Richard Norman speaks to the Society of the Maintenance of the Faith
Now, more than ever, the creation and maintenance of strong Christian communities seems essential for the mission of the Church in the world. Vatican II’s dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium explains that the Church is a ‘messianic people… a lasting and sure seed of unity, hope and salvation, for the whole human race. Established by Christ as a communion of life, charity and truth, it is also used by him as an instrument for the redemption of all, and is sent forth into the whole world as the light of the world and the salt of the earth.’
We live in an age exalting the individual, and yet an age also in which the fundamental nature of each individual has been so signiﬁcantly emptied of meaningful substance by a postmodernity which the American Dominican scholar Thomas Joseph White has described as ‘an era of spiritual impoverishment and metaphysical pessimism.’ We catholic Christians ﬁnd our truth and meaning in Christ, whom we encounter in the Church—in her sacraments, her ministry, her fraternity. We ﬁnd our truth and meaning, then, in sacred society, in the parishes and communities to which we belong, in the fellowship of communion, in common life, in the public expression together of our faith. And yet ours is likewise an age, in the words of the essayist and commentator George Weigel, biographer of St John Paul the Great, ‘threatened by an aggressive secularism that regards religious conviction as merely a personal lifestyle choice and that seeks to drive communities formed by such convictions out of public life.’
It is an act of rebellion against the prevailing currents of disintegration to come together as the Church, this supremely subversive society and yet this image of the sublime order written into earth and heaven by almighty God. It is an act of courage to stand by our catholic convictions, which resist the falsiﬁcation of the idea of the human person, of the world around us, of the metaphysical realities by which we encounter the Lord. It is a cause of celebration to mark this annual festival, to recognise this commitment to sacred society, to share the good news of the gospel taking root and spreading through the parishes in your patronage and care.
George Weigel, again, reﬂecting upon the so-called Benedict option—the call to survive the disintegration and atrophy of Western society through retreat into, and construction of ‘intentional communities of virtue based on the truths that make for genuine human ﬂourishing’—commends the insight to which such associations might bear witness, namely ‘that the life of the Beatitudes not only makes for a happier personal and familial life, but [also] for a nobler public life, in which the ideas of solidarity and the common good return to prominence in our public moral culture.’ But Weigel resists the ﬁnal abandonment of the secular sphere, instead revising the Benedictine option into what he terms a ‘Gregorian option’ after the saintly pope, who gave his mission to our own St Augustine. Such a philosophy would see ‘intentional communities [become] the launchpad for education, cultural and social renewal, and evangelisation’, that oft-encouraged move from maintenance to mission, from passengers to pilgrims, from the faith of our fathers to the hallowing of our nation, as after Communion we shall sing.
SMF strives ‘to keep faith with the past and to assert the importance of the parish in the Church’s mission of pastoral care and service to God’s children’—in other words, to build on the past to provide for the future. There is no future in a society formed ‘by the culture of the imperial autonomous Self’ which crumbles into dust under the feverish inspection and dissection to which contemporary mores subject it. Our faith tells us where instead to ﬁnd a future, in the common life and society of ‘people who are willing to proclaim, and live, a different, nobler view of the human person than the infantile caricature’ proposed by the world. For we, a people of the resurrection and of the ascension, set our eyes upon the ‘vision glorious,’ upon the Christ whom we encounter in word and sacrament, and whose risen life we then embody as we come together in his name.
Let us renew our commitment to this sense of sacred society, founded indeed upon the Lord’s own example of sacriﬁcial love. One hundred and thirty-three years ago, on Pentecost Sunday, Fr Richard Meux Benson (of the Society of St John the Evangelist) wrote that we ‘can have nothing if we would individualise it. We have all things if we lose ourselves in God.’ By our common life, life together in these sacred societies, we can renew both ourselves and our world in resurrection life. This is the vision we hold before us, just as the apostles beheld their Lord at his ascension, and this we can achieve in the power of his Holy Spirit, given to the Church that ﬁrst Pentecost, just as we cry again today: ‘Come, Holy Ghost.’
Father Richard Norman is the vicar of St George’s Bickley. This sermon was given at the Society of the Maintenance of the Faith Festival.