College of Fellows

Response to the Lineamenta for the Synod on the New Evangelization

Dr. Velma Richmond, DSPT Fellow

It is appropriate to begin my comments with an apologia. I am not in the habit of evaluating documents prepared for a Synod of Bishops. I have spent my life studying imaginative literature, delighting in stories told in various genres across the ages. Father Michael Sweeney, OP, followed his invitation with an encouragement that what was said in today's discussion could be included in a report to the Vatican; this only exacerbated my anxiety. For many years as a Professor of English, I regularly discussed texts in classes. Since my retirement, introvert that I am, I live quietly with the books that I love, and thank God for blessing me with a life I could not have imagined in my youth. Being a Fellow of the DSPT is one; thus I accepted my assignment and read the Lineamenta lin. And I found the prospect of commenting daunting.

As a literary critic I have always emulated John Dryden's The Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668), in which he expressed a phenomenal capacity to perceive merits in all. Incidentally Dryden, at considerable worldly cost to himself, converted to Roman Catholicism in 1686. I also think that reviewers' task is to comment on what was written, not substitute what they would have written. In this context, I offer uneasy responses.

First, it is easy to embrace the broad subject “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Faith” with enthusiasm. However, it is not easy to find specific details in a document, written to initiate discernment and heavily reliant on general questions, that defines, “The new evangelization is primarily a spiritual activity capable of recapturing in our times the courage and forcefulness of the first Christians and the first missionaries” (11). Spiritual activity, “a personal encounter with Jesus Christ,” is not, it seems to me, easily put into words; both fourteenth-century mystics and today's guides to contemplation stop with the ineffable, epitomized in Martin Laird's title Into the Silent Land (2006). Contemporary society's obsessive demands to know “How do you feel?—You whose loved one was just murdered? You who have just escaped a sinking ship or a terrorist attack? You who have just been dismissed from work that you love? And so on.—predicate that emotional outpouring expression is good for all. This is only one of many characteristics of secular culture that distress me.

Six problems were named: secular culture of relativism, globalization, means of social communication, economy, scientific and technological research, civic and political life. New Evangelization, which means having “the boldness to raise the question of God in the context of these problems thereby fulfilling the specific character of the Church's mission and showing how the Christian perspective enlightens, in an unprecedented way, the great problems of history,” calls for “work in our local Churches to devise a plan for evaluating the previously mentioned phenomena in such a manner as to transmit the Gospel of hope in a practical way” (16). What does “a practical way” mean and entail?

Chapter II Proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ acknowledges that

“The lay faithful, in virtue of their participation in the prophetic mission of Christ, are fully part of this work of the Church. Their responsibility, in particular, is to testify how the Christian faith constitutes the only fully valid response—consciously perceived and stated by all in varying degrees—to the problems and hopes that life poses to every person and society. This will be possible if the lay faithful will know how to overcome in themselves the separation of the Gospel from life, to again take up in their daily activities in family, work and society, an integrated approach to life that is fully brought about by the inspiration and strength of the Gospel” (22).

Along with a statement about gifts and challenges, is the sentence “the scarcity of priests makes their activity less incisive than desired” (26), while the last paragraph includes among “fruits of transmitting the faith the courage to speak out against infidelity and scandal which arise in Christian communities as a sign and consequence of moments of fatigue and weariness in the work of proclamation” (28). Expectations for the laity are thus both substantial and fundamental. But what precisely does one do?

Having expressed my concern and disappointment with a lack of specifics, I am obliged to devote my last minutes to personal observation. One review of my latest book about Shakespeare observed that it “aims to take its place in a culture war still being fought” and, referring to the opening of my documentary film about Chaucer, declared “Richmond resides in the “Poet's Corner.” [1] I am not certain whether the pugilistic pun was intentional! However, I cannot recall a time when I was not called upon to make the case for the liberal arts and create academic programs in the Humanities. In the halcyon days after World War II when higher education was expanding exponentially and I was a university student and then a young faculty member at Holy Names College—i.e. the 1950s and early 1960s—there was a good chance of winning. Things fell apart in the 1970s, and by the 1980s I was assigning E. D. Hirsh, Jr.'s Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1987) to confront increasing disparities, the loss of a basis for communication let alone understanding. [2]

Circumstances in the current era of crumbling economies seem to me not so much different as exacerbated. Education is being defined as primarily a tool for economic growth, research valued for economic impact, and useless frills (humanities and arts) cut away. The 2006 Spellings Report on the future of higher education in the United States favored applied learning over basic scientific research and basically omitted the humanities. Almost every day brings a report of administrators cutting budgets. Nowhere has the knife been more relentlessly wielded than in the humanities. Foreign languages, an easy mark because not cost effective, are being systematically destroyed, simply removed without any sense of what this means to understanding other cultures—not to mention political liabilities. Even a bastion like Oxford, historically a fount of humanistic values, with centuries of educating through language and literature, recently asked “Whither the Humanities?” [3] This is significant. The role of the humanities is to teach us what it means to be human and what to value in society. I am painfully aware of how professors of humanities have betrayed themselves and their disciplines. Nevertheless, I think that literature can contribute to the New Evangelization because it presents human, practical grappling with life experience in ways that theology and philosophy, rooted and expressed in abstractions, do not. Similarly, literature's singular understanding avoids the diffusion of analyzing groups and statistical codification used by the social sciences.

Consider the Gospel message of love. In the abstract beautiful, compelling, uplifting, so simple and easy to embrace in prayerful meditation. Confront the realities of human beings—not always so appealing and easy to embrace. I offer two literary considerations. Muriel Spark wrote her first novel The Comforters (1957) to cope with and clarify complexities of conversion to Roman Catholicism. Her protagonist Caroline Rose, a writer who experiences “mysteries,” tries to survive the variety of persons found in the Church: from a contemplative who retreats and cannot cope with daily life to a gargoyle who dominates everyone by so relentlessly asserting Catholic community that she is not real-life. During her spiritual retreat Caroline faces the difficulty of balancing individuality with community:

The demands of the Christian religion are exorbitant, they are outrageous. Christians who don't realize that from the start are not faithful. They are dishonest; their teachers are talking in their sleep. “Love one another … brethren, beloved …your brother, neighbors, love, love, love”—do they know what they are saying?

The second example is, predictably, Shakespeare. Falstaff—gross, self-indulgent, even criminal, albeit quick-witted and funny, is never more compelling than when he accurately defines and exalts himself, and then asks Prince Hal to accept him:

If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked! … If to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh's lean kine are to be loved. No, my good lord, banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins, but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant as he is old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry's company, banish not him thy Harry's company—banish plump Jack, and banish all the world (II. iv. 465-76).

Prince Hal's reply is “I do, I will,” and the audience instantly recognizes a political strategist. Alternatively, consider Cymbeline's approval of Posthumus's forgiveness of slander and theft, when he declares, “Pardon's the word for all” (V.v.426). Cymbeline, set in the time of Augustus, led an army that defeated the Romans; but he submits and pays tribute to Caesar. He declares “Laud we the gods, … publish peace … Let A / Roman and a British ensign wave / Friendly together” (V.v.480, 483-86). Time prevents a full argument, but surely Shakespeare is glossing Matthew 22.17-22 and making a contemporary application of the Gospel.

Reading and thinking about stories that explore charity in the world adds understanding and hope that could enrich the new evangelization. Both a novel by a contemporary woman and plays by an Early Modern man are deeply rooted in Catholic / Christian belief; they show it not as abstract principal but in specific human behavior. The Lineamenta lin would gain from adding more density.

I began with Dryden, and I will end with his description of Chaucer's poetry, “Here is God's plenty.” From that plenty I choose Chaucer's statement about limitations of the human condition as my concluding apology, “My wit is short, ye may wel understonde” (CT, I.746), and reassurance that a reader can always “Tune oer the leef and chese another tale” CT, I. 3177). There are many others to speak today.

[1] James L. Hedges, Review, Shakespeare as Children's Literature: Edwardian Retellings in Words and Pictures (2008), in Christianity and Literature, 59 (Spring 2010), 544-49. Back to text

[2] (New York: Random House, 1987) contains 5,000 essential names, places, dates, and concepts. Back to text.

[3] Oxford Today, 24 (Michaelmas Term 2011), 26-33. Back to text.