From last Sunday's Lenten Conference at Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris, here is an English translation of excerpts from the lecture given by Father Gérard Pelletier, titled "The Church Can Look Its Past in the Face" (translated from a transcript of those excerpts by La-Croix). Father Pelletier is a doctor in history, professor at the Studium Notre Dame (the seminary of Paris) and head of the Maison Saint-Louis-en-l'Ile (one of 8 houses of seminarians of the seminary of Paris). The lectures can be viewed online on the KTO website. A schedule of the series is posted in English here.
"When the Christian reflects upon the role of memory, it first occurs to him that the people of Israel are invited to call to remembrance unceasingly the great deeds of God in their history; then that Christ will say to His disciples on the evening of the Last Supper in instituting the Eucharist: "Do this in memory of Me" (Luke 22:19); finally that the Lord promised to these same disciples that they would not be alone in their act of memory: "The Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance everything that I said to you" (John 14:26).
At the realest moment of the sacramental encounter between Christ and the believer, an act of memory is presented: truth and memory are forever linked in the Christian life, shedding light upon the entirety of the other dimensions of existence . . .
This memory, like every element of the past, belongs to the field of history, and makes possible this historical science which interests us today: with its methods, its safety, its wish for objectivity moderated by the clear awareness of what the historian brings in his questioning about the past. But this memory leads us further into what we call, in Christian practice, “Tradition” . . .
This Tradition in action is distinct from what we call history; but history, the act of memory of what the Church transmits to us, belongs to Tradition, is an element of it . . .
In fact, when Tradition and history are badly articulated, several sicknesses can appear in the life of the Church.
The History of the Church Suffers from Partial and Reductive Interpretations.
In the first direction, the memory of certain elements of thought and of the Church’s life can invade Tradition and become confused with it to the point of locking it into conventional formulas . . . In the contrary direction, the role of history and that of memory can also be treated with a scientific approach that reduces the authenticity of Tradition and thus of the act of Faith, bordering on all the "modernisms" of history . . .
Between these two extremes, we find a great number of currents of thought that ultimately take one point of Tradition and create an entire system from it, tending to take the place of Tradition itself . . .
The history of the Church, particularly since the century of lights, suffers from partial and reductive interpretations concerning the Crusades or the Inquisition, even now concerning the Second World War . . .
On each one of these points, the work with objective facts can be distorted by a more or less complete incomprehension of Christian Tradition, and thus of what is, in truth, the Church’s mission in this world. To know this mission makes it possible to leave behind alternating mediocrities. . . . .
A Divine Providence Too Much Forgotten Today
The Church’s maternal memory is sacramental in the sense in which it is memory of the effective action of God in our human histories. We have, as believers, the privilege and the right to look at the history of humanity, discovering in it, while scrutinizing it, the signs of the presence and working of God. And we know that each man, in his uniqueness and his irreducible value, is set before God in history, in a given time . . .
If one takes the option to secularize the look at history, which is scientifically legitimate, it no less remains the case that there is a divine providence, too much forgotten today . . .
To point out that God is providence is not to leave the field of history, a social science that lives in the strict discipline of tools for understanding provided by its method . . . No, we do not have the right to ideology, and that must be at the center of our methods, most particularly in these times when the Church can seem to be a minority and mistreated. It would be dangerous to believe that all means are acceptable to defend ourselves.
But even in the context of the historian’s asceticism, the role of theology intervenes. He cannot understand the life of the Church if he works by completely disregarding ways of thinking and believing about this. It will no longer be a question of producing a history called "confessional". Again and always, it will be about establishing the truth, because it frees, while pressing all men of good conscience forward towards the good of humanity . . .
The Spirit of God Acts in World History.
At the heart of this relation between man’s truth and God’s truth, memory is inseparable from forgiveness asked, received as much as possible, lived in depth. The Church can and must ask forgiveness before this world for elements of its past, and purify its collective conscience. That is the meaning of the steps of repentance and forgiveness which marked the pontificate of John Paul II . . . .
The Church can look its past in the face, to submit acts of discernment, not about men, whose judgment belongs to God alone, but about objective actions and facts that do not correspond to the message of the Gospel. John Paul II did not have to judge Godefroy de Bouillon’s taking of Jerusalem, nor judge St. Pius V’s reforming the Roman Inquisition, and in fact the text of the prayer did not judge anyone.
But it can ask forgiveness for all the times when Christians did not respect the religious conscience of their contemporaries . . . John Paul II’s steps purified our memories and allowed us to place ourselves in truth in contemporary debates. . .
All things considered, since the Spirit of God acts in the history of the world, we can dare to affirm that the Holy Spirit is there to clarify the work of the historian who wants to know, to understand, the past elements of the Revelation, the past elements of the history of the Church – we could say Churches – for better serving the man of today in his walk of Faith.
That the historian works with an asceticism of the truth does not prevent him from having to raise his eyes up towards that which can give meaning to so many lives of men and women, and to be aware of it . . . "