Friday, May 24, 2002

Unique And Irrepeatable

Reflections on CFL: Paragraphs 28 and 29

In this next section of CFL the pope explores the ways the laity participate in the life of the Church, both individually and as a group.

But his introduction to the section is of particular note. For it shows once again the personalist philosophy that is the foundation for JPII's understanding of the world. The pope tells us that:

"each Christian as an individual is "unique and irrepeatable.""
This is a resounding theme of the pope's philosophical writings. Weigel, in his biography Witness To Hope, quotes a letter from JPII to Lubac, in which he writes that the "evil of our times consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed in a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person." One can surmise that this conviction, in part, is drawn from JPII's familiarity with Auschwitz. (Knowing its impact on me when I visited there a few years ago, I can only imagine the influence of what happened there has had on those who were in Poland during WWII.) It is also why JPII believes St. Maximilian Kolbe is such an important witness. Rocco Buttiglione, in his book Karol Wojtyla: The Thought of the Man Who Became Pope John Paul II, reflects on a homily of JPII that makes my point:
"Aushwitz is a place constructed for the destruction of man, for the annihilation of his dignity. Power can certainly not kill all men: it has need of them as servants and instruments. To be sure of these instruments, it must, however, first annihilate their dignity, their self-respect. In the extermination camp, man is reduced to pure animality, and, by the programmed destruction of his spiritual personality it is scientifically demonstrated that he is not a bearer of any superior value but that he is merely a slightly more evolved animal than the others. He is like a trained monkey which can be domesticated, but which is always ready to return to the law of the jungle. From this point of view, humanity is not what is most profound in a man, but what is most superficial. By looking at the brutalization of the victims (and that of the murderers), each is forced to remind himself of what he is in his deepest dimension, and what he could at any moment become if he offended the powers that be or if he did not show himself completely obedient to their orders. The ultimate purpose of the extermination camp is, in a certain sense, metaphysical: it shows that authentic human values in the name of which it would be right to defy power do not exist, because man is only matter, which can by material means be coerced to any end. If, therefore, there is neither truth nor justice in man, if these are only empty words, then in principle the root of all opposition to totalitarian power disappears. Any possible opposition would also have to place itself, if it could, on the terrain of force alone. Precisely for this reason, in virtue of this metaphysical depth which belongs to the horror of Auschwitz, the witness of Fr. Kolbe is not just a witness but a victory. For, by sacrificing his life, he makes the extermination camp useless; he spiritually annuls it by showing at the same time that humanity is what is most profound in man. It is more fundamental for him and belongs to him more intimately than the instinct for self-preservation and all the other natural tendencies that man has in common with other animals. In the place constructed for the annihilation of man, for the negation of his spiritual nature, Kolbe shows the essence of human greatness."
I take the time to present all of that in order to help open your understanding of the mystery of the human person. Too often we say the word without understanding its depth. There is much more to say on the subject of the person, but now at least you might understand the seriousness with which the pope believes that every single person has a part to play in the mission of salvation. "[E]ach member of the lay faithful should always be fully aware of being a "member of the Church" yet entrusted with a unique task which cannot be done by another and which is to be fulfilled for the good of all."

Our uniqueness and irrepeatability is not lost by being members of the one Body of Christ. Instead, the pope tells us, these qualities our fostered by our membership in the Church as they "are the source of variety and richness for the whole Church." This mystery of communion is what the pope is exploring in this section:
"[T]he Lord's words "You too go into my vineyard," directed to the Church as a whole, come specially addressed to each member individually.
[E]ach individual is placed at the service of the growth of the ecclesial community while, at the same time, singularly receiving and sharing in the common richness of all the Church. This is the "Communion of Saints" which we profess in the Creed. The good of all becomes the good of each one and the good of each one becomes the good of all."
And so the pope highlights two forms of participation in the Church's life: lay associations and the apostolate of the individual.

"[I]n modern times such lay groups have received a special stimulus, resulting in the birth and spread of a multiplicity of group forms: associations, groups, communities, movements." The work and focus of these lay associations is quite varied. One of the important reasons for these associations is the reality that "a "cultural" effect can be accomplished through work done not so much by an individual alone but by an individual as "a social being," that is, as a member of a group, of a community, of an association or of a movement." But, with all this talk of apostolates, it is good that the pope reminds us of the need to help support our brothers and sisters in Christ in their daily walk. These groups can "represent for many a precious help for the Christian life in remaining faithful to the demands of the Gospel and to the commitment to the Church's mission and the apostolate."

A danger exists, though, that a lay association might forget that it is still subject to the Church. The pope rightly says that the The Christian faithful are at liberty to found and govern associations for charitable and religious purposes or for the promotion of the Christian vocation in the world; they are free to hold meetings to pursue these purposes in common." But, "the proper relationship [must be] kept to Church authority" and there is "the necessity of "criteria" for discerning the authenticity of the forms which such groups take in the Church."

Not everyone will be a part of a lay association, but everyone has an apostolate. The pope emphasizes this with his discussion of the apostolate of the individual. It is a bold reminder of St. Francis's great command, "Preach the Gospel and, if necessary, use words." JPII wants all of us to remember that a truly Christian life is a great witness to hope. This apostolate knows no boundaries. It is "useful at all times and places" and, in some circumstances, "it is the only one available and feasible." Consider again the witness of St. Kolbe mentioned above. What apostolate was available to him in the middle of Auschwitz other than the apostolate of the individual?

That all the faithful live out this apostolate is vital, says the pope. For in it, he sees an ability to reach more people with the Gospel more often and with greater impact:
"Such an individual form of apostolate can contribute greatly to a more extensive spreading of the Gospel, indeed it can reach as many places as there are daily lives of individual members of the lay faithful. Furthermore, the spread of the Gospel will be continual, since a person's life and faith will be one. Likewise the spread of the Gospel will be particularly incisive, because in sharing fully in the unique conditions of the life, work, difficulties and hopes of their sisters and brothers, the lay faithful will be able to reach the hearts of their neighbors, friends, and colleagues, opening them to a full sense of human existence, that is, to communion with God and with all people."
Coming Soon: Reflections on Paragraphs 30 and 31 ofCFL


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