Saturday, 22 June 2013

Lumen Gentium: in heaven and on earth


Continuing in the series on Vatican II, let me resume a reading of Lumen Gentium, where the last post looked at its sixth chapter, addressing the role of the religious (i.e., those who have taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience). In its penultimate, seventh chapter, Lumen Gentium turns to the relationship between the Church on earth and the Church in heaven. As the full title of the chapter - “The eschatological nature of the pilgrim church and its union with the church in heaven” - sets out in a nutshell, the focus here is on the final purpose of the Church on earth (its eschatology) and its union with the Church in heaven. This may at first seem like just a bit of jiggery-pokery, and to be honest, when I read it for the first couple of times, I was at a loss to extract from it more than a sentence’s worth of essence. Repeated reflection, an overflowing measure of enlightenment from John Paul II,1 and a personal experience I already shared here, have all lead me to what I’ll try to set out next.2

The best way to approach this chapter is to let John Paul II lead us to what is novel about it:3
“It can be said that until recently the Church’s catechesis and preaching centered upon an individual eschatology [… and] this pastoral style was profoundly personal: “Remember that at the end you will present yourself before God with your entire life. Before His judgment seat you will be responsible for all of your actions” […] The vision proposed by the Council, however, was that of an eschatology of the Church and of the world.”
Returning to Lumen Gentium, the opening paragraph of chapter 7 declares that:
“The Church, to which we are all called in Christ Jesus, and in which we acquire sanctity through the grace of God, will attain its full perfection only in the glory of heaven, when there will come the time of the restoration of all things.(cf. Acts 3:21) At that time the human race as well as the entire world, which is intimately related to man and attains to its end through him, will be perfectly reestablished in Christ. (cf. Ephesians 1:10)”
The first insight then is that the final purpose (eschatology) of the human person is not their individual, singular business, but fundamentally a property of a community - the Church. It is not I, alone, self-sufficiently and relying on my individual powers only, who sets out into the deep, but the I-we of the Church. Returning to a frequently emphasized point in previous parts of Lumen Gentium, here too the focus is on the Church being Jesus’ Body, where it is His “having been lifted up from the earth [that] has drawn all to Himself. (cf. John 12:32.)” Jesus draws all to himself and takes us (an all-inclusive “us”) with Him to our ultimate destiny.

The nature of the eschatology referred to extensively in this chapter merits greater reflection, in particular in terms of its timing. A naïve approach could lead us to thinking of it as referring to an event in some distant future (at the “end of time”), while what John Paul II puts forward is a very different perspective:
“[What the] Gospel teaches about God requires a certain change in focus with regard to eschatology. First of all, eschatology is not what will take place in the future, something happening only after earthly life is finished. Eschatology has already begun with the coming of Christ. The ultimate eschatological event was His redemptive Death and His Resurrection. This is the beginning of “a new heaven and a new earth” (cf. Revelation 21:1). For everyone, life beyond death is connected with the affirmation: “I believe in the resurrection of the body,” and then: “I believe in the forgiveness of sins and in life everlasting.” This is Christocentric eschatology.”
John Paul II again pivots what may have become a diffuse, deformed view and returns its focus to Jesus - it is His coming that has brought us into the final chapter of creation. As Lumen Gentium puts it:
“Already the final age of the world has come upon us and the renovation of the world is irrevocably decreed [… T]he promised restoration which we are awaiting has already begun in Christ, is carried forward in the mission of the Holy Spirit and through Him continues in the Church in which we learn the meaning of our terrestrial life through our faith, while we perform with hope in the future the work committed to us in this world by the Father, and thus work out our salvation.”
This then is the second insight: we are not just waiting around for the world to come to an end, instead we are in the “Last Days” and are active participants in the universe completing its function and returning to perfection in God. This is an understanding that neither lets us “check out” of the world’s affairs (instead obliging us to engage in them for the good of all), nor does it amount to being a millenarianist Doomsday cult (since Jesus himself assured the apostles that “of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” (Matthew 24:36)).

While some of us have already completed their earthly journey and form the heavenly Church, others are still “exiles on earth,” proceeding along it “groan[ing] and travail[ing] in pain” (cf. Romans 8:19-23). The two communities are not separate entities though, and instead:
“form one Church and cleave together in Him. (cf. Ephesians 4:16) […] For by reason of the fact that those in heaven are more closely united with Christ, they establish the whole Church more firmly in holiness, lend nobility to the worship which the Church offers to God here on earth and in many ways contribute to its greater edification. (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:12-27)”
The Church in heaven and on earth is the one Mystical Body of Christ. As a consequence, “the pilgrim Church from the very first ages of the Christian religion has cultivated with great piety the memory of the dead [… and] has always believed that the apostles and Christ’s martyrs who had given the supreme witness of faith and charity by the shedding of their blood, are closely joined with us in Christ.” This then is the third insight - communion is not only among those of us who are alive on earth today and with Jesus whose body we form, but equally with those who have gone before us. While the death of loved ones is unquestionably and profoundly painful, it is not a separation, but, paradoxically, a coming closer “by reason of the fact that those in heaven are more closely united with Christ.” In many ways, the 14th Dalai Lama’s tweet from yesterday is also very well aligned with the concept of the Mystical Body that pervades Lumen Gentium as well as Sacrosanctum Concilium, when he says: “we develop care and concern by thinking of others not as ‘them’ but ‘us’”.

Not only is such union the case with those close to me, but with all, and in a particular way with the saints: “For just as Christian communion among wayfarers brings us closer to Christ, so our companionship with the saints joins us to Christ, from Whom as from its Fountain and Head issues every grace and the very life of the people of God.” Instead of being only examples, through their intimate union with Jesus, I personally am united with them too.

On the subject of saints, Lumen Gentium also cautions against superficial excesses and underlines the fact that the Christian life is always directed towards the Trinity:
“the authentic cult of the saints consists not so much in the multiplying of external acts, but rather in the greater intensity of our love, whereby, for our own greater good and that of the whole Church, we seek from the saints “example in their way of life, fellowship in their communion, and aid by their intercession.” [… O]ur communion with those in heaven […] in no way weakens, but conversely, more thoroughly enriches the […] worship we give to God the Father, through Christ, in the Spirit.”
Instead of being a bit of esoteric navel-gazing, the insights about how the Church is one across heaven and earth, with Jesus at its head and as its heart, firmly place the focus on the importance of community, on acting in the world for its good and on the persistence of relationships beyond death and with all.

1 See the “Does “Eternal Life” exist?” chapter of his beautifully profound Crossing the Threshold of Hope.
2 Yes, I am going to send you to the second paragraph of a previous post, in case you are not a Catholic and would like my perspective on how to read the rest of this post.
3 Emphasis preserved from original text.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Sacrosanctum Concilium: liturgy together

Arcabas last supper

For reasons beyond the scope of this post I feel compelled to take up my quest to read the documents of Vatican II during this Year of Faith, by postponing and leapfrogging the last two chapters of Lumen Gentium and confronting the Council’s constitution on the liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium.1 Here I have to admit that the opening chapters of the document were challenging in that their form had to be endured for the sake of getting to their content, but - like when reading The Name of the Rose, where Umberto Eco himself characterizes the first 100 pages as a mountain that is to be climbed to reach the rewards lying beyond it2 - the core of the reform of the liturgy, as well as the very frank and practical steps defined for achieving it, are gems worth working for and I hope you too will take on the climb.

Before delving into the content of Sacrosanctum Concilium, it is worth noting that the concept of liturgy (λῃτουργία / leitourgia) predates Christianity and has its origins in ancient Greece where it referred to a public service - a work (ἔργο / ergon) of the people (λαός / Laos) - “whereby [a city-state’s] richest members […] financed the State with their personal wealth.” In the Christian context, this public service has since the first century AD had as its core what Jesus himself had “told His followers to do in memory of Him” - i.e., to nourish themselves by His body and blood, which he shared with the apostles at the Last Supper (cf. Luke 22:19). This Christian liturgy is a public service in that it strengthens and supports those who participate in it, by bringing them closer both to God and to each other.

The aim then of Sacrosanctum Concilium is to support Christian life by adapting “to the needs of our own times [that] which [is] subject to change; foster[ing] whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ; strengthen[ing] whatever can help to call the whole of mankind into the […] Church.” The result is a desire to “reform and promote the liturgy,” where the changes introduced in it are a consequence of the Church “be[ing] both human and divine, visible and yet invisibly equipped, eager to act and yet intent on contemplation, present in this world and yet not at home in it.”

As in the other Vatican II documents, the starting point here too is the Trinity, where:
“[God] sent His Son, the Word made flesh, anointed by the Holy Spirit, to preach the gospel to the poor, to heal the contrite of heart, to be a “bodily and spiritual medicine”, the Mediator between God and man. […] Therefore in Christ “the perfect achievement of our reconciliation came forth, and the fullness of divine worship was given to us”. […] Thus by baptism men are plunged into the paschal mystery of Christ: they die with Him, are buried with Him, and rise with Him. [Thus, since its beginning] the Church has never failed to come together to celebrate the paschal mystery: reading those things “which were in all the scriptures concerning him” (Luke 24:27) [and] celebrating the eucharist in which “the victory and triumph of his death are again made present”.”
In the liturgy, there is a particular, personal presence of Jesus, who
“is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of His minister, “the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross”, but especially under the Eucharistic species. […] He is present in the sacraments, so that when a man baptizes it is really Christ Himself who baptizes. He is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church. He is present, lastly, when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).”
In other words, the liturgy is a personal encounter with Jesus, which demands one’s full and active participation both individually and as a community. Sacrosanctum Concilium’s objective is to reform the liturgy as it was before Vatican II, since:
“the liturgy is made up of immutable elements divinely instituted, and of elements subject to change. These not only may but ought to be changed with the passage of time if they have suffered from the intrusion of anything out of harmony with the inner nature of the liturgy or have become unsuited to it. In this restoration, both texts and rites should be drawn up so that they express more clearly the holy things which they signify; the Christian people, so far as possible, should be enabled to understand them with ease and to take part in them fully, actively, and as befits a community.”
The first principle in such a restoration is to foster “warm and living love for scripture,” which “is of the greatest importance in the celebration of the liturgy.” The second is that “[liturgical services] are celebrations of the Church, which is the “sacrament of unity,” [of] the holy people united.” Third, while “the sacred liturgy is above all things the worship of the divine Majesty, it likewise contains much instruction for the faithful. For in the liturgy God speaks to His people and Christ is still proclaiming His gospel. And the people reply to God both by song and prayer. […] The rites should [therefore] be distinguished by a noble simplicity; they should be short, clear, and unencumbered by useless repetitions; they should be within the people’s powers of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation.”

Guided by the above principles, the use of mother tongues (which were not in liturgical use before Vatican II) in addition to Latin is encouraged, “in the first place [for] the readings and directives, and [for] some of the prayers and chants.” Sacrosanctum Concilium goes much further though, in an effort to bring the liturgy close to all of its participants and allow for full participation as a community:
“Even in the liturgy, the Church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not implicate the faith or the good of the whole community; rather does she respect and foster the genius and talents of the various races and peoples. Anything in these peoples’ way of life which is not indissolubly bound up with superstition and error she studies with sympathy and, if possible, preserves intact. Sometimes in fact she admits such things into the liturgy itself, so long as they harmonize with its true and authentic spirit. […] In some places and circumstances, however, an even more radical adaptation of the liturgy is needed. […] The competent territorial ecclesiastical authority […], must, in this matter, carefully and prudently consider which elements from the traditions and culture of individual peoples might appropriately be admitted into divine worship. Adaptations which are judged to be useful or necessary should then be submitted to the Apostolic See, by whose consent they may be introduced. To ensure that adaptations may be made with all the circumspection which they demand, the Apostolic See will grant power to this same territorial ecclesiastical authority to permit and to direct […] the necessary preliminary experiments over a determined period of time among certain groups suited for the purpose.”
The above, to me, is the first of the real eye-openers about Sacrosanctum Concilium in that is seems to go way beyond what I see in the Church today. Here there is a clear intention to recognize what is good in various cultures and make it part of the public service that is the liturgy. This is not the cultural imperialism that the Church is often criticized for, but a readiness to seek out and recognize value wherever it is present, so that communities can bring their treasures to the table at which the Last Supper is celebrated, instead of being observers at a foreign spectacle. Neither is it recalcitrant adherence to established forms or wanton novelty for its own sake, but a process that involves controlled “experiments” - the last concept I expected to see in an official Church document.

To further make them accessible to all and welcoming of participation,
“the rites are to be simplified, due care being taken to preserve their substance; elements which, with the passage of time, came to be duplicated, or were added with but little advantage, are now to be discarded; other elements which have suffered injury through accidents of history are now to be restored to the vigor which they had in the days of the holy Fathers. […] Especially on Sundays […] there is to be restored, after the Gospel and the homily, […] “the prayer of the faithful.” By this prayer, in which the people are to take part, intercession will be made for holy Church, for the civil authorities, for those oppressed by various needs, for all mankind, and for the salvation of the entire world.”
These are changes that not only invite participation by a community, but do so in a way where it faces both Jesus and the world. Clear efforts are also made here to involve the laity in new ways where “provision [are to] be made [so] that some sacramentals […] may be administered by qualified lay persons.”

In amongst the extensive list of specific changes introduced by Sacrosanctum Concilium, there are also several whose directness and verging on irony were a treat to read in a document of this kind: “The rite for the baptism of infants is to be revised, and it should be adapted to the circumstance that those to be baptized are, in fact, infants.” [Duh! :)], “The prayer for the bride, [is to be] amended to remind both spouses of their equal obligation to remain faithful to each other.” and “The accounts of martyrdom or the lives of the saints are to accord with the facts of history.” were definitely among my favorites.

Finally, the reform of the liturgy is also extended to the music and visual art used to support and enhance it, with a strong emphasis on simplicity and service:
“[B]ishops and other pastors of souls must be at pains to ensure that, whenever the [liturgy] is to be celebrated with song, the whole body of the faithful may be able to contribute that active participation which is rightly theirs. […] In certain parts of the world […] there are peoples who have their own musical traditions, and these play a great part in their religious and social life. For this reason due importance is to be attached to their music, and a suitable place is to be given to it, not only in forming their attitude toward religion, but also in adapting worship to their native genius. Therefore, when missionaries are being given training in music, every effort should be made to see that they become competent in promoting the traditional music of these peoples, both in schools and in sacred services.

The Church has not adopted any particular style of art as her very own; she has admitted styles from every period according to the natural talents and circumstances of peoples, and the needs of the various rites. Thus, in the course of the centuries, she has brought into being a treasury of art which must be very carefully preserved. The art of our own days, coming from every race and region, shall also be given free scope in the Church, provided that it adorns the sacred buildings and holy rites with due reverence and honor. [… Bishops], by the encouragement and favor they show to art which is truly sacred, should strive after noble beauty rather than mere sumptuous display. […] Let bishops carefully remove […] those works of artists which […] lack artistic worth, [or display] mediocrity and pretense. […] And when churches are to be built, let great care be taken that they be suitable for the celebration of liturgical services and for the active participation of the faithful.”
Reading through the entirety of Sacrosanctum Concilium, what stuck in my mind was how apt the term “restoration” was for what its principles and instructions amount to. It is a restoration of the simplicity and immediacy of being in Jesus’ presence that the apostles and the Early Church must have experienced. It is a de-cluttering, a removal of exaggeration and deformation, and a consistent and all-pervasive re-focusing on the liturgy being “performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and His members.” The changes to the structure and extent of the liturgy, the use of the congregation’s mother tongue and the principles guiding the use of music and art all serve a single purpose: to make the liturgy be a knowing, active, living expression of a community, gathered around the one table in the Upper Room, with Jesus at it’s head.

1 As is now de rigueur here for posts that verge on or fully wade into the theologically technical, please, consider reading paragraph two of the following post as a caveat, if you are not a Catholic.
2 “After reading the manuscript, my friends and editors suggested I abbreviate the first hundred pages, which they found very difficult.and demanding. Without thinking twice, I refused, because, as I insisted, if somebody wanted to enter the abbey and live there for seven days, he had to accept the abbey’s own pace. If he could not. he would never manage to read the whole book. Therefore those first hundred pages are like a penance or an initiation, and if someone does not like them, so much the worse for him. He can stay at the foot of the hill.” (Umberto Eco, Reflections on “The Name of the Rose”)

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Celibacy and marriage


On Monday I listened with growing disappointment to a BBC Radio 4 program that intended to shed light on celibacy from the perspective of different faiths. The program's panel was composed of a muslim cleric, a Catholic nun and an academic, who provided Buddhist and Hindu perspectives. Instead of dissecting the program here,1 I would like to share my personal, very much Christian, reflection and invite you to let me know what you make of it.

The optics I'd like to apply here are those of vocation.2 And I'd like to think about celibacy and marriage in parallel, since they are each key comparators for one another, and since talking about one without referencing the other would be artificial and woefully incomplete. Note also that I won't attempt to knot a customary net of references, and will instead aim to present a synthetic and condensed exposition of my take on this topic, which has occupied my mind for a good 20 years so far.

First, I'd like to suggest that there is only one Christian vocation, which is to say (and keep saying) “Yes!” in response to God's call to follow, imitate and love Him, directly and in my neighbors, and to give Him primacy in my life. Just as God didn't supply Samuel with a job description when He called him (1 Samuel 3:1-10), like “a light silent sound” (1 Kings 19:12), or as Jesus didn't issue the apostles with detailed terms and conditions (cf. Luke 5:1-11, Matthew 4:18-22), so too the specifics of following Him are part of the journey He invites me on. This adventure can take a myriad forms, like the infinite variety and ever-evolving novelty of God's love itself.

Second, any perfection attained as a consequence of responding to God's call is a gift. It can be welcomed and facilitated by staying attentive to the Holy Spirit's “inspiration” in every present moment, by being open to embracing Jesus in every suffering and welcoming him among those who love one another mutually, and by placing one's childlike trust in our loving Father. Perfection is not a human product, as the lives of so many saints attest.

Third, responding to my vocation yields both challenges and joys, where the natures and sources of both depend on the specific path I follow. On the surface of it, some are more likely if you are celibate while others are more typical of married life. Ultimately though, difficulties (suffering, frustration, disappointment) and joys alike are a consequence of what God wills or allows for me to experience and how I respond to it. This has nothing whatsoever to do with celibacy or marriage and everything to do with looking for God and embracing His will, moment by moment. Both have equal capacity for sanctification and torment, to the extent to which they lead to experiencing union with or absence from God.

Fourth, celibacy is a great treasure. It is an expression of a person's permanent commitment to follow God's call in total self-giving. By imitating Jesus' celibate life, they, like He, devote themselves to supporting, enriching and guiding the People of God and proclaiming the Good News of God's love to all. They, with their communities around them, are witnesses to God's love in the world and a beacon of His fatherly and motherly love. The essence of celibacy is not a foregoing of sexual joy and the delights that one's own children bring, but a positive, total gift of oneself to God, who is not to be outdone in generosity.

Fifth, marriage is a great treasure. It is an expression of a person's permanent commitment to follow God's call in total self-giving. By imitating the life of the Trinity, husband and wife become one family - a small church, where God dwells among those who follow his word. By “follow[ing] Jesus closely,”3 a family supports, enriches and guides the People of God and proclaims the Good News of God's love to all. Married persons follow the evangelical counsels of poverty, obedience and chastity in ways proper to their circumstances and are available for transmitting God's love to all. The essence of marriage is not an avoidance of a total commitment to God, a holding back of something for oneself, but a positive, total gift of oneself to God, who is not to be outdone in generosity.

Sixth, as one discerns how to follow God's call in celibacy or marriage, it is understandable that one considers one's own calling to be superior to the alternative. Since both have great riches and are means for sharing in the most intimate life of God, they each provide an overflowing basis for being extolled as superior. I believe that arguments for either exceeding the other ought to be read in this light - through their proponent's eyes, and appreciated for being signs of the value and beauty that those who have chosen them see in them.

Finally, I would like to thank all who guided me during the time of discerning my vocation - some of whom were celibate, others married, and all of whom made me experience the presence of Jesus among his disciples - and my spouse, who is the tabernacle of our family.

1 If you'd like to hear it for yourself, a recording is available here. I'd be curious to know whether you found it enlightening or frustrating …
2 Since this is going to be spiritual and personal as much as intellectual, you might want to check out my standard Thomas-Nagel-inspired disclaimer in the second paragraph here.
3 Speaking about marriage a couple of weeks ago, Pope Francis described it as “men and women who have left their homes to commit to a lifelong marriage, that is to follow Jesus closely!”

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Me atheist, you Vatican spokesman

Chinese whispers

The journalistic farce that followed Pope Francis’ now-famous “atheists” homily is best viewed through Monty Python lenses, where it is in many ways like the final scene of the Life of Brian.1 There, a centurion comes to rescue Brian from the cross, but when he asks “Where is Brian of Nazareth?!” everyone volunteers, even to the point of one of the other crucifixion victims saying “I’m Brian, and so’s my wife!”

Let’s backtrack though and see what happened step by step. First, there was Francis’ homily itself:
“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”
When I first read this, a couple of hours after Francis delivered it during his 7 am Domus Sanctae Marthae mass on 22nd May, I felt great joy and gratitude for having a Pope who is open and welcoming to all - just like Jesus was. I thought no more about it, since it seemed to me to be just a re-iteration - albeit a very welcome and clear one - of what the Church has been teaching consistently since Vatican II.2 In essence, Francis was saying that we hope to see atheists in heaven as much as we hope to be there ourselves. This is not to impose beliefs on those who believe neither in God nor in the existence of heaven, but to assure them that we, Catholics (and many other Christians too), believe in a God who loves all and welcomes all, regardless of their beliefs.

When I then looked at Twitter later in the day, I saw it ablaze with two types of reactions: very positive ones both from Christians and atheists, welcoming the invitation to dialogue and the appreciation of the good done by atheists (e.g., see the Huffington Post article from the same day and note the Pope’s homily being the second most shared piece on Reddit) and very critical ones - mainly from “traditional” Catholics (e.g., see a particularly forceful and conceited criticism here).

The day ended well for this story though, with a spot-on rebuke of Francis’ critics from a 1964 homily of the then-Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, shared in a blog post by Anna Williams:
“It seems as if we want to be rewarded, not just with our own salvation, but most especially with other people’s damnation—just like the workers hired in the first hour. That is very human, but the Lord’s parable [of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-6)] is particularly meant to make us quite aware of how profoundly un-Christian it is at the same time.”
So far, so good: another great homily by Pope Francis, mostly positive and some negative reactions and a great put-down of the critics to round out the day.

The next morning, the weather turned though and a farce of epic proportion began brewing with the news of a Vatican spokesperson having issued a correction of Pope Francis’ words. As far as I can tell, the source of this red herring was a post on, which stated that “On Thursday, the Vatican issued an “explanatory note on the meaning to ‘salvation.’” The Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, said that people who [are] aware of the Catholic church “cannot be saved” if they “refuse to enter her or remain in her.”” This was quickly picked up by media outlets around the world, with headlines like: “Vatican Clarifies Pope’s ‘Atheist’ Remarks,” “Vatican corrects Pope: Atheists are still going to hell,” and “Not so fast: Vatican says Pope Francis got it wrong, atheists do go to hell.”

It was immediately clear to me that something didn’t add up here: first, Fr. Thomas Rosica isn’t “a Vatican spokesman” (Fr. Federico Lombardi being “the” Vatican spokesperson, who has been in office for many years),3 second, “people who are aware of the Catholic Church and are not in her cannot be saved” is not at all what the Catechism says4 and third, any member of the Catholic Church (never mind a priest or Vatican member of staff) who felt it to be their job to issue an “explanatory note” about the Pope’s words off their own back and unprompted by the Pope better check themselves, before they wreck themselves.

In any case, I was curious to see this alleged “explanatory note,” so I (foolishly!) headed over to the Vatican website, where - naturally - there was no trace of it. Instead, I tracked it down on here and I found - as I should have anticipated - that it was actually not a bad commentary on Francis’ words (and, no, it did not contain the offensive quote on “being aware of the Catholic Church” attributed to it on So, the facts of the matter are that the Vatican never issued any communication to “correct” Francis’ words and Fr. Rosica actually did a good job of commenting on the Pope’s words in my opinion (if you take care to read the whole text rather than pick phrases out of context - or even misquote them).

Like in so many cases before (did anyone say “Jesus’ wife”?), this incident was a display of journalistic ineptitude, carelessness and superficiality.

To conclude though I’d rather leave you on a positive note - a quote from Pope John Paul II’s address to the United Nations from 1995, which Fr. Rosica quoted in his explanatory note:
“Because of the radiant humanity of Christ, nothing genuinely human fails to touch the hearts of Christians. Faith in Christ does not impel us to intolerance. On the contrary, it obliges us to engage others in a respectful dialogue. Love of Christ does not distract us from interest in others, but rather invites us to responsibility for them, to the exclusion of no one and indeed, if anything, with a special concern for the weakest and the suffering. Thus, as we approach the two thousandth anniversary of the birth of Christ, the Church asks only to be able to propose respectfully this message of salvation, and to be able to promote, in charity and service, the solidarity of the entire human family.”
[UPDATE] I actually started writing this post several days ago and I was beginning to wonder whether it still made sense to publish it, since the events it speaks about took place two weeks ago. Surely the storm in a teacup would have died down since then and Francis’ words would be seen for what they were. Last night and then this morning I saw two articles that changed my mind though: first, one by the otherwise very cogent Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith, who concluded his latest blog post with the following: “Heresy, and atheism, produce nothing beautiful. They can’t. They are stony barren fields.” and second, a post by the atheist Herb Silverman, whose take on the matter is that “Perhaps Pope Francis forgot to run this concession by the papal censors, because the following day the Vatican announced a do-over. The Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, said that those who are aware of the Catholic Church “cannot be saved” if they “refuse to enter her or remain in her.” […] So Rev. Rosica is simply reiterating the traditional Catholic position that atheists can go to hell.” Sadly, this post still has currency, but I hope that you have found it to be of some interest.

1 And those of you who are well versed in all matters Python, will also have spotted the direct reference to the “nurse” sketch, which is closely related to the present matter too.
2 For previous coverage of how the Church relates to atheists, see the following posts.
3 Though he did translate for Lombardi during the last conclave, so the mixup could be excused - if the source were not supposed to be engaged in journalism.
4 What the Catechism actually says is this: “Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.” (§846)
Knowing and necessary - two very strong words, on a very different end of the scale to being aware that the Catholic Church exists! In effect it means that if you act against your own certain conviction that being in the Catholic Church is necessary for salvation, you are choosing to reject it and it is your freedom that is being respected instead of you being excluded.