Chesterton Knew The Importance of Ecumenical Dialogue

Chesterton Knew The Importance of Ecumenical Dialogue

Wednesday 9 November 2022

To GK Chesterton [A Letter From Albino Luciani, later Pope John Paul I]

Dear Chesterton,

On Italian television during the past few weeks we have been seeing Father Brown, your surprising detective-priest – a character who is typically yours. A pity we haven’t also had Professor Lucifer and the monk Michael. I’d very much have liked to see them as you described them in The Ball and the Cross, sitting beside each other on the flying ship.

When the flying ship is above St Paul’s Cathedral, the Professor gives ‘a shriek indescribable’ as they pass the cross on the ball set on top of the dome.

‘ “I once knew a man like you, Lucifer,” ’ says Michael. ‘ “...This man also took the view that the symbol of Christianity was a symbol of savagery and all unreason. His history is rather amusing. It is also a perfect allegory of what happens to rationalists like yourself. He began, of course, by refusing to allow a crucifix in his house, or round his wife’s neck, or even in a picture. He said, as you say, that it was an arbitrary and fantastic shape, that it was a monstrosity, loved because it was paradoxical. Then he began to grow fiercer and more eccentric; he would batter the crosses by the roadside; for he lived in a Roman Catholic country. Finally in a height of frenzy he climbed the steeple of the Parish Church and tore down the cross, waving it in the air, and uttering wild soliloquies up there under the stars. Then one still summer evening as he was wending his way homewards, along a lane, the devil of his madness came upon him with a violence and transfiguration which changes the world. He was standing smoking, for a moment, in front of an interminable line of palings, when his eyes were opened. Not a light shifted, not a leaf stirred, but he saw as if by a sudden charge in the eyesight that this paling was an army of innumerable crosses linked together over hill and dale. And he whirled up his heavy stick wand went at it as if at an army. Mile after mile along his homeward path he broke it down and tore it up. For he hated the cross and every paling is a wall of crosses. When he returned to his house he was a literal madman. He sat upon a chair and then started up from it for the crossbars of the carpentry repeated the intolerable image. He flung himself upon a bed only to remember that this, too, like all workmanlike things, was constructed on the accursed plan. He broke his furniture because it was made of crosses. He was found in the river.” ’

‘Lucifer was looking at him with a bitten lip,’ you continue.

‘ “Is that story really true?” he asked.

“Oh, no,” said Michael, airily. “It is a parable. It is a parable of you and all your rationalists. You begin by breaking up the Cross;  but you end by breaking up the habitable world.” ’

The monk’s conclusion, which is yours, dear Chesterton, is quite right. Take God away and what is left, what do men become? What sort of a world are we reduced to living in? ‘Why, the world of progress!’ I hear someone say. ‘The world of affluence!’ Yes, but this famous progress isn’t at all it was once cracked up to be. It contains other things in itself: missiles, bacteriological and atomic weapons, the present process of pollution – all things that, unless they are dealt with in time, threaten to plunge the whole human race into catastrophe.

In other words, progress that involves men who love one another, thinking of themselves as brothers and as children of the one Father, God, can be a magnificent thing. Progress that involves men who don’t recognize a single Father in God becomes a constant danger: without a parallel moral progress, which is continuous and internal, it develops what is lowest and cruellest in man, making him a machine possessed by machines, a number manipulated by numbers; he becomes what Papini called ‘a raving savage, who, to satisty his predatory, destructive, and licentious instincts, no longer uses a club, but has the immense forces of nature and mechanical invention to draw upon.’

Yes, I know there are plenty of people who think the opposite of this. They consider religion a consoling dream, invented by oppressed people who imagine another world, a non-existent world in which they can later find what is stolen from them today by their oppressors. These oppressors have arranged the whole thing for their own benefit, to keep the oppressed underfoot and to quieten the instinct towards a class struggle, and instinct that, were it not for religion, would urge them to fight.

It is no good reminding these people that the Christian religion itself favours the revival of proletarian awareness, that it exalts the poor and foresees a just future. ‘Yes,’ they reply, ‘Christianity does awaken the awareness of the poor, but then it paralyses it by preaching patience, and by substituting faith in God and trust in the gradual reform of society for the class struggle.’

Many also think that God and religion, by fixing people’s hopes and efforts on a future, distant paradise, alienate man, and prevent him committing himself to a nearby paradise, to achieving one here on earth.

It is no good reminding them that, according to the recent Council, a Christian, just because he is Christian, must feel all the more committed to support progress for the good of all, and social advancement for everyone. ‘All the same,’ they say, ‘you think of progress through a transitory world, waiting for a definitive paradise which will never be achieved. We want our paradise here, as a result of all our struggles. We can see the beginning of it already, whereas your God is actually called “dead” by some theologians. We agree with Heine, who wrote: “Do you hear the bells? Down on your knees! We are taking the last sacraments to a dying God.” ’

Dear Chesterton, you and I go down on our knees before a God who is more present than ever. Only he can give a satisfactory answer to the questions which, for everyone, are the most important of all: Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going?

As to the heaven that will be enjoyed on earth and only on earth, and in the near future, after the famous ‘class struggle’, I’d like to quote someone much more gifted than me and, without denying your merits, than you too, dear Chesterton: Dostoevsky.

You remember his Ivan Karamazov. He was an atheist, a friend of the devil. Well, he protested with all an atheist’s vehemence against the paradise achieved through effort, suffering, and the martyrdom of countless generations. To think of our descendants being happy thanks to the unhappiness of their ancestors! Ancestors who struggle without ever receiving the share of joy, often without even the comfort of a glimpse of paradise when they emerge from the hell they have gone through! Multitudes exterminated, wounded and sacrificed merely to provide the soil in which to grow the future trees of life! Impossible! says Ivan. It would be a pitiless, monstrous injustice.

And he was right.

The sense of justices that lies in every man, whatever his faith, demands that the good we do and the evil we suffer should be rewarded, that the hunger for life found in everyone should be satisfied. Where and how, if there is no other life? And from whom, if not from God? And from what God, if not the one of whom St Francis de Sales wrote: ‘Do not fear God, who wishes you no harm, but love him a great deal, who wishes you so much good.’

What many people fight is not the true God but the false idea they have made of God: a God who protects the rich, who only asks and demands, who is jealous of our growing prosperity, who spies continuously on our sins from above, to give himself the pleasure of punishing us.

Dear Chesterton, you know God isn’t like that; you know that he’s both good and just; the father of prodigal sons, who wishes them all to be, not sad and wretched, but great and free, and creators of our own destiny. Our God is not man’s rival, he wants us to be his friends, he has called us to share in his divine nature and in his eternal happiness. And he does not ask anything excessive of us: he is content with very little, because he knows quite well that we haven’t got very much.

Dear Chesterton, I’m sure, as you are, that this God will make himself ever more known and loved: by everyone, including those who reject him, not because they are evil (they may be better than both of us!), but because they look at him from a mistaken point of view. If they continue not to believe in him, he replies: ‘Well, I believe in you!'

Printable GK Chesterton Prayercards in English, Welsh, Irish, German, Polish, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Italian, Latin, Maltese, Romanian, Russian, Latvian, Slovakian and many other languages here; Print some off and post photos of them around the World.The one in the photo above is in Italian, and is being held by Reverend Lo in St Peter's Square, Rome earlier this year when Blessed Pope John Paul I was being Beatified.

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