So today is the fiftieth anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council.
It’s also the beginning of the Jubilee Year of Mercy as declared by Pope Francis. Which is a wonderful way to honor Vatican II — a year devoted not only to seeking God’s mercy, but to reflecting on how the Body of Christ can be mercy, can bring mercy to a world that seems increasingly fraught by violence, fear, and injustice.
What does it mean to be God’s mercy, to bring’s God mercy to a world where mass shootings have become a daily occurrence, where our public and political conversations are not only polarized but increasingly seem paranoid, and every minute someone in America harms him- or herself enough to end up in the hospital, with 1 in 12 of those acts of self-harm resulting in suicide?
How do we live the mercy of God? How do we share it? How do we give it away?
In 1965, the same year as the close of Vatican II, the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner wrote a short book called The Christian of the Future. The book is eerily prophetic, in its description of what sounds like the Christian of our present day: a world where faith is marginalized, where politicians use Christian rhetoric to further their agenda but without truly engaging the demands of the Gospel, where to be a true follower of Jesus means to be engaged in a community of cultural and sometimes even political resistance. Rayner even muses on how communication in the future will be decentralized and global, suggesting that he imagined something like the world wide web twenty-five years before it was born.
But as prophetic as The Christian of the Future may be, its ultimate message is neatly summed up in a statement found in another of Rahner’s books, Concern for the Church: “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or… will not exist.” In a world where “cultural Christianity” is rapidly disappearing, it makes no sense to be a Christian unless we really mean it. Unless we really want a life-transfiguring encounter with Christ. Unless we really believe that compassion and mercy and forgiveness and loving our enemies can make a real difference.
Here’s the thing. For all the pious talk that comes from some of our political, religious and cultural leaders, we live in a world that is increasingly indifferrent, if not actually hostile, to such values as mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation, service to the poor and vulnerable, and finding happiness through self-denial. And our world is even more indifferent, if not hostile, to belief in God, spiritual wonder, contemplative silence, and the testimony of the great mystics: that God will literally remake us from the inside out, if we only say “yes.” But such a yes is a yes to dying-to-self, to radical emptiness, to humility, to deep listening, and to a life surrendered to love and compassion, devoid of judgment and thirsting for justice.
This is what Karl Rahner is talking about. When he tells us that we Christians must either be mystics or pack our bags, he’s not saying we will all have visions (although some of us might), he’s not saying we will all encounter God in ecstasy and bliss (although some of us might), he’s not saying we will all turn into Christian versions of the Buddha, finding enlightenment beneath the cross (although some of us might). Rather, the Christian of the future, who must be a mystic, will be a radical contemplative, immersed in silence, devoted to love, committed to mercy and forgiveness and reconciliation, and luminous with hope and trust.
Are you willing to take up Karl Rahner’s challenge? Will you embrace the future God is calling us to — a future shaped not by Christianity-as-a-polite-religion, but rather Christianity-as-a-subversive-spirituality, where to follow Christ means bringing love and mercy and forgiveness to the corners of the world where such living waters are most desperately needed?
If you’re like me, you’re worried you don’t have what it takes. That’s okay, this is all God’s doing anyway. Our job is like Mary’s: we don’t have to be in charge, we simply have to consent. And let the Spirit take things from there.
As we enter this Jubilee Year of Mercy, let’s take the Rahner challenge. Let’s give ourselves to God, and see where the adventure takes us.