Article, The Catholic Herald, 5th November 2010
Let’s help young Catholics to enter the public square.
The Sacred Heart connects private devotion to public witness, says David W. Parsons
One of the most satisfying aspects of the papal visit is that it actually managed to open up a debate, both within the Church and outside it, about the relationship between faith and reason and religion and politics. The “best-kept secret of the Church”, Catholic social teaching, is now something which even my non-Catholic students are at least vaguely aware of. And that is quite something.
The genuine warmth of affection of young people for Benedict xvi, despite the horrendous press coverage prior to the visit, is a great testament to the commitment of a generation for whom the future looks increasingly bleak. If this enthusiasm is not to fade and wither away the Church has to ensure that the young people who cheered and who also stood in silent prayer with Pope Benedict can have faith in the future and a future lived in faith. In part this will be about making the faith more visible. This means that we have to engage young people with the question of how faith connects with political, economic and social problems, as well as how faith connects with scientific and technological problems.
It is interesting when reflecting on the role of faith in what Benedict XVI called the “national conversation” that one of the founding fathers of Catholic social teaching, Leo XIII, had something important to say about the connection between faith and public affairs. He was, of course, the same pope who dedicated the whole world to the Sacred Heart in 1899. In his encyclical Annum Sacrum he makes it clear that the consecration had an expressly political purpose. The consecration, he argued, could serve to “draw tighter the bonds which naturally connect public affairs to God” and serve to address the way in which (then, as now) faith was being excluded from public life.
For Leo XIII, the consecration of the whole world to the Sacred Heart was not just about the private devotion of the faithful; it was also a means of connecting public affairs with spiritual affairs. The Sacred Heart was seen as a very visible symbol of the Catholic faith which Leo hoped could serve to “give hope of better things” in the public sphere. And it remains so today. When the present Pope and Archbishop Vincent Nichols are urging us to make the faith more visible and, in Leo’s words, “connect it to public affairs”, we should keep in mind this very important relationship between the social teaching of the Church and that most traditional of Catholic images, the Sacred Heart of Jesus: the most powerful icon of the love of God for all creation.
In the 1950s and 1960s it would have been difficult to find a Catholic home without an image of the Sacred Heart. And yet by the 1970s this was fast becoming a thing of the past. I confess that as a student I was not particularly keen on the images with which we are all familiar. And that is a great pity, because when once we get past those oftentimes simplistic images and contemplate the meaning which they contain we can understand why Leo XIII saw a profound connection between what he had said his encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891 and his consecration of the world to the Sacred Heart in 1899. I count myself very fortunate that my own faith in the future and my own determination to live a life in faith was strengthened through reading the work of the French Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He renewed my faith by opening up my mind to the connection between my spiritual life and my academic and political life, between faith and reason. Teilhard taught me to look at the image of the Sacred Heart as nothing less than an image of the energy of love which radiates from the heart of the cosmos itself. He taught me to focus on the task of what he called “harnessing” this energy of love so as to make a better world for God. And love, as Pope Benedict has so eloquently argued, is at the core of all Catholic social teaching. But Teilhard also reminds us that, as followers of Christ, we should embrace what science shows us of the sheer complexity of God’s evolving creation. Indeed, he saw the Sacred Heart – the radiating energy of love – as the driving force of evolution itself.
So Teilhard opens our eyes to another dimension of the Sacred Heart: as an image which can serve to connect faith to scientific and technological affairs. Teilhard’s vision of the Sacred Heart informed both his spiritual life and his work as a scientist. As a priest he had an intense devotion to the Sacred Heart. As a scientist he saw the Sacred Heart as the very centre and focus of the entire cosmos. It was the gravitational power of God’s love which was pulling all things towards it. Humanity had to evolve by learning how to harness this energy as it had learned to harness fire, the wind and water. Mankind had to evolve in the direction marked out by the life of Christ or it would perish. Learning to love our neighbour was not just a moral injunction, it was an evolutionary imperative.
This is a compelling vision that sees humanity as partners in the future evolution of life. It inspired me in the 1970s: and I have no doubt that it could be an equally inspiring vision for the young people who greeted Pope Benedict during his historic visit. If only they knew about it!
These two images of the Sacred Heart, of Leo XIII and Teilhard, on the face of it have little in common, but in truth they are just different perspectives on the mystery and enormity of God’s love. Taken together they enable us to experience afresh an icon for those concerned with the task of “harnessing the energy of love” that radiates from the divine heart at the centre of the cosmos.
If we want to ensure that our faith contributes to the national conversation about our future, we would do well to remember the Sacred Heart of Leo and Teilhard. So if you haven’t got a picture, go out and get one and make it a visible and public sign of your commitment and your faith in the future and in the power of love.
David W. Parsons is professor of public policy at Queen Mary, University of London.