Arts and Culture

Listening to the Lay People

ANYONE WHO HAS who has read my last two columns knows that I have been reflecting on the meaning of the term “a mysticism of the people.”

In his essay in Commonweal (April 10, 2015) “Open House: How Pope Francis Sees the Church,” Cardinal Walter Kasper claims that behind the Holy Father’s pastoral style stands an entire theology which the cardinal calls “a mysticism of the people.”

I have been talking to friends about Cardinal Kasper’s essay and when I asked one who has a doctorate in religious education, he immediately said, “the sensus fidei” (sense of faith). I think that the “sensus fidei” sheds the most light on the idea of the “mysticism of the people.”

Signs of God’s Revelation
Put simply, the “sensus fidei” means that the people in the Church, not just the Holy Father and the bishops, but even the lay people can be looked at to see more deeply into Christian Revelation. This does not mean that people make up or create Christian dogma and doctrine. However, it does mean that because of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the people of God, lay people can be consulted concerning what they believe and that their beliefs may be a sign of God’s Revelation.

In his essay, Cardinal Kasper writes the following:

“The pope names the theological foundation of the significance of the laity’s witness in the church. He refers to the teaching of the sensus fidei, the spiritual sense for what is a matter of faith and living the life of faith. The doctrine of sensus fidei, which is imparted to every Christian through the Holy Spirit in baptism, is very well established in the biblical and theological tradition, but has often been neglected. John Henry Newman showcased it in a renewed way in his famous essay ‘On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine,’ and Vatican II renewed it again. It holds that the people of God as a whole cannot err in matters of belief (Lumen gentium, 12; Evangelii gaudium, 119, 139, 198).

“Unfortunately, that teaching was neglected after the council. There was a fear that it would be misused by dissenting groups inside the church. Pope Francis doesn’t share those fears. He highlights the doctrine of the sensus fidei and from it concludes that the church must keep its ear to the people. He speaks of the laity’s instinct for finding new ways of evangelization and he argues, therefore, in favor of making provisions for their voices to be heard and for pastoral dialogue with them.

“Pope Francis wants a magisterium that listens.” (p. 13).

Until I came across Cardinal Kasper’s essay, I never heard nor used the expression “a mysticism of the people.” However, reflecting on it, I think I have experienced it through many people who have revealed God’s love to me. For example, when I was a parish priest, I experienced it in working with parishioners. Countless people helped me to be a parish priest, encouraging me in my efforts, inspiring me by their love of God. They revealed the “face” of God and God’s love for all of us in countless ways.

Nourished the Faith
I had similar experiences in graduate school. I came to know several people who were going for graduate degrees in theology. Their interest in theology, their dedication to the study of Christian Revelation and their hope to eventually teach theology created an atmosphere for me that nourished my faith.

For the 18 years that I taught in a college seminary I was very much aware that I was working in a Catholic place, that I was surrounded by a community of believers. My experience teaching at St. John’s University has also been very supportive of my faith because of both the students and my colleagues on the faculty. Especially helpful to me has been the university’s mission to the poor because concern for the poor is essential to being a Christian believer. Genuine concern for others might help us to grasp more deeply Jesus’ message and mission.

I am looking forward to Pope Francis’ next encyclical. I will be interested in seeing how much a “mysticism of the people” influences what he will have written.

Father Robert Lauder, philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, is the author of the recently published “Pope Francis’ Spirituality and Our Story” (Resurrection Press).