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A Theologian’s Journey

by Thomas F. O’Meara, O.P. Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.Profiles in Catholicism

The author reveals that this book is not an autobiography, although the narrative tells something about its author’s life. The chapters tell mainly of a time the writer witnessed as a young man, only a few years but years coinciding with epochal change. These pages describe changes so deep that they altered the course of history and touched hundreds of millions of people. They tell of momentous events and unseen shifts occurring within society itself, shifts that the author observed at their inception and during the turbulent years that followed The social and religious shifts in the 1960s and in the hears following have marked my life since my twenty-fifth year.

My experiences serve only to contrast one church ending after a period of four centuries from 1550 to 1950 with one beginning in the 1960s and to appreciate how Vatican II liberated Christian thought and praxis to draw freely from its many traditions. American Catholics live now amid an expansion of theological knowledge, spirituality, and ministry: They face a future of opportunities and growth, but also a distraction of defeatism and ecclesiastical attraction to the trivial and theatrical.

In fact, a new time, an epochal shift in history lay only a few years ahead. Society would pass through the 1960’s, while the 4 years of meetings in Rome called Vatican II would change the Catholic Church forever, and the following years would be shaped by social and religious alterations. My generation would inevitably see everything marked by before and after the 1960’s, before and after the 4 years of Vatican II. As the author travelled to Europe his life became different than his roots. In Italy, Germany, and France The author would learn not only ideas, the philosophies and theologies of Christianity past and present, but also come to see that buildings and statues can depict a time and that the arts express the message of Christ in various styles of color and line. In Europe the author experienced the diversity of ages and cultures.

The years before 1962 bring forth from the author’s memory days much the same, years without difference as texts from philosophy and theology were memorized, the Gregorian chant for Masses sung, and the happenings and people of the world left unobserved. The winters placed a cover of snow over land waiting patiently. The author speaks of grace: God’s share of the divine life, was at the center of Rahner’s theology. An existential and transcendental theology of grace meant going beyond the scholastic and Baroque electric company of passing graces to recognize an intimate, personal presence of the Triune God in individuals. Jesus preached the kingdom of God, and that reality St. Paul and theologians came to call grace. Grace could no longer be depicted as a commodity to be acquired as an extrinsic force summoned up by laws; grace was something dynamic and inseparable from human life. The believer is not simply an object present at Church services and required to have external and internal religious badges. Rather, each man and woman is a subject, complex in freedom and personality but there is also a ‘supernatural existential’ God’s constant offer of love, Wouldn’t I wondered, such a personal understanding of life and grace, liturgy and creed help Roman Catholicism to become less moribund, less automatic.

And the Church? Did anyone today need the church, a church of faded performances and rigid structures? Wasn’t the church static and boring even for the devout? Rahner showed in essay after essay, talk after talk, how the church could not only survive but also flourish and serve. Individual persons and God meet in a community, in a local church that is itself a collective living person. Rahner saw in the 1950’s that the church was overly monoform and institutionalized. Rahner was unassuming according to the author, and direct. He did not fit the type of the Herr Professor. He had no interest in prestige, in power, and certainly not in money, in interviews he described himself as without anything distinctive, living amid people to whom he was trying to make the gospel credible. A journey had begun, a journey from the 1960s and through the 1970s to future decades. There was always more change, more implications, more needs for change, more awareness of the failures of church and society more demands on the human spirit, and, perhaps, more projects, previously left neglected or unfulfilled, from the Holy Spirit. Through all the turbulent decades, there were moments when in uncertainty and solitude it was not clear that history is more than a senseless, overpowering flood, times when it was hard to believe that Someone was ceaselessly and lovingly near. Now it is time to start anew and to continue the best of the past. This is a great book to read in order to understand God’s interaction with us in grace. This is an elegant account of one theologian’s journey through the tumultuous years of the 1950’s and 1960s, seen from a perspective of 40 years later. He had a great experience in Germany which he shares were clarity and thoroughness.

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