People in public life ― actors, television personalities, politicians, and the like ― often keep their religious beliefs private or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, sometimes become outspoken critics of organized religion and its adherents. For this reason, it was refreshing to run across Sam Polcer’s interview of the noted British actor Ian McShane some months ago in United Airlines’ onboard magazine Hemispheres.
After reflecting on various aspects of his profession, McShane moves on to “the power of religion.” Here is what he says:
“It’s man’s eternal question: Where did we come from? Why are we here? Is it a joke being played by a higher power? Is life Hobbesian ― nasty, brutish, and short? Should it be a thing of beauty? There’s a line of Mr. Wednesday’s [the character McShane portrays in American Gods] that amused me: If you have a faith and can smile about that faith, you’re more likely to have a good time than if you’re miserable the entire time or don’t believe in anything at all. And you can argue all you want for or against religion, but without it you wouldn’t have half the great art in the world, or half the great music, or have the great ideas.”
Readers of Emmanuel can certainly appreciate McShane’s take on the artistic, aesthetic, and philosophical-theological contributions of religion to human history. And we can acknowledge, too, that at times religion has been used in horrible ways to hurt and do unspeakable violence to others. We see this even in our own day.
As ministers of the Gospel, and as members of a Church whose worship and thinking and acting are shaped and formed by the encounter with God in Christ’s gift of the Eucharist, what exactly are we called to give witness to before the world?
We give witness, of course, to God’s truth as we know and understand it as it has been revealed to us by Jesus Christ in his teachings and example. This is important in an age when falsehood often presents itself as truth. In 1 Peter 3:15-16, we are told: “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence. . . .” It is God’s gift of truth and light; we are but instruments.
We witness to integrity of life. In the ordination rite of priests, the bishop instructs those who are being called to the presbyterate: “Your ministry will perfect the spiritual sacrifice of the faithful by uniting it with Christ’s sacrifice, the sacrifice which is offered sacramentally through your hands. Know what you are doing and imitate the mystery you celebrate. In the memorial of the Lord’s death and resurrection, make every effort to die to sin and to walk in the new life of Christ.”
We witness to the transcendent. It is often said that many today have an attention span of about ten minutes and little or no sense of history beyond their immediate experience and context. It is a challenge, then, to invite people to consider something greater than self ― God ― and to invite them into a relationship with the author and goal of our human existence. The paradox, however, is that the meeting point with the transcendent, the divine, is for us as Catholics the very intimate act of sharing word, and bread and wine, Christ’s body and blood, at the table of the Eucharist. May this issue of Emmanuel strengthen your faith and your witness!
Anthony Schueller, SSS