Jubilee 2000 Search


In the Apostolic Letter Tertio Millennio adveniente (n. 33) the Church is invited "to become more fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children, recalling all those times in history when they departed from the Spirit of Christ and his Gospel and, instead of offering to the world a witness life inspired by the values of faith, indulged in ways of thinking and acting which were truly forms of counter-witness and scandal".

Already in 1975, Pope Paul VI's Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi, reflecting on the fruits of the III General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops dedicated to evangelization, underlined the central importance of witness. These words were greatly echoed, and have been taken up by this present Magisterium. The they maintain all their pertinence in view of new evangelization: "Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses...It is therefore primarily by her conduct and by her life that the Church will evangelize the world, in other words, by her living witness of fidelity to the Lord Jesus - the witness of poverty and detachment, of freedom in the face of the powers of this world, in short, the witness of holiness". (EV n. 41) It will be noted that the subject of witness, over and above Christians taken individually, is the Church. In view of the Great Jubilee, the theme of witness in particular must be the object of our examination of conscience and our meditation. The brief considerations which follow dwell on the opposite: counter-witness and scandal.

The scandal of the Cross

In Biblical language, scandal signifies a trap, that which causes a fall, therefore something which causes one to falter, which endangers faith. But we would point out that depending on its origin and depending on the capacity and disposition of the one scandalised, the significance of the scandal differs entirely. For the believer the scandal of the Cross is to be adored. This scandal is not a counter-witness, on the contrary it is the source of the greatest witness.

After Jesus had announced the mystery of the Eucharist in the Synagogue at Capernaum, a profound crisis overtook the disciples. "This is intolerable language; how could anyone accept it?" And from that moment many disciples stopped following him. Then Jesus said to the Twelve: What about you, do you want to go away too? We know the answer Peter gave: "Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life". This is faith speaking.

Jesus did nothing to attenuate the concern provoked by his words: "Does this upset you?" And he explains that later they will understand and that this comprehension is a gift of the Spirit, and that it identifies itself with the gift of faith: "But there are some of you who do not believe" (cf Jn 6,60-69).

The profundity and sublimity of Christ's message, therefore, scandalises, in the sense that it is a stumbling block for the disbeliever and it is a test for the believer. The theme of scandal, in the New Testament, is therefore connected with faith, as free acceptance of the mystery of Christ. Before the Gospel we cannot remain indifferent, lukewarm or evasive: the Lord calls each of us personally asking us to declare ourselves for him (cf Mt 10, 32-33).

To those sent by John, who was in prison and disturbed by what he heard about the development of Jesus' mission, the latter responds recalling the messianic signs that accompany him. And he adds: "happy is the man who does not lose faith in me (cf Mt 11,6).

The first letter of Peter, 2,7-8, referring to a passage of Isaiah (8,14), affirms: "for you who are believers it is precious, but for unbelievers the stone rejected by the builders has proved to be the keystone, a stone to stumble over, a rock to bring them down". And he gives the reason: "They stumble over it because they do not believe in the word".

For this scandal, this test of faith, Jesus prepares his disciples, by announcing to them the hatred of the world, persecutions but also the consolations of the Spirit (cf Jn 6, 14-16): I have told you all this so that your faith may not be shaken U4(or that you will not fail the test). (cf Jn 16, 1).

This is the same paradox of which Saint Paul speaks in the first Letter to the Corinthians, 1,18-31. The sinful world is unable to recognise the Wisdom of God, who will save believers through the folly of the preaching of the crucified Messiah, folly and scandal. The divine plan of salvation reveals the profundity of the mystery of the divine agape and invites us to realise our limits, since refusal to open oneself to the mystery is caused by culpable self-sufficiency: "For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God's weakness is stronger than human strength."

To grasp this, in the light of faith, is to accept that which we might term, the blessed scandal of the ways of God, and accept the mystery of the Cross, the source of salvation. The requirement placed is the requirement of purity of faith, of adhesion to the infinite transcendence of the saving wisdom of God. Acceptance of the mystery of salvation though faith supposes on our part, purity of heart and consequently a commitment to travel the path of conversion. You will recall that beautiful page of the Gospel: "It was then that, filled with joy by the Holy Spirit, Jesus said: 'I bless you Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children. Yes Father, for that is what it pleased you to do. Everything has been entrusted to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is, except the Father, and who the Father is, except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.' " (cf Lk 10,21-22).

If your eye is a cause of scandal

There is a profound connection between the anawime spoken of in the preceding lines and the acceptance of the mystery, which is a scandal for those who remain closed in their self-sufficiency. The disciples point out to Jesus after his teaching on the pure and impure: "Do you know that the Pharisees were shocked when they heard what you said?" Here the accent moves: the scandal, as it were, is no longer about the profundity of God's plan, but about blindness of heart.

There are scandals which come from us or for which we are more or less directly responsible and which it is our duty of remove from our path.

Jesus' words are categorical: "If your right eye should cause you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; for it will do you less harm to lose one part of you than to have your whole body go to hell...if your right hand should cause you to sin, cut it off and throw it away..."(Mt. 5, 29-30, cf also 18 8-9). To be on the watch and to have the courage of renunciation is also part of travelling the path of conversion. Here the scandal is the obstacle which must be totally removed. For this we know we can rely on God's help, since we ask him for it every day: "lead us not into temptation".

Scandal of little ones

It is after he invites the disciples to become like children and to welcome little ones that Jesus speaks with great severity about scandal caused to others: "But anyone who is an obstacle to bring down one of these little ones who have faith in me would be better drowned in the depths of the sea with a great millstone around his neck. Alas for the world that there should be such obstacles! Obstacles indeed there must be, but alas for the man who provides them!" (cf Mt. 18, 6-7).

A necessity does evidently not mean a fatality. This means that scandal is inevitable since the world is marked by sin. But this must not lead to passivity and resignation. Evangelical animation of social life is a duty for Christians. Hence they must lift their voices and commit themselves in favour of the defenceless "little ones" and take initiatives to correct customs the disgrace of which offends the dignity of the human being created in the image of God.

Childhood evokes dependence and weakness. On the last point, Saint Paul encounces the principle which must always guide us: "We who are strong have a duty to put up with the qualms of the weak without thinking of ourselves. Each of us should think of his neighbours and help them to become stronger Christians. Christ did not think of himself: the words of scripture - the insults of those who insult you fall on me" (cf Rom. 15,1-3).

That which is not scandal for one may be for another. Saint Paul tells the Christians of Rome how they are to behave in this regard. Some of them honestly believe they are sustained by observance of the prescriptions of Judaism, others understand that they are free of it, and they tend to despise the former: "far from passing judgement on each other therefore, you should make up your mind never to be the cause of your brother tripping or falling...of course all food is clean; but it becomes evil if by eating it you make somebody else fall away" (cf Rom 14, 13. 20).

The rule is, the search for peace and reciprocal edification. The Apostle had met with an analogous situation in Corinth, but these were probably Christians coming from paganism, whose conscience was disturbed when they ate meat which had been previously sacrificed to idols. To those who understood that the idol est nulla, Paul writes: "Only be careful that you do not make use of this freedom in a way that proves a pitfall for the weak...your knowledge could become the ruin of someone weak, of a brother for whom Christ died! By sinning in this way against your brothers, and injuring their weak consciences, it would be Christ against whom you sinned. This is why since food can be the occasion of my brother's downfall, I shall never eat meat again in case I am the cause of a brother's downfall" (cf 1 Cor. 8 9. 11-13). Weakness may be that of little knowledge, as in the cases examined directly by Paul. It can also be the presence of tenacious prejudices, misunderstandings or difficulty to understand certain signs.

So scandal runs through a vast field of different and contrasting situations. The highest testimony, that of martyrdom, is perfect communion with the scandal of the Cross. On the contrary, the scandal of sin, incitement or bad example, brings with it the fall of our brother. It is a culpable temptation. Some sorts of behaviour, while not meriting reproof in themselves nevertheless do offend charity since our brother is unable to understand them. So, brotherly love, which is the supreme rule, demands sacrifice and renunciation. For an examination of conscience which embraces the past, the present and future projects, it is right to keep in mind this triple parameter.

Georges Cottier