The Church in the world

BEGINNING AT JERUSALEM: Five Reflections on the History of the Church. By Glenn W. Olsen (Ignatius Press, P.O. Box 1339, Ft. Collins, Colo. 80522, 2004), PB 236 pp. $14.95.

Beginning at Jerusalem presents the reader with an interpretation of five different stages of the history of the Church from a deeply Catholic perspective and draws out the significance of events of each period for the life of the Church today. The author is a Professor of History at the University of Utah with expertise in the medieval period. The book is not a history of the Church; it presumes the reader is familiar with a general history of the Church and Western culture. The book provides guidance for pastors, teachers and ordinary Catholic lay persons who are trying to make sense of recent Church history and its continuity and discontinuity with earlier periods. It is history in a retrieval sense; this work draws clear implications for the present from the past.

First, Olsen examines how the two tendencies of sacralization and secularization have been at work in the Church since its foundation. Secularization reaches its peak in the Enlightenment when man tried to progress without God. The disastrous results of this tendency became evident in Nihilism and the destruction caused by godless ideologies in the twentieth century. Relying on Augustine’s cautious realism that admits all history is mixed, Olsen rejects seeing history as endless progress and envisions it as a dramatic narrative that includes the possibilities of progress and regress. This also seems to be the view of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Olsen’s treatment of the early medieval period is relevant for present debate about liturgical reform. He is somewhat critical of Josef Jungmann who saw the early patristic age as the high point of the Roman Rite and later developments as a decline. Olsen offers some reservations about Jungmann’s verdict and maintains that the early medieval emphasis on angels and the cult of saints are relevant to current attempts to restore a sense of the vertical and transcendent dimension to liturgy that is often exclusively focused on the community and the horizontal dimension. Also, he questions the value of reducing liturgy to its didactic functions, as if it were only a means to instruct the faithful.

His treatment of high medieval Christianity shifts to the political and social realms. The reforms of Pope Gregory VII are evaluated as a means to free the Church from theocracy, from the attempts of Charlemagne and others to rule the Church. Pope Gregory asked how should the Gospel be lived in his own time in a radical way. However, Gregory did not limit his vision to religious but looked at society as a whole. The goal was no longer to flee the world, but to restructure society in light of the Gospel and give the Church the liberty to organize its own affairs independently of emperors and princes. Gregory desacralized politics and gave the secular realm legitimacy. The secular realm has a genuine but limited autonomy, since it ought to be guided by Christian wisdom. It is during this period that the Christian laity began to develop their own spirituality. Much of what Olsen describes can be useful in contemporary discussions of the proper role of the Church in the political realm. The Church cannot control politics in a pluralistic society; however, it can persuade and influence politicians to seek justice and truth.

The period of the Renaissance and Enlightenment is marked by a debate over the proper role of religion in the world. Luther and the Reformers tend to harken back to lay theocracy; the good Christian simply obeys the ruler. In contrast, Catholic theologians insist that even the ruler must be subject to the natural and divine law. Olsen sees the Jesuit vision of finding God in all things as a continuation of a trend that goes back to Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria and sees the world, art and the body in light of the Incarnation, as very good and positive. He stressed the role of daily Mass and Baroque art and spirituality in forming numerous saints deeply involved in the world during the Catholic Counter-Reformation. The goal of the liturgy is to transform the world and make it conform to Christ. He examines the present state of Catholic liturgy. Unfortunately, the wars of religion led to an attempt to keep religion totally out of the public square. Olsen notes that John Paul II has insisted that the secular realm has only a qualified autonomy since it must be structured according to truth and justice.

The author then reflects on contemporary culture and Christianity and the future of religious belief in general. Many seem to live as if God does not exist, yet others are searching for a deeper meaning in life and God. What should be the proper response of Catholics to modernity and post modernity? Olsen rejects the sectarian stance of some Christians, Catholics and Protestants, to reject all accommodation with modernity and the opposite extreme of total accommodation; the second danger is present today as more Catholics in our own nation are becoming more American and less Catholic and lose their Catholic identity. On the other hand, Olsen cautions that the Church must not become totally isolated from the world as a sect and closed in upon itself. Instead, he opts for the vision of Pope John Paul II: we are to live inthe world but we are not of the world, thereby we are to become signs of contradiction and countercultural. The author then examines some practical issues. How are Catholics to rediscover the sense of God in their lives through prayer? How do we make Catholic beliefs and practices more incarnate and part of our daily lives? What role will parishes and the new movements play in the future? Has liturgical renewal been carried out properly?

Two appendices focus on an analysis on the relationship between prayer and contemplation and human activity in the drama of salvation history as developed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Olsen’s approach to history is deeply influenced by salvation history as presented in the Catechism. He notes the contributions of Hans Urs von Balthasar to this section of the Catechism.

Olsen attempts to look at present tensions within the Church and between the Church and the secular world in light of the entire history of the Church. He is seeking a balance between various extremes so that the Church can be a part of the world and influence it and yet avoid compromising the Gospel in any manner that destroys its message and power to transform human culture. Some would deny Catholicism any voice in the public square. Olsen, agreeing with John Paul II, does not want to return to an early medieval theocratic vision of politics or deny the positive aspects of a certain pluralism today; instead he stresses that Catholicism has an obligation and duty to enter into dialogue with the culture and persuade the culture about the validity of certain truths and moral values which alone will bring about a more humane and just society. He disagrees with those who proclaim that God is dead and religion has no future in Western society. There are many signs of a religious revival in the world; hence, it is important that Catholics better understand the vision of Pope John Paul II in imagining how Catholicism with its entire heritage of beliefs, sacraments and practices might better make present and incarnate the teachings of Christ in our culture today.

Thus, this book is highly useful for priests, teachers, and lay persons who want to understand better the significance of events in the past and present life of the Church. I would highly recommend this volume for bishops who are perplexed about what path the Catholic Church in the United States should take regarding politics and moral and social issues.

Edmund W. Majewski, S.J.
St. Peter’s College
Jersey City, New Jersey

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