This is the fifth reflection commemorating the two hundredth anniversary of the Restoration of the Society of Jesus. A reflection on the life of Cardinal Augustin Bea.
The monks of Pluscarden Abbey sing the Benedictus: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel! He has visited his people and redeemed them. He has raised up for us a mighty saviour in the house of David his servant, as he promised by the lips of holy men, those who were his prophets from of old. A saviour who would free us from our foes, from the hands of all who hate us.
So his love for our ancestors is fulfilled and his holy covenant remembered. He swore to Abraham our father to grant us, that free from fear, and saved from the hands of our foes, we might serve him in holiness and justice all the days of our life in his presence.”
Augustin Bea was a German Jesuit, born in 1881, who through his in-depth reflection on scripture became a pioneer of the ecumenical movement in the Catholic Church and of dialogue with the Jews. He joined the German Jesuit Province in 1902 and became provincial in 1921 after which he was sent to Rome to teach scripture. He assisted Pope Pius XII with drafting his encyclical letters on liturgy (Mediator Dei), and the Bible (Divino Afflante Spiritu). In 1959 Pope John XXIII made Bea a cardinal and appointed him as the first President of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. At Vatican II, Bea was central in helping to draft the revolutionary document on the Church's Relation to Non-Christian Religions, (Nostra Aetate), and the Constitution on Scripture (Dei Verbum). After the Council he dedicated the rest of his life to ecumenism and interfaith matters. On his death in 1968, he asked permission for his body to be buried in his small village birthplace in the Black Forest, not in Rome as was the tradition: “There are many Cardinals buried in Rome, but in my village there will be only one and passers-by will notice and pray for my soul.”
The gradual realisation over many thousands of years of God’s plan for the union and salvation of all humankind in Christ is shrouded in mystery. The strange call to one man out of a polytheistic people to worship the one true God and to be led out of his own country and away from his own people towards an uncertain future in an unknown land; the magnificent promise that his children would be as numerous as the stars of heaven, that he would become the head of many nations, all of which would be blessed in him – all this sounds like a beautiful eastern fable devoid of any real meaning.
Yet, as it happens, hundreds of millions of Christians look upon this man as their spiritual ancestor and the father of their faith. And hundreds of millions of Moslems also draw their inspiration for their loyal submission to God from the faith of Abraham.
The truth that the chosen people of the New Testament is spiritually related to Abraham is one of the chief tenets of Christianity. … We find the story told in the book of Genesis. ‘Now the Lord said to Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation”.’
This first calling is repeatedly confirmed in connection with important events in Abraham’s life and is finally ratified in a formal pact. … “I will make a covenant between me and you and I will multiply you exceedingly so that you will be the father of a multitude of nations.”
On the basis of this promise St Paul does not hesitate to say in the Epistle to the Romans that Abraham is ‘the father of many nations’. Evidently we are not dealing here with descent according to the flesh but according to an entirely new principle – faith, like that of Abraham. As St Paul says in the Epistle to the Galatians: ‘Those who are people of faith are blessed with Abraham who had faith’.
Elsewhere he furnishes a further explanation of the extent of God’s promise. According to the Epistle to the Ephesians, God’s hidden design for humankind is to ‘unite all things in Christ, things in heaven and on things on earth.’ … The secret of this mystery is that ‘the Gentiles are fellow-heirs, members of the same body and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel’.
As a scholar, Augustin Bea had studied the texts of scripture deeply; he was able to move easily between the Old Testament and the New Testament, and see the great connections between the two. But what made him such a great communicator – with the ability to break down barriers – was, very simply, that he loved the Word of God. God’s call to human beings to listen attentively, to take heart, to be courageous, was the centre of his life. Do you love the Word of God? Are you able to place it at the centre of your life?
At its heart, this text is a reflection on the unity of God’s Word. Bea starts with ‘mystery’ and he ends with ‘mystery’. The link is Abraham, our father in faith. Why was Abraham chosen? There’s no set answer to that, really. Except that he is an example to all – Jews and Christians, and Muslims too - of faith: hearing the promise, trusting the promise, and setting out in confidence to penetrate deeply into the mystery of God. Can you understand Abraham as a good example to follow? Or is his life to distant and abstract? Can you see Abraham as a focus of unity between people?
Think for a moment about Abraham’s first hearing of God’s Word. It’s a dramatic event; get up and go, leave it all behind. When was the point in your life you heard God’s Word for the first time? Maybe not as dramatic. But just a sense that something or someone was pointing you in another direction.
Abraham finds the Word gets clearer. It becomes a Covenant; God binds himself to Abraham. When did that Word – heard at first indistinctly – build a real confidence in you? Can you hear it again now – and follow it?
As you listen again, can you perhaps pick up the idea that faith is something universal, for all people?
As this time of prayer come to an end, ask the Lord to reveal his word to you now. Where is it spoken to you now, at this moment? In family, in friends, in small moments of peace – or even in great moments of crisis? Do you have the faith to listen and accept the promptings of the Word that calls you out of yourself – and into the great mystery of God?