folks, the Vatican has published selections from the archives. Included in The Vatican Secret Archives is a tart note, dated 1550, from Michelangelo Buonarroti, demanding payment for his outstanding expenses and complaining that a papal conclave has interrupted work on the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. A missive to Leo XIII from the Ojibway people, dated “where there is much grass, in the month of the flowers,” thanks the pontiff, or the “Grand Master of Prayer,” for providing lands in northern Ontario and a “custodian of prayer,” that is, a bishop. It was written on birch bark. The illustrated book is already a hot seller at $99.50—a mysterious number that surely carries a hidden meaning known only to the Knights Templar. Sadly, shortly after it appeared on Amazon, all available copies were sold, so some secrets may remain secret until a reprinting.
A Deadly Year
A record number of Catholic men and women religious and members of the clergy were killed around the world in 2009. According to Fides, at least 37 Catholic missionaries died violently last year, nearly double the number reported in 2008 and a record high for the decade. The death toll included 30 priests, two religious sisters, two seminarians and two lay volunteers. Most were murdered in the Americas, where 23 pastoral workers were killed, followed by Africa, where 11 lost their lives. In Asia two priests were killed, and in Europe one priest was killed.
What is contributing to the sudden upsurge in violence against Catholic missionaries? Economic and political instability whipped up by the world’s Great Recession may be factors. Many of the missionaries lived in developing world communities, where a perception that they had some relative wealth made them targets of common criminals.
But another factor may be the advancing average age of Catholic clergy and religious. Most of the victims of violence in 2009 were in retirement, many older than 70. In societies throughout the world it is unfortunately the elderly who are especially vulnerable to crime. The 2009 figures could signal a trend, unless the church takes stronger measures to protect its aging and often isolated retirees in the developing world.