From the Heart of St. Bernard’s: Theology, Sanctity, and Evangelization - St. Bernard's

From the Heart of St. Bernard’s: Theology, Sanctity, and Evangelization

Jun 6, 2023

Evan Collins

Hans Urs von Balthasar’s seminal essay Theology and Sanctity is a virtual code of conduct for the faculty of St. Bernard’s. In it, Balthasar asserts the truth that a theologian's vocation is to “expound revelation in its fullness,” and therefore since Revelation culminates and is truly Jesus Christ Himself, theologians ought to be holy (ET1 181). When the Church looks toward those whose lives are not sanctified through intimacy with Christ in order to expound the fullness of revelation, we know we are in trouble. Genuinely choosing to embrace the path of sanctity as the outline of one’s life is a prerequisite to doing theology from the heart of faith. Sure, one can grasp the general gist of theology by opening up the Catechism or thumbing through a Denzinger, but the purposes of both those books and any good work of theology have only one end in mind: the unum necessarium, which is a person, Christ Jesus. You cannot truly know a person, in the biblical sense of knowing, by simply reading a list of fragmented facts about them, or by stringing together a series of conclusions within their story. Even if you could, it would not be enough. To truly do what theologians set out to do (study the ways of God) after God has revealed the fullness of Himself in the Paschal Mystery requires that one must intimately know Him. One must love God, not simply obey the Decalogue from on high. This is a task that can only come from an intentional giving of not only one’s intellect over to the Church’s intellectual tradition, but one’s heart to the Pierced One on Calvary whom the Catholic encounters at every Eucharist, in the face of every person in need that they help or deny, and in the secret recesses of the heart where they meet Him during prayer.

I would like to assert something similar for the task of evangelization that the Church has recently emphasized since the Second Vatican Council. For Christians to truly evangelize, they must be on that same sanctifying path Balthasar urged theologians to return to; this path is the way of Jesus Christ, the way of the Cross in light of the resurrection, the way of love. It is not one entered into lightly, though it is the only path of Light. While the call of sanctity is burdensome, as it will require purification, it is a light burden because Christ bears it in us and with us and through us (Matthew 11:28-30; Galatians 2:20). For the Christian, evangelization is not something that can be generated from within by one’s own natural capacities. Other religious traditions can proclaim their teacher's ways upon others, asserting them by clever argumentation, sentimental emotional appeals, reactionary rhetoric, and other effective means of advertising, public relations, and promotion. This is proselytism and mere apologetics, which our Holy Father urges us to avoid since they obscure the Gospel’s credibility. But for the Christian, evangelization is a task that Christ performs through, with, and in him/her. Evangelization arises as a result of the Christian’s participation in the excessive gift of God, Christ Jesus, by the power of the Paraclete.

As Christians embrace the form of Christ in their life they become sanctified, all the while maintaining their true personality - in fact letting it flourish like never before since it is no longer diminished by the weight of sin, having embraced Christ’s excessive quality. What I mean by this is what Ratzinger asserts in Introduction to Christianity: the excess of love. Love alone is credible, and only the transcendent is diffusive of itself. Christians living in Christ, Christians who assert sonship in the Son, who live as sons and daughters of the Father resulting in lives of corporal and spiritual charity naturally evangelize. They do so by this quality of Christ Ratzinger has deemed the excess of God. When Christians enter into the heart of the Trinity by virtue of their incorporation into Christ through the Incarnation, they adopt this heart, which we call love, as the form of their life where all their other decisions are conformed to it thereby. This includes, most especially, how they respond to those they encounter. Christians are called to mirror and act within, by, and through, the mutual love of the Trinitarian persons for each other. This is the metaphysical underpinning of what it means for man to find himself through a sincere gift of himself and thereby present that same vulnerable opportunity to each other for the flourishing and revealing of himself. As we encounter as Christ and in Christ other persons, recognizing Christ in them, knowing that Christ is also in them due to His supra-individual taking on of humanity entirely by being the New Adam, we can embrace them as Other and fully give of ourselves to them. They can then receive our act of charity, or, more realistically, acts or dispositions of charity as coming from Jesus personally. This is evangelization, and removed from theological jargon it is actually quite messy, quite beautiful, and quite unpredictable as it manifests itself in daily life.

Evangelization is the result of the overflowing of one’s personal relationship with God, but personal does not mean private. Our personal relationship with God includes every aspect of our life regardless of how cleverly we can create an abstract divide between our public and private life. For this exact reason, evangelization is not a program to be adopted or a set of tricks to be deployed. No. Evangelization is the overflow of conformity of one’s entire life, one’s entire person, to Jesus, which comes intentionally from the overflow of this union. For evangelization to occur the Christian must rely entirely on and base his whole life in the providence of God. This means that it will require everything of a person. And we shouldn’t be surprised at this: it is exactly what Christ asks of us all in the Gospels.

We do not need to tremble in fear at our seeming inadequacy to respond to the ask, nor wag our finger at the world's seeming inhospitable posture toward receiving the news. Rather, we need to embrace the posture and heart of the Son of God who has wed Himself to us and do as He did: abandon ourselves to the providence of the Father, enter deeply into prayer, encounter everyone we meet with genuine love, and seek only to do what the Father’s will is. This is evangelization: the overflow and spiritually active description of what it means to live a life in the living God. It is in the loving God who sent His only-begotten Son to us for our salvation, whom we crucified in our sinful fear of real transformation, killing Him on a Cross, yet His love was too strong to be held down by death, our sins, or the devil’s deceptions. He rose again, defeating them all, and offers us life in that same love, by that same path, His very self. This is evangelization.

Evangelization requires one to have a clear view and personal embracing of atonement, but also a clear view and a personal embracing of the nuptial mystery of the Church, of the Incarnation, of the Trinity - not to mention an adequate theological anthropology and a decent grasp of history. All of these theological topics are contained in the Paschal Mystery, but they are explicated in the theological tradition of the Church. At St. Bernard’s, theology is not approached in that mode common to modern education which removes intellectual topics from each other, inevitably separating the branch from the trunk and killing the enterprise. St. Bernard’s embraces theology in an integrated way that upholds the necessary unity of academic study with human flourishing, which includes developing habits and skills associated with intellectual pursuit, but more importantly (especially when studying theology), sanctity. This is done largely by the professors in virtue of their own personal pursuit of love in Christ in their lives. It overflows in their classes and radiates in their thorough and charitable teaching.

St. Bernard’s has been a gift from God for me. It has especially been a true gift since it was not expected and has been fully received. I didn’t even know of St. Bernard’s until a few months before I took my first course. Upon a strong recommendation from a theologian I trust and admire, I decided to utilize St. Bernard’s gem of charity for the universal Church, their One Free Summer Audit opportunity. I was so blown away by the integrated formation I received in the course through the theological and philosophical exploration of beauty that I switched to credit, completed every assignment, and by the end was a fully matriculated student.

Every course I have taken since has changed my life. This is not an exaggeration. When you are studying theology out of a place of love wed to the intellectual formation like a sober intoxication capturing all the passion of lovers and logistics of marriage from professors who approach it out of the same source, the natural result of such a situation is transformation: only sin and a closed heart could thwart it. I’m certain because of that first condition I could be even more transformed than I am, but that should reflect the truly peculiar and lovely quality of St. Bernard’s as an institution. The classroom is both practical and passionate. The professors are colleagues and friends. The true heart, friendship, and pursuit of the whole Catholic tradition back to the Source of Christ Himself and all the tributaries of Fathers, Doctors, and Mystics are plumbed by the professors. They are faithful heirs to not only the intellectual movement of Communio, but its heart. Therefore, each classroom pumps that revitalizing blood back into the Church through the individual vessels of myself and my fellow students and auditors. Each of us in our unique backgrounds is taken seriously, honored, and nurtured in our unique conditions for flourishing. The professors truly live out their vocation like observant and loving keepers of the vineyard allowing each student’s vintage to be harvested in season and matured to full flavor.

Speaking for myself, I have found, and continue to find, my theological mind maturing into what I think it was always meant to be by God’s grace. I can full-heartedly say this would be impossible apart from my admittedly weak, but genuine, loving relationship with Christ, but just as importantly it would be impossible without the mediation of St. Bernard’s who reveals to me my ignorance and hones the glimmerings I see now but dimly. As I study, my heart is enflamed, but I see areas that seem to be obscuring the light, and simultaneously I see that the material and conversations break down those obscurants and let the light shine fuller. I would like to hope and believe this is making me a better evangelist because it is making me a better Christian. Because of my studies at St. Bernard’s, I encounter and receive more clearly the love of God in intimacy and then, by embracing that love in union with Christ, it bears fruit into the lives of all those I encounter.

It is important to grow ever clearer in our understanding of our Beloved, never becoming weary of ever-greater intimacy, and like a true couple in love seen living their ordinary life and inviting others into it, education at St. Bernard’s, or any institution with their lovely quality of sanctity, is not only attractive to the outsiders, but transforms those lucky enough to share life with them. This is what an evangelist does. This is what I hope to be doing in my own life. It is most certainly what St. Bernard’s is assisting me to do, as evangelization is at the heart of their institution, faculty, and mission. Thank you. I pray that others will decide to respond to the providential hand of God and attend this wonderful institution. I pray too that anyone who has chosen to read this will perhaps receive a little more freedom and hope that God can and will use them for evangelization, transforming them in the process.

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Evan Collins is a husband to his beautiful wife, Bonnie, and a father to his lovely daughter, Jubilee. He is currently a student at St. Bernard's School of Theology and Ministry in the Master of Arts in Theological Studies program and also works in Omaha, Nebraska as the Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry for St. Stephen the Martyr parish. He is a contributor to Discerning Hearts and has appeared on Pints with Aquinas.