If I had to select the finest theologians and spiritual writers of the contemporary Church I would choose three:
Pope Benedict, Cardinal Martini (recently deceased), and Cardinal Kasper
Pope Francis to me is more of a pastor than a theologian, though he is that as well. He has become the world’s pastor. One who remains elusive in the sense that he is full of surprises! What a blessing he has been to the Church and the world.
In the late 1970s I read a book by Cardinal Kasper (CK) entitled “Jesus the Christ.” It was my earlier introduction to this superb thinker. He is viewed with the highest regard within the Church. I subscribe to this view, independent of him sharing my heritage.
Paulist Press recently published two books by CK. They are entitled “Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the key to Christian Life” and “The Gospel of the Family.” My thoughts: get a copy. You will note that I did not qualify this recommendation. CK is in a rather limited company of contemporary spiritual masters, and these books are recent proof.
The Gospel of the Family is a small and short book packed with great insights on the family. It is an intense read. You’ll have to take your time with it.
CK is not afraid to think outside the box. That is a feature of great minds and persons. They are willing to venture into the unknown yet without ignoring the foundations of the faith. He addresses a problem for which for decades he has been known for wrestling with: the admission to communion of divorced and remarried (but not annulled) Catholics. He is prudent, thorough, and pastoral.
How could I not recommend a book on the family by an acknowledged master, writing in his specialty, during a time of crisis on the subject, as recognized by the upcoming Synod on the family.
This book addresses a crucial issue in a masterly fashion. It also offers a mini-catechesis on the anthropology of gender and sexuality. Worth studying and pondering. Get it. Even if some parts require rereading, it is worth the time.
This book nicely complements Mercy, by CK. The latter is slightly easier to read, in my opinion, but it is no less substantive. It is much longer, 270 pages.
Permit me to indulge in a subjective personal observation. Within the Germanic bloodlines is a gift for intellectual inquiry and expression. It is present in other heritages of course, but I believe it is a gift that is not unique to Germans, but is certainly apparent. Pope Benedict is another example.
And Germans can be intense. When applied to intellectual pursuits, this can be a particular charism. Cardinal Kasper knows his stuff. When he addresses an issue, he is thorough and balanced. He is not just touting opinions. Once he gets started, he dissects his subject with masterly efficiency. You know you are in the presence of true substance. A master teacher and thinker.
It is interesting to have a book on mercy come from a German, as within our tradition are many examples of the opposite. Sometimes the least likely surprise us with revelations that astound us.
Mercy is so needed in our Church and society. It is essential for the family, where strict justice has no place (Niebuhr). Both CK books are masterpieces that are appropriate for anyone. Yes, those without theological training will struggle with them, perhaps mightily. They’ll need help. But the message justifies the effort.
CK handles biblical texts masterfully even though he is not strictly speaking a biblical scholar/specialist. He is known for his theological acumen. However, his biblical expositions show his mastery of the material that even calls into question my aforementioned statement. If he is not a biblical specialist, he sure writes like one.
Which leads us to Cardinal Martini, who shares much in common with CK.
Recently deceased (2012), Martini for years was the foremost biblical scholar in the Church. A renowned text critic, he did more to promote biblical spirituality that anyone else. He Jesuitized lectio divina and made it international. He was a once in a generation biblical master.
Alba House recently published a book entitled “The Challenges of Christian Community: Loving, Correcting, Forgiving, and Searching for the Lost.” It is an extended homily or exposition of Mt 18, a discourse on Church discipline.
In reading this short book, I discovered a Martini that is not always present in his other books. Often he holds down his exegesis simply to remain accessible to the reader or audience. Here, he takes off the shackles and reveals a brilliance of analysis that many who have studied under him were long aware of.
If you can pardon the profane example, it is like watching the Beatles in a recording studio in 1965-1967. You know you are in the presence of a master at work. He opens up the Scriptures in a way that only a few can.
In fact, I have learned far more from Martini on how to interpret the Bible than from anyone else. That is a benefit of reading his books. They have an osmotic quality of teaching you by example how to approach the biblical text.
He reminds me of Cardinal Kasper in his incisive analysis. it is like Beethoven composing a symphony, or a master surgeon operating. You are in the presence of greatness, doing their thing.
Mt 18, the subject of this book, is one of the most important chapters in the Bible. After reading this book, I understand more fully why. Further, it gave me a greater appreciation for the evangelist himself. Matthew is a genius. There is a reason his Gospel comes first. With apologies to the others, if i absolutely had to choose only one Gospel to accompany me on a desert island, it would be Matthew. This does not mean that it is better than the others. Such comparisons limp. It bridges the Old and New Testament, and for that reason in my judgment it stands alone. Not better, as I said, but different.
We are halfway through the liturgical year showcasing Matthew. It is a great time to explore this uncanny evangelist and his inspired masterpiece.
Martini touches upon the reason why Matthew stands out. Pardon, forgiveness. Certainly Luke and John emphasize this. In equally profound ways. Luke in a sense is the Gospel of Forgiveness.
But the ending of Chapter 18, discussed insightfully by Martini, provides the key to Matthew’s brilliance in a way that is lost on us at first.
The parable of the wicked servant ends on an ominous note, with the king, representative of God, seemingly putting a limit on his forgiveness. He forgave the unrepayable debt surprisingly and magnanimously, but when the servant fails to respond properly, he rescinds the forgiveness. This seems to contradict the message of the chapter, the importance of unlimited forgiveness on both the human and divine plane, 7 times 77. Why would Matthew end on such a harsh and foreboding note? If you are not afraid, you have missed the point.
Matthew has a habit of describing things in scary terms. His apocalyptic discourse in chapter 24 is more ominous that the other Synoptic Gospels. His images of hell and damnation are downright chilling. Even in the context of mercy and justice, as in Mt 25:31-46.
I have often wondered why Jesus / Matthew ends this parable with a provocation of fear. Fire and brimstone. Don’t blow your one chance. Blood-curdling punishment.
However, what underlies this is a theological and moral principle of the highest order, one which is present in veiled terms in the Old Testament (including, surprisingly, in the book of Sirach, where we are told that no one is in a position in which he can justifiably judge or withhold forgiveness from another) and throughout the Old Testament. It is the centrality of pardon, which is intimately connected with justice.
Pardon is not rigorism or laxity. Pardon is peace. I believe that Matthew and Jesus mean to scare us, not in the sense of frighten, but of warning. There is nothing more dangerous and unforgiveable than blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit brings forgiveness. To blaspheme the Spirit means to definitively close oneself off from God. I don’t need or want God, and I will not receive Him. I freely and unequivocally choose against Him. I will not listen or respond. Period. This is much more than the hardening of heart mentioned in the Bible. It is a definitive, irreversible hardening of the heart. Given every chance, the person remains freely entrenched in his isolation. He becomes his own god.
When we deny others forgiveness, whether in the name of justice, tough love, or whatever we choose to call it, we put ourselves in the perilous position of judge. There is only one qualified to judge, not only others, but ourselves. Jesus. The merciful one. And I believe that Jesus and Matthew, evangelists of mercy, are merciful to us in communicating in no uncertain terms the centrality of forgiveness. Matthew appends the Our Father with an exhortation to forgiveness.
If God and Matthew have to scare us into it, so be it. Unforgiveness is a scary topic. Who among us is not in infinite need of unforgiveness? And yet to deny it to another………….
I thank Cardinal Martini, and Cardinal Kasper, for bringing this message home in an eloquent manner. How much healthier and happier I would be if I stopped judging others, stopped seeking revenge, however I cloak and disguise it, and submit to the Lord. This is among the most difficult spiritual tasks, for it puts us squarely on the cross. We hand over our egos, hopes, and hurts to the one who penetrated them and healed them from the inside, first hand, who encountered death and received life. We don’t forsake justice, we purify it, refine it, allow it, for justice ultimately comes from God.
Jesus really died. Do you believe that? In a fully human way. He no longer existed in life as we know it. It was the end. but only only temporarily. Actually, it was the beginning. The start of something new and better. And there is no better way to experience this than forgiveness. When we forgive others, we actualize God’s forgiveness of us. Goodbye guilt and self-hatred. Hello shalom. Jesus lives to forgive and intercede for us. Woe be it for us if we refuse to join him.
as that classic either lutheran or methodist 1960’s commercial recalling the Good samaritan put it “Forgive him: it will teach him a lesson.”
Mercy and the Gospel of the Family can be ordered from Paulist Press. Their website is paulistpress.com. Their phone number is 1-800-218-1903. “The Challenges of Christian Community” can be ordered from Alba House. They can be reached at albahouse.org or 1-800-343-ALBA.
All three books are spiritual classics. Deservedly reviewed together, given the congruence of their style, quality, and spirit. High praise indeed, but merited. Secure a copy, and drink in their riches.