Balthasar’s Bouquet

This edited article by Fr Richard Foley SJ first appeared in the 1988 winter edition of the Medjugorje Messenger.

• Cardinal-designate Urs von Balthasar died suddenly, aged 82 on June 26, 1988 – just two days before he was due to receive the red hat from Pope John Paul II, who had long been one of his warmest admirers.

“Medjugorje’s theology rings true. I am convinced of its truth. And everything about Medjugorje is authentic, in a Catholic sense. What’s happening there is so evident, so convincing.”

Bouquets seldom come more glowing than this one presented to the extraordinary little (Yugoslav) “world village” by the world-famous Swiss theologian.

Von Balthasar was a tall, gaunt man who wore his 80- plus years extremely lightly. What had long established him as a giant figure in the world of theology and culture was his profound learning combined with a wide vision. Also he had a unique gift for marrying up modernity with tradition. It came as no surprise when, in 1984, the Holy Father (whose favourite theologian Balthasar was) award him the prestigious “Paul VI prize” for theology.

Cardinal du Lubac hailed Balthasar as the most cultured mind of our generation. Not only as a theologian but as a friend, he was on close terms with the likes of Cardinal Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI). And it was another theological giant – Karl Rahner – who referred to what he called the “breathtaking versatility” of Balthasar’s writings.

His views on Medjugorje were expressed in sundry articles and private letters (including one to myself). And he developed these views in the course of a long interview he gave me in London.

To begin with, the Swiss theologian emphasised our liberty and right to go to Medjugorje on private pilgrimage. Pending the Church’s formal acceptance of Medjugorje, pilgrimages organised at an official level have rightly bee vetoed by the Yugoslav bishops as presumptuous and pre-emptive of the (expected) go-ahead.

Balthasar told me that he, too, had come across any number of people, including priests and even prelates, who dismiss Medjugorje as anything from irrelevant to impossible, yet have not taken a really hard look at the evidence. And he agreed with my verdict on theological liberals: they are illiberal enough to question the Mother of God’s freedom to appear where, when, and to whom she likes, and over as long a period of time as she likes.

Yet the ordinary faithful, he pointed out, see divine realities instantly and uncomplicatedly. This is thanks to their instinct for Heaven-sent truths; we refer to it technically as sensus fidelium. Not for nothing did Our Lord tell us that his Heavenly Father is wont to reveal things to plain, ordinary folk that blinkered wiseacres (some with theological degrees) miss by a mile.

For Balthasar, the clinching proof of Medjugorje’s genuineness is in the quantity and quality of its fruits. By going there on pilgrimage, or simply through such contacts as books, videos etc, countless thousands have received rich graces. These graces pertain to things like peace of mind, a deepening faith, the desire to pray more, courage to fast once or twice a week on bread and water (or hot drinks), the resolution to frequent the Sacraments regularly.

Incidentally, Balthasar noted how pastorally wise and opportune is Our Lady of Medjugorje’s recommendation of frequent confession as the very instrument to sanctify and renew the contemporary Church.

Given that the “fullness of faith” is a recurrent Balthasarian theme, it is not difficult to see why he accepted Medjugorje so wholeheartedly. For its message is thoroughly, uncompromising orthodox. And it nourishes within us respect for the Church’s divine authority. Nor could this be otherwise, seeing that the message comes from her whom Balthasar has styled “the mother and model of the Church, the immaculate Church; the heart and centre of the Communion of Saints.”

Another Balthasarian concept finds in Medjugorje a fresh and exciting expression. It is what he terms Theoramatik – “the drama of love being played out between God and the world.”

Looking at Medjugorje in the light of Balthasar’s concept, we can say that the God of love has transformed it into a theatre of holiness in which his Mother – leading lady in the divine drama – is teaching multitudes of people and helping them to make her message the very guiding star of their pilgrimage of faith, their lifelong adventure into the grace of God and the God of grace.

Closely linked with divine drama in Balthasar’s theological system is the communication of truth. And there’s certainly an abundance of this commodity to be found in Medjugorje. Its messages coincides and dovetails to a remarkable degree with what John the Baptist proclaimed in the Judaean dessert. In fact, the general Medjugorje message virtually amounts to the Gospel according to the Gospa (Croatian name for Our Lady).

Finally, Medjugorje’s message is shot with divine beauty – another key idea in Balthasar’s thinking. To apply it to Medjugorje, we canny say that beauty is abundantly manifest in that little favoured corner of Yugoslavia. It is in the hills, the fields, the stars that look down, the soft winds that blow across the plains. It is in the faces and hearts of those gracious people who live there. It is in the faith and prayer of the pilgrim throngs. It is in the vast Eucharistic assemblies and the haunting Slav hymns. It is in the patient lines of penitents seeking absolution. It is in the myriad of Aves that rise day and night.

Medjugorje’s beauty is, above all, in the glorified humanity and maternal love of Mary. The perfume of her holiness is everywhere. Her presence it is that permeates Medjugorje with “God’s better beauty – grace.”

Fr Richard Foley SJ

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