Karl Rahner, Motorcycles, and Theology Where People Live

Now catching up on some items of theological interest in the news while I was away for August, I could not pass up mentioning this interesting story reported by Scott Sayare in the New York Times a few weeks ago. Subject: The "Madonna of the Bikers" festival in Porcaro, France. Something on the order of ten thousand came to have their motorcycles blessed at this event, held annually on the Feast of the Assumption. Sayare highlights the fascinating crossover of "sacred" and "profane" that the "pilgrimage" represents.

A video of the blessing of the bikes this year can be found here.

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My first thought was of the medieval European feasts, described well in Charles Taylor's A Secular Age, in which cultural-ecclesial permission is given for a specified amount of time for prevailing social-religious rules to be inverted. (This is also the association that Rev. Rachel Mann, of the Church of England, recently made to metal concerts.) This analogy came to mind due to the display of socially transgressive behavior in the midst of a routinized religious space. (Although one difference from the medieval festivals would be the seeming lack of explicitly irreligious or antireligious sending-up in the "Madonna of the Bikers" event.) As Sayare reports, "Many came to pray, many to carouse, a surprising number to do both."

As an event at which two open-air masses are held, and holy water is sprinkled on rumbling Harleys on a weekend featuring the musical sensibilities of AC/DC and a tendency toward body modification and robust partying, Sayare also links to this French bishops' conference report about the festival, an indication of its recognition by official French Catholicism.

The presiding (and self-described) "biker-priest," Jean-Francois Audrain, is quoted as saying something quite subtle: "No one should leave here without having gotten what he really wanted out of it." I take such a statement as at once a pastorally wise spaciousness about the multiple motivations for attending such an event, and at the same time a theological claim about worthy desires presenting themselves precisely in those multiple motivations, desires known or unknown to the bikers themselves, but not separate from what the bikers really want. It reminds me of the important motif in Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises, regarding the courage to ask God for what one desires. What one "really wants" spiritually is precisely what should leave one unsatisfied until one has experienced "having gotten" it.

The "Madonna of the Bikers" event made me think of a story that Harvey Egan, SJ, told when I was a student in Fr. Egan's storied graduate seminar on the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner at Boston College. Egan taught us Rahner's theology while embedding it in many memorable vignettes of his time with Rahner. Because I first heard this particular nugget over thirteen years ago, I recently contacted Fr. Egan to make sure my memory of this tale was correct. Fr. Egan, whose many expert and accessible theological writings on Rahner and the mystical tradition will be known by many America readers, confirmed that it was, and was gracious enough to re-narrate the story for me in writing. I share it here with his permission.

According to Fr. Egan: "I went to Innsbruck the summer after [Rahner]'s death. His secretary Frau Öggl told me about the motorcycle altar incident. Not long before [Rahner] died, he said Mass at the student residence almost adjacent to the SJ residence in Innsbruck. He was quite surprised to find an altar set up by two motorcycles and a plank. Yes, a covering for the board, some flowers, candles. Rahner gave a brief homily on the need to take one's personal freedom seriously. He fretted afterwards to his secretary if he had been 'too hard' on them. He had more than a distaste for those who blamed parents, family, society, Church for all their problems."

There is a lot on which one might comment in this vivid brief recounting. But most of all, I await the discovery and publication of the photograph that was hopefully taken at this impromptu mass. (If it's out there somewhere, please consider sharing it.)

Inspired by this image, and in the wake of the massive success of the "Madonna of the Bikers" festivals, I am thinking of Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" heard alongside, and interleaved with, a reading of Foundations of Christian Faith. There is still theology to be generated between the wheels that might yet speak to those who "really want it" today.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

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Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 10 months ago
I love this meeting of the sacred and profane place.  The very idea that who and how we are, here and now, is holy!  A motorcycle altar indeed.  The insights of Karl Rahner (and Vatican II) are so refreshing (and healing) to me. 
7 years 10 months ago
Thanks for the reminder of the Rahner story.  Father Egan related the motorcycle liturgy in Karl Rahner: Mystic of  Everyday Life (Crossroad, 1998; page 174) and suggests that it ''may have been his last informal homily.''  Fr Egan writes that Rahner told the students ''that they have the capacity to say yes or no with their entire being to the God of love.''  And so often did Rahner use ''yes'' as a summary of the Christian life ... an elegant simplicity also used by Ratzinger.

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