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Spiritual Desert - some thoughts on a Synod theme
his homily at the opening Mass for the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict was wide
ranging in his remarks about the Council and the fifty years since.
Significantly, this dedicated Year of Faith was inaugurated alongside the
beginning of a world Synod on Evangelisation. In a late 2000 Encyclical Letter,
John Paul II had outlined what this ‘new’ evangelisation is and to whom it
is an intermediate situation, particularly in countries with ancient Christian
roots, and occasionally in younger Churches as well, where entire groups of the
baptised have lost a living sense of faith, or even no longer consider
themselves members of the Church, and live a life far removed from Christ and
his Gospel. In this case what is needed is a new evangelisation or a re-evangelisation.”
– Redemptoris Missio, # 33
Benedict spoke warmly of the legacy of the Council, he too reiterated what he
believes is a pressing need for its teachings to be embraced anew and within the
context of the Church’s programme of the New Evangelisation 
the homily, Benedict returned to a theme which has become emblematic of his
pontificate, namely the principal dangers threatening the faith and its
survival, namely aggressive secularism and moral relativism, the effects of
which he called spiritual desertification.
Benedict spoke from the perspective of having actually been at the Council and
participated at it not as a bishop but as a theologian advising Cardinal Frings
of Cologne. He observed,
“Recent decades have seen the advance of a spiritual desertification. In the Council’s time it was already possible from a few tragic pages of history to know what a life without God looked like, but now we see it every day around us. The void has spread.”
did, however, add some balance when he spoke of the positive dimensions of what
a spiritual wilderness might actually be and what it might educe from human
”we can rediscover the value of what is essential for living; thus in today’s world there are innumerable signs, often expressed implicitly or negatively, of the thirst for God, for the ultimate meaning of life.”
last point is far closer to the enduring significance of the biblical motif of
the desert and what it most deeply signifies. 
the long way in the desert I have tested you – An important reference point
story of the wandering of the Israelites became embedded in their collective
memory. It became definitive in the formation not only of Israel’s national
character and identity but also of a foundational understanding of the God who
lead them. For the Israelites, the wandering in the wilderness was as important
to their self-definition as the Exodus itself. During its forty year time span
they encountered God in the stark, unambiguous environment of desolation.
desert was not a place for rationalising, pretence or the fabrication of
alternative deities. It was not only a time of confronting their most basic
choices but it was a period of a new creation when God fashioned them into
united people-hood. The third book of Isaiah revived the memory of it all and it
was recalled and celebrated after the great Exile,
you shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you these forty
years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was
in your heart, and whether you would keep his commandments, or not.”
– Dt 8: 2
of all their human illusions and false securities, it is God whom the Israelites
encountered in the wilderness. It was there that Moses and those close to him
experienced what Rudolf Otto in his Idea of the Holy described as, the Mysterium
fascinans et tremendum – the mystery which, at the same time, attracts and
instills dread. The wilderness is the place, for those who can enter it in trust
and where God is disclosed in an atmosphere of awe. Israel could not live
without this God in the wilderness and it is clear that God was comfortable
living in the desert with them.
wilderness, another testing?
shifts the desert motif somewhat further from its biblical significance.
‘Spiritual desertification’, according to him, is the state wherein people
think that they can live without God. He was thinking in particular of those to
whom the New Evangelisation should be most urgently and energetically directed,
namely, Catholics who have drifted from the practice of the faith. He is, in
reality and without the gloss, talking about the mass alienation of Catholics
from the community of the Church.
far during the Synod, this theme has been picked up either explicitly or
implicitly by a number of speakers from different geographical and
ecclesiastical regions of the world. It is interesting to note in what
particular ways the idea was translated and applied by these representatives.
From the content of their interventions, we can probably learn much about them
and the way the notion echoes around within their own national psyches and
unspoken subtext of the Synod discussions might well be more disturbing for its
participants than just the mathematics of attrition. What must be alarming for
leaders more interested in facts rather than spin is that people have made a
distinction between God and God’s representatives, between Jesus Christ and
the hierarchical structure of the Church. Many millions have decided that they
can live, not without God and Jesus, but without the organisation in its present
form. Not only have Catholics made distinctions, they have made profound choices
on the basis of those distinctions. So now, what are they saying at the Synod
about the specifics of ‘spiritual desertification’?
is being said and by whom?
The Europeans and North Americans locate the principal reasons for popular disenchantment and ‘spiritual desertification’ in intellectual obstinacy and the other usual suspects, secularism, relativism. Ignorance of Church doctrine and liturgical practice has become a focus of attention mainly on the part of bishops from the northern hemisphere and they are very closely echoing the on-going catechetical promptings of Benedict.
Pope and these European and North American bishops are convinced that the most
serious malaise in the Church is a drought
of doctrine. They are turning the Synod into a self-absorbed European affair
and I think they are letting the rest of the Church down very badly.
they may find difficult to acknowledge is that millions of Catholics have long
become suspicious of and sceptical about the Church’s own hubris and its
culture of programmed indoctrination and moralising judgments!
Cardinal Peter Erdo of Hungary, perhaps reflecting something of the
pessimism of the eastern Europeans has criticised schools in his country for
offering “an education in syncretism and indifferentism.”
Washington, DC’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl is the Synod Relator or coordinator. He probably still has a personal axe to grind as he smarts over the Sr Elizabeth Johnston theological debacle. In his opening address he warned of an “intellectual and ideological separation of Christ from his Church”, seeing “secularism and relativism” as subjugating the faith.
Wuerl should know better than this because the Catholic Church in the United
States along with many other countries in the West, has tens of thousands of non
ordained members who are theologically literate, informed and highly articulate.
These are fiercely committed stakeholders in the Church and they have a finely
developed sense of what is not congruent and transparent in Church teaching and
governance. They are particularly sensitive to mixed message, outright deception
and a collective Church leadership compromised by those very things it condemns
and rails against namely, secularism and moral relativism.
power to attract and persuade has always been its congruity and integrity in
both public and private life. It has always claimed the moral high ground and
that it stands for principles superior to and qualitatively different from the
world around it. Throughout history, it has always lost that capacity to win
over the outsider when its values have been compromised and its identity
subverted. The disclosures of machinations, subterfuge, dissemblance,
ostentation and displays of authoritarian power have left it as an institution
almost unparalleled even in the last remaining dictatorships on earth.
one of the more pious and utterly delusional interventions, Cardinal Dolan of
New York suggested that “confession is the sacrament of evangelization.”
This is possibly an unwitting admission of catastrophic pastoral failure and a
defeat for imaginative leadership when the popular perception is that the great
collective sin of the Church has yet to be adequately named and repented of.
Evangelisation will be effective if the leadership of the Catholic Church is
first reconciled with God through its own people. 
journey with Christ through the poverty of the human spirit
a far less ideological or doctrinal perspectives, the bishops of Asia and Africa
have concentrated on the more human dimensions of Evangelisation.
Perhaps they are thinking of the prophet Elijah who not only preached the
uniqueness and justice of God but also encountered the Nameless One not in the
fire, earthquake, storm or thunder but in the quiet voice in the wilderness They
were certainly thinking about the Word who became flesh and not a book of dogma.
Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila spoke of the enduring attractiveness of the Gospel
that is found most powerfully in the humanity of Jesus,
seeming indifferent and aimless societies of our time are earnestly looking for
God. ... The world takes delight in the simple witness to Jesus – meek and
humble of heart.”
a similar vein, Nigerian bishop of Oyo, Emmanuel Badejo suggested that the only
sure way for the Church to succeed in the work of Evangelisation is for it to go
to the people and meet them in their secular domain world. The missionary Church
must be seen in the mundane and seedy worlds of raw human experience if it is to
be congruent with the habitual practice of Jesus. The medium is committed
Christian humanism and the alienated in particular respond to his kind of
in the world today may not go to Church but they need the Church to come to
them, right where people are found, especially in those places where churches
are emptying. Is the Holy Spirit calling us out of the ‘catacombs of fear and
self consciousness’ to share Jesus more with others? The ‘original places of
social media’ namely the playgrounds, the streets, town squares, marketplaces,
nightclubs, shopping malls, even pubs and slums, thirst to be ‘Church’ in
some form.” 
not doctrine that people are looking for these days and it is a huge error of
judgement to think a large dose of catechesis will cure the frailties of God’s
People. Doctrine so easily becomes sterile indoctrination and a body of
collection of dead letters without a living soul and spirit. Prof. Tomas Halik,
a former adviser to JP II on atheism and Communism, reinforces the point,
“Evangelism as monologue is indoctrination...(and)...People are allergic to
indoctrination”. However, searching people will always respond to Christ and a
Christ-like Church. The problem is that they are finding little evidence of
either. The challenge for the Church is to reverse this.
will be of more than academic interest to read and study the final statement of
this Synod on the Church’s evangelical mission and to gauge whether there was
a genuine conversation held in a spirit of candour, transparency and
collegiality or that the conclusions were written before the ink on the Pope’s
opening homily was barely dry.
The Pope’s address on Evangelization, full text here.
And for more on Benedict’s interventions and ‘clarifications’ at the
Synod, see Sandro Magister’s Chiesa.Espresso
Previous references by Benedict to spiritual deserts, see Pontifical Council for
the New Evangelization, here.
For rather directive commentary by Benedict to the Synod on challenges and
strategies for the New Evangelisation, click here.
John Allen’s NCR summary of the
different regional understandings of the key to the New Evangelization, here.
For Bishop Emmanuel Badejo’s reflections on the need of the Church to meet
people in their world, click here.
more reflection and discussion on the sacred
dimension of the secular, see Mark
Johnson’s 16/08/10 Cathnews blog
David Timbs writes from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.