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Archbishop Forte on Religion & Freedom: Part 1

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"Searching For the Infinitely Loving Father-Mother"

LEEDS, England, DEC. 7, 2007 (Zenit) - Here is the first part of the address given by Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto, Italy, a member of the International Theological Commission, to a Nov. 12 meeting of the bishops of England and Wales.

Parts 2 and 3 on Catholic Online next week.

* * *

What really is important in life is not so much to provide answers, as to discern true questions. When true questions are found, they themselves open the heart to the mystery. Origen used to say: "Every true question is like the lance which pierces the side of Christ causing blood and water to flow forth."

In this light we understand why Christ is not first of all the answer: He is first the restlessness of the query, as we see by the fact that the Gospel opens with the word "metanoéite," change your heart and life. Only at this price is Jesus also the peace and the truth which enlightens. Therefore if we want to find true answers for our condition as pilgrims in history toward the homeland of God's promise, we must listen to the true questions which lie at the heart of history itself, since they will open us toward the enlightening darkness of the mystery.

Very often the mission of the Church fails because we answer questions no one is asking, or we pose questions which interest no one. The challenge is to discern the true questions, the questions that God writes on the tablet of our heart and of our time.

This is why my reflection on "religion and freedom" is developed in three parts, similar to the arches of a bridge joining thought to life. In the first arch -- which I call "Horizon" or "Searching For the Infinitely Loving Father-Mother" -- I listen to the questions posed by our heart and by the landscape of our times, so that the true question may enter our mind and open us to the horizons of mystery.

In the second arch of the bridge -- that I call "Principles" or "Religion and Freedom From Modern to Postmodern Time" -- I listen to the development of the ideas of freedom and religion in modern European history.

Lastly, in the third and final part -- the third arch of the bridge, which I call "Consequences" or "What to Do to Respect and to Promote a True Relationship Between Religion and Freedom in Church and Society today" -- I reflect on what emerges from the two previous parts to inspire practical choices in Church and society.

1. Horizon: Searching For the Infinitely Loving Father-Mother

a) What is the greatest question which lies at the heart of our heart? The question which makes us restless and thoughtful: "Fecisti cor nostrum ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te." "You have made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it rest in you." It is Augustine who speaks at the beginning of his "Confessions." The burning question which each of us carries in the depths of his heart is in fact the question of suffering and death. If there were no death there would be no thought, everything would be a flat eternity: To live is also to learn to die, to live together with the silent, persistent, tenacious challenge of death.

It is pointless to search for evasion as we often do, or easy consolation like that of Epicurius who says: "When death comes I will not be, and as long as I am, death will not come." These words are in fact only a pun, an illusion, because death is not only the final destiny, the last act, it is something imminent which hangs over and weighs on each day of our fragile, perishable living.

To struggle with death means answering questions which suddenly spring up in the heart like piercing wounds: What is my destiny? What is the meaning of life? Where am I going with all my worries, consolations and joys? And when I have all that I desire what else will I long for except that final victory, the victory over death? It is death then which sets us thinking: This is the paradox of the human condition.

The thought of death as our destiny and challenge prompts a counterattack, like a need to defeat the apparent triumph of death: To think is to struggle against death! So, we are at the same time thrown toward death, as Heidegger says, and yet fashioned for life. Without this contrast we would accept the destiny of death as something obvious and certain, without worrying about it, without seeking to give a meaning to life.

The fact that death makes us think and that we feel the need to give significance to our acts and days is the sign that deep in our heart we, pilgrims on the way to death, are in fact called to life. Within us there is an indestructible longing for the face of Someone who will take away our suffering and tears, who will redeem the infinite pain of death.

When we are alone and sad, when no one seems to love us and we even have reason to despise or criticize ourselves, from the depths of the heart there arises a restlessness, a longing for someone Other who will welcome us, make us feel loved in spite of everything, and defeat the final enemy, death. This longing which appears is the image of the Father, or if you like of the Mother, because "father" and "mother" are in this sense only two metaphors to express the same need inscribed in our heart: the need to have someone to trust without reserve, an anchor, a haven in which to rest our insecurity, our pain, in the certainty that we will not be thrown back into the abyss of our nothingness.

As such the figure of the Father is at the same time the figure of the loving Mother, the womb, the homeland, the origin in which we place all that we are. If in the depths of our heart we find anxiety facing the supreme challenge of death, and this makes us pensive, if life becomes a struggle to defeat death, then the image of the infinitely loving Father-Mother is something we all need.

Hence we cannot fail to ask ourselves: Why, if this is so, is it the case that in so many there is a visceral rejection of the "father-mother" figure? Why do we all, sooner or later, experience a moment when we contest the image of the father-mother in love?

Let us try to understand this contradiction between the need of a father-mother figure to overcome our anguish and at the same time the rejection of it, by reading a text taken from "The Letter to the Father," by Franz Kafka: "The feeling of nothingness which often dominates me," Kafka says, "originates in large part from your influence.

"I was able to enjoy all that you gave us only at the price of shame, fatigue, weakness and a sense of guilt. I could only be grateful to you as a beggar, not with facts. The first visible result of this education was that it made me flee from anything which reminded me, even vaguely, of you."

How often rejection of the father stems from a need to gain independence! How often paternity-maternity becomes possessiveness, slavery, dominion! This is when we see the dramatic image of the father's murder.

In actual fact, one of the most profound causes of the anguish found in the human heart is that -- although everyone wants to conquer death -- we all need a loving father-mother to embrace us, with regard to whom, nevertheless, we all, in one way or another, experience moments of rejection for fear of suffocation. The murder of the father is a sort of ritual murder, an act to affirm our independence, our autonomy. So we are all doomed to a never-ending condition of being orphans, consequently longing for a loving mother and father, and yet fleeing in order to remain free and independent like the prodigal son, who chooses to take his heritage in order to manage his own life.

This then is the great question: We need someone who will reveal to us the face of a loving father-mother, who does not create dependence, does not make us slaves; a father-mother who loves us and renders us free. We need a father-mother who does not compete with our freedom, but is its very foundation, the ultimate guarantee of truth and peace in our heart, who at the same time will heal our anguish with the medicine of love, and also heal that fear of losing our freedom, making us feel loved in a freedom which does not make us slaves, and does not create dependence. This is the infinitely loving Father-Mother sought by the human heart.

b) And at the heart of history? Here is the second landscape of our search for true questions: What happened to the father-mother figure in the last century? In the book "Age of Extremes -- The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991," by Eric J. Hobsbawm (Penguin Books, 1994), opened in 1914 with the outbreak of World War I and closed in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of ideologies. We built a society without fathers: This -- to be brutal -- is the basis of the modern process of emancipation.

From the Enlightenment onward, emancipation became the great dream of hearts, of minds, of the masses of humanity. But what is emancipation? Karl Marx in his book "The Jewish Question" defines it as follows: "Emancipation means leading everything in this world back to man, to man alone." There is no "God": There is only the human being who must run his life, his destiny alone. This was the great dream of modernity: Modern ideologies, left wing and right wing, pursued this ambitious goal of emancipating man, rendering him the subject instead of the object of his history.

The "great tales" ("meta-narratives," "mega-récits") of the modernity, which ideologies are -- myths just like those they were supposed to replace -- have in common the claim to build a world in which man is the only subject and agent, both the origin and summit of all that happens. It cannot be denied that this project is fascinating and we are all its children. Which of us would want to live in a society which has not passed through the process of emancipation?

Nevertheless, this dream had satanic effects: The dream of emancipating the world and life was shattered in the unheard of violence which the age of emancipation produced, eloquent signs of which are the Shoah of the Jews and all the holocausts of our times, up to the holocaust of famine consumed day after day. Is this the fruit of adult reason? Is this the result of the great ideologies of the left and the right?

Now, the fatherless society is precisely the one which followed the dream of emancipation by eliminating the father. The bitter fruit of totalitarian and violent emancipation however causes the need to recognize the face of a welcoming father-mother to be felt once again. This is not the search for the father-mother who is the party, or money, or power, rather it is the search for a father-mother who establishes at the same time each individual person's dignity and freedom, giving meaning to life.

We could say, then, that the most profound sickness of this age which we call postmodern, is that we -- orphans of ideologies -- are all weaker, more fragile, more tempted to shut ourselves up in the solitude of our selfishness. When there are no horizons of truth we drown in the solitude of our own particular selves. And this shows still more that we all need a common father-mother to set us free from the prison of our solitude, to give us a horizon for hoping and loving, not the violent one of ideology, but a liberating horizon. There is a nostalgia for a hidden face, the need for a common homeland which gives horizons of meaning without exercising violence.

In this light, life appears either as a pilgrimage toward a promised homeland or as a mere waiting for death. There is no other choice. Life is either a passion, a searching and therefore a restlessness, or it is a dying every day a little, evading, escaping in all the many drugs with which our society is afflicted, and which only serve to dull our senses and are incapable of posing authentic questions.

We need to make the decision: "I will arise and return to my father!" This is the great decision which our postmodern age needs. To help their traveling companions to make this decision, believers are the first who must arise and move toward the Father. So this brief inquiry to listen to our heart and to the heart of our time, leads to a first temporary conclusion: We need to become pilgrims once again, to overcome the frustration which at times grips us, especially when we see no results, no fruits.

The most important thing for those who believe in God is not to harvest, but to sow: The sowing will bear fruit in time when and how God wills. Therefore we must say "no" to frustration and "yes" to a passion for the truth which leads us to pose true questions so we may search for the hidden face, the face of the father-mother in love. The core of the Church's mission today is to proclaim this face to all those who are in search of it.

[Text adapted]


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