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Stratford Caldecott

This article originally appeared on the Centre for Faith and Culture website developed by Stratford Caldecott.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, who died in 1988, was one of the major figures in Catholic intellectual life, and a major influence on both Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II. His theological vision and output was immense, taking in the whole range of European religious history and literature. His work may be seen in many ways as the culmination of the "new theology" and "ressourcement" movements of the early twentieth century, in which he was closely associated with figures such as Henri de Lubac, Louis Bouyer and Jean Danielou. He differed from his famous contemporary, the great Karl Rahner, in several important respects, especially concerning the foundations of Christian anthropology (the "supernatural existential"). For reasons connected with his decision to leave the Jesuits and found the Community of St John with the mystic Adrienne von Speyr, he was forced to work in the ecclesiastical wilderness for many years, before achieving recognition in the form of the Paul VI Prize for theology and eventually a Cardinalate from John Paul II.

The Centre for Faith & Culture instituted in 1995 an annual lecture series called the Hans Urs von Balthasar Lectures. Each Lecture is subsequently published in Communio (see below). The first lecturer (in December 1995) was Professor David L. Schindler (Gagnon Professor of Fundamental Theology at the John Paul II Institute in Washington). He spoke about the tension between "conservative" and "progressive" statements in the documents of the Second Vatican Council - and particularly about the apparent tension in Gaudium et Spes between a radical Christocentrism and the autonomy of the created order, which he found resolved by Pope John Paul II read in the light of Hans Urs von Balthasar's theology. The second Lecture was given by Fr Jacques Servais SJ, Rector of the Casa Balthasar in Rome, on Balthasar's theology of the Secular Institutes. The third Lecture will be given by Mgr Angelo Scola, Rector of the Lateran University, on 21 March 1998. The topic is "The Nuptial Mystery at the Heart of the Church" - one of the most controversail aspects of Balthasar's ecclesial vision.

In 1972, Balthasar with a number of his colleagues and friends founded an international cultural and theological review called Communio. It now exists in the form of 13 distinct and semi-autonomous editions in different languages around the world. At present, the only English-language edition is the American, which is edited from Washington, DC, by David L. Schindler. This is distributed outside North America by T&T Clark Publishers.

In this connection it might be interesting to assemble here some texts defining the mission of Communio. Fr Antonio Sicari OCD once reflected on the ideals of the journal in the light of an article by Balthasar in the first-ever issue, more than twenty years ago. Communio, he writes, is a "place of observation" in which one may locate oneself to do theology; "a place of observation in which existing tensions and divisions are seen, to be sure, in all their seriousness and hardness, but in the certainty that they are already vanquished and embraced, in such a way that this certainty dictates a precise theological method and throws its characteristic light on problems" - including the problem of divisions within the Church. Quoting L. Sartori, he affirms "the value of communion and communication among the greatest possible number of reflective believers, as if all were simultaneously in the circle".

Such "ambitions" - if one can call them that - for Communio cannot be fully realized within the printed pages of a journal. They require a living encounter among readers and authors. Even conferences are too formal and occasional to fill the need. Therefore the original founders of the review envisaged regular local meetings of readers to pray together and to discuss issues or articles. There are currently 20 such groups meeting in North America, and the concept is spreading to the UK. The first C-circle in Great Britain was formed in 1996 by Anthony F. Schmitz, with an inaugural meeting at Pluscarden Abbey near Aberdeen. (For the places and dates of future meetings, please contact Tony Schmitz at 77 University Road, Aberdeen, AB2 3DR.) There are plans to start study circles in London, Cambridge and Oxford. Please contact us for further details, or watch for announcements.

The first meeting of the Scottish circle was reported by The Tablet, but Tony Schmitz felt it was important to correct a false impression some might have received from the report, and the paper was good enough to print his letter in the following issue. It read, in part: "To associate Communio with merely 'traditionalist ideas'... is something of a distortion. In the words of one of its founders, the mission of Communio is 'to fight against the deadly polarization brought on by the fervour displayed by traditionalists and modernists alike'."

The paper, however, omitted the more positive part of the quotation supplied in Tony's letter, concerning the Review's mission: "to perceive the Church as a central communio, a community that originated from communion with Christ, who presented himself as a gift to the Church; as a communio that will enable us to share our hearts, thoughts and blessings." The quotation is from Balthasar, who continues as follows: "Experience teaches us that leading a Catholic life today is only possible where the mystery has retained its complete depth, where dogmas are not perceived as problems, curtailed in their essential dimensions and reduced to purely human understanding, or where secondary forms of tradition are not selected as criteria for affiliation with the Church. Both extremes engender fanaticism, while genuine communion will only thrive based on the serenity shared by the children of God."

In the same article, Balthasar concluded that the truth in which Catholics believe should "strip us bare", like lambs among wolves. "It is not a matter of bravado, but of Christian courage, to expose oneself to risk. People begin to commune with one another when they are not afraid of one another and not ashamed of opening their hearts to one another. Then it is no empty paradox to say, 'When I am weak, then I am strong' (2 Cor. 12:10)."

Communio International Catholic Review

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