“The whole world is in a terrible state o’ chassis”, Captain Boyle, famously proclaimed in Irish dramatist Sean O’Casey’s masterpiece, Juno and the Paycock.
Indeed it is, and we suppose it always will be. The evidence is compelling. It’s a long, long story and it’s not really a terribly productive pursuit to go on analysing the ‘whys’ and the ‘wherefores’ of it all. But what is incumbent on us is to constantly and creatively respond to and deal as best we can with each new symptom of chaos, generally in the form of some crisis, as it arrives on our doorstep – whether personal, local or global. Generally there are plenty to choose from.
Just now we have the Brexit fallout and its related knock-on implications for the future of the troubled states of the European Union. Across the Atlantic there are the multiple storms associated with a very unusual new US administration, and further to our east we have an enigmatic Russian regime which might or might not be playing high stakes cat and mouse games with its nervous neighbours. ‘Plenty of potential for chassis there – accepting Captain Boyle’s Malapropism – to be going on with.
I often wondered what St. Josemaría Escrivá meant when he wrote “A secret. – An open secret: these world crises are crises of saints”. It’s an intriguing and even strange phrase. But it is only strange if we limit our understanding of what saints are to those popular images we have of them – halos, pious postures and sometimes living hermetic reclusive lives separated from the affairs of the world. These were the saints a good number of us grew up with, and who indeed may have played an important role n helping generations of Christians to model their lives according to the teaching of Christ.
But these saints do not really get to the heart of St. Josemaría’s challenging phrase, which seems to suggest that being a saint offers some hope of a resolution of the world’s problems. Is that credible? Daringly, maybe outrageously for some, he maintains that it is.
The origins of his thinking about this, and its place in his teaching about what being a saint in the middle of the world is all about, is elaborated by the editor of the critical-historical edition of the book in which he first put this statement down on paper, The Way.*
What the phrase essentially underlines is the central idea of Escrivá, that Earth is really only properly understood in the context of Heaven and that if the problems of the earth are to be solved at all they can only be truly solved on that horizon where heaven and earth meet in the hearts of women and men, in the reality of holiness, that is, sanctity, the stuff of saints.
This phrase, and the chapter of the book from which it comes, is an example of his insistence on the correspondence to grace — holiness — of those who have become aware of God’s calling. That calling was a universal one, not one for the special few – the saints of popular piety. It was a call for all women and men because it was, it is, the express will of God that all be saved. The doctrine on holiness, the editor of the edition points out, is not an idea outside time, but is an idea realised in time, and more specifically, it determines the solution to the “world crises”.
This idea permeated all of St. Josemaría’s teaching and preaching. On another occasion, stating it in very practical terms, he reminded people, putting before them a very simple ideal:
“If every country had a group of holy fathers of families, holy doctors, holy architects, holy workers, all the world’s problems would be solved.”’
Nor did he see it as a big numbers game. The same point in The Way is completed with this rider:
God wants a handful of men, “of his own” in each human activity. – And then…pax Christi in regno Christi – the peace of Christ in the kingdom of Christ.
In 1937, when he was in hiding during the Spanish Civil War, he explained his vision in more detail in a homily:
“A pinch of salt is enough to season a meal for many. To impart new savour to the world, relatively few people will be necessary. But these few, by obeying God’s Will, have to truly be salt that cures and seasons. […] If we carry out our apostolate, then the face of the world will change, and the disorder and wretchedness we see in the world will be replaced with Christian peace and happiness. Then peace will spread throughout the world.”
He always rejected any conception of Christian life as something ‘private’ which absents itself from the “world crises” —- a mistaken sense of ‘interior life’ — and puts, instead, the ‘interior life’ in strict and close connection with ‘human activity’, with the problems of human society.
In this, as in all things, Escrivá’s vision was always united to the popes of his time. He was moved by the vision of Pope Pius XI who used the expression “Pax Christi in regno Christi” which to a great extent summarised his pontificate’s programme laid out in his first encyclical (1922). There Pius recalled that his predecessor, Pius X, in taking as his motto ‘To restore all things in Christ’ was inspired from on High to lay the foundations of that ‘work of peace’ which became the programme and principal task of Benedict XV. These two programmes of Our Predecessors We desire to unite in one — the re-establishment of the Kingdom of Christ by peace in Christ – ‘the peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ . With might and main We shall ever strive to bring about this peace, putting Our trust in God, who when He called Us to the Chair of Peter, promised that the divine assistance would never fail Us.” (Urbi arcano 22)
The teaching of Pius XI gave a great impetus in those years to Catholics to take seriously their responsibilities in the public square. Nevertheless, the understanding of the role of lay people in the life of the Church and in society still remained limited and the universal vision of St. Josemaría was not widely appreciated.
As the editor this edition states in his note, St Josemaría goes to the root of the problem, beyond social and political factors and every form of Catholic organisation. He sees peace as the result of men and women of God – saints – present in all human activity: the peace of Christ springing from within human activity.
His theology of peace, so to speak, has to be seen in close connection with a ‘locutio divina’ more than five years earlier, and which remained engraved in his soul for ever. It took place on 7 August 1931. In his personal notes from that time St Josemaría left an account of this intervention of God in his life, written and dated that very day.
Referring to the celebration of Mass that day, he wrote:
The moment of the Consecration arrived; as I raised the Sacred Host, without losing proper recollection, without being distracted — I had just mentally made my offering to the most merciful Love — some words of Scripture came to my mind, with extraordinary force and clarity: ‘et si exultatus fuero a terra, omnia traham ad meipsum’ (And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all things to myself: John 12:32). And I understood that it would be the men and women of God who would raise the Cross, with the teachings of Christ, above the summit of all human activity. And I saw Our Lord triumphant, drawing all things to Himself.”
In a recent column by Erasmus in the Economist, reflecting on the origins of the European Union in the aftermath of the horrors of two wars, the Catholic inspiration which was central to that movement in the persons of Robert Schuman, Alcide de Gaspari and Konrad Adenauer is noted. These men, some of whom are now being thought of as candidates for canonisation, were types of the saints Escrivá saw as proper to the modern world, responders to its crises in a thoroughly modern way but moved to do so from the deepest resources of lives sustained by grace and sanctity.
The Erasmus column looks at the resurgence of Catholicism in France but sees it as a much weaker player now in the politics of that nation. Nevertheless, its influence is there and perhaps it will only be when, or if, the fullness of Christian virtue begins to flower in the lives of people that the many crises of that nation will be responded to effectively and fruitfully.
Romano Guardini has called for a purer reading of Christ’s role in the world and an end to the reductive reading of him as the greatest and wisest man who ever lived. Again, it is a reading which calls on his followers to be saints, people who as such must read the world and their place in it in a truly radical way, not just followers of another great leader.
“Christ does not step into the row of great philosophers with a better philosophy; or of the moralists with a purer morality; or of the religious geniuses to conduct man deeper into the mysteries of life; he came to tell us that our whole existence, with all its philosophy and ethics and religion, its economics, art, and nature, is leading us away from God and into the shoals. He wants to help us swing the rudder back into the divine direction, and to give us the necessary strength to hold that course. Any other appreciation of Christ is worthless. If this is not valid, then every man for himself; let him choose whatever guide seems trustworthy, and possibly Goethe or Plato or Buddha is a better leader than what remains of a Jesus Christ whose central purpose and significance have been plucked from him. Jesus actually is the Rescue-pilot who puts us back on the right course.”
This is a hard saying for the world to accept. It offends our vain-glorious sense of self-sufficiency. But there it is, until it does, these world crises will go on and on in their chaotic way. Some will leave us muddled, like poor Captain Boyle. Others, tragically will once again plunge us into the abyss of human degradation. The choice is ours.
In our struggles with the world’s and our own crises, we may be, as T.S. Eliot said, “only undefeated because we have gone on trying”. But that is not a little. That, in fact, in the eyes of our Creator, is certain victory.
- The Way (Critical-Historical Edition), P. Rodriguez, Scepter.