This month marks the 500th anniversary of the ceremonial start of the Protestant Reformation, when Martin Luther nailed a list of 95 theses against the Catholic Church onto the door of a chapel in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther would later pen a stinging treatise – “On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church” – against the errors of sacramental theology and practice.
Captive we remain, still today, though in a way more secular than ecclesial. In his own thesis, Archbishop Charles Chaput pointedly describes our captivity in a culture “where the horizons of the eternal disappear into a fog of the urgent now.” He then posits that
“(t)he greatest captivity of Babylon, whatever name it goes by in any age, has little to do with persecution or repression. It’s the lie that nothing deeper, nothing greater, nothing more beautiful and satisfying and permanent than itself, exists.”
Correcting that lie is a perennial task for Christians. After Luther, the task was taken up by Counter-Reformation bishops like St. Charles Borromeo and St. Francis de Sales. The latter challenged the lie(s) in ways that can still work today as we seek, through digital communications, to counter the “fake news” that leads to a cultural deformation in our thinking and our living.
Striving to persuade hearts in order to convince minds, the Salesian method (a.k.a. “the Chablais spirit”) emphasizes interpersonal dialogue. Never disagreeable even when disagreeing, Francis de Sales was known for “the arts of respectful conversation, constructive apologetics, and persuasive preaching.” As Wendy Wright points out, his approach affirmed the dignity of his interlocutors, “even when – perhaps most when – the ideas they held or the affiliations that clam them make them an ‘enemy’.” In today’s world of cyberwars and online propaganda, we need still to keep in mind the inherent worth of the real persons with or about whom we communicate.
A second facet of the Salesian approach was the public celebration of the sacred in liturgical rites. According to Jill Fehleison, the saint and his missionary companions “consciously used words, images, actions, and sounds in the form of rituals, processions, and theatrical performances to appeal to people’s senses instead of their intellects.” Francis knew that beauty attracts, that affection engendered by the Good News of the Gospel leads to conversion. In today’s world, where church attendance continues to decline, we need even more to celebrate the liturgy worthily and well, as a way for people to see and experience the power of the sacred in this world.
Finally, Francis de Sales recognized the importance of the written word. Writing with what Elisabeth Stopp calls “inspired common sense,” he penned his own collection of theses in defense of the faith, which he then distributed directly to people by posting them on doors of houses and in public places. For this first serial press action, and in view of his compelling letters and other writings, he was later named “Heavenly Patron of All Writers,” including especially Journalists. In today’s world, where social media have displaced pamphleteering, we still need to actively engage others with the truth of what we believe, expressing that conviction simply and directly, through words, images and other creative formats that prevail in the new world of communications.
As Archbishop Chaput notes, today’s culture is “great mission territory” where the need for proclaiming that Jesus Christ is Lord remains as necessary as it was in Luther’s day. When our social communications do this with respect for human dignity, delight in sacred beauty, and fidelity to the truth, we stand a better chance of emerging from our captivity.
featured image from hagiographies.blogspot.com
image of “The Flight of the Prisoners” from wikipedia.org