Père Teilhard and Pope Benedict

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Miss Pariseau, my high school French teacher, once spoke to me of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin with great affection for his understanding of God and the universe. A year later I found myself in my first year of seminary studies and came across Père Teilhard's slim volume, Hymn of the Universe. I was particularly drawn, repeatedly, to the first chapter, "The Mass on the World." An excerpt follows, but I'd encourage you to take the time to read the whole chapter here. (For those unfamiliar with the term, paten in the following passage is the name of the plate upon which is placed the bread to be consecrated at Mass.)

Since once again, Lord — though this time not in the forests of the Aisne but in the steppes of Asia — I have neither bread, nor wine, nor altar, I will raise myself beyond these symbols, up to the pure majesty of the real itself; I, your priest, will make the whole earth my altar and on it will offer you all the labours and sufferings of the world.
Over there, on the horizon, the sun has just touched with light the outermost fringe of the eastern sky. Once again, beneath this moving sheet of fire, the living surface of the earth wakes and trembles, and once again begins its fearful travail. I will place on my paten, O God, the harvest to be won by this renewal of labour. Into my chalice I shall pour all the sap which is to be pressed out this day from the earth’s fruits.

My paten and my chalice are the depths of a soul laid widely open to all the forces which in a moment will rise up from every corner of the earth and converge upon the Spirit. Grant me the remembrance and the mystic presence of all those whom the light is now awakening to the new day.

One by one, Lord, I see and I love all those whom you have given me to sustain and charm my life. One by one also I number all those who make up that other beloved family which has gradually surrounded me, its unity fashioned out of the most disparate elements, with affinities of the heart, of scientific research and of thought. And again one by one — more vaguely it is true, yet all-inclusively — I call before me the whole vast anonymous army of living humanity; those who surround me and support me though I do not know them; those who come, and those who go; above all, those who in office, laboratory and factory, through their vision of truth or despite their error, truly believe in the progress of earthly reality and who today will take up again their impassioned pursuit of the light.

This restless multitude, confused or orderly, the immensity of which terrifies us; this ocean of humanity whose slow, monotonous wave-flows trouble the hearts even of those whose faith is most firm: it is to this deep that I thus desire all the fibres of my being should respond. All the things in the world to which this day will bring increase; all those that will diminish; all those too that will die: all of them, Lord, I try to gather into my arms, so as to hold them out to you in offering. This is the material of my sacrifice; the only material you desire.

Once upon a time men took into your temple the first fruits of their harvests, the flower of their flocks. But the offering you really want, the offering you mysteriously need every day to appease your hunger, to slake your thirst is nothing less than the growth of the world borne ever onwards in the stream of universal becoming.

Receive, O Lord, this all-embracing host which your whole creation, moved by your magnetism, offers you at this dawn of a new day.

This bread, our toil, is of itself, I know, but an immense fragmentation; this wine, our pain, is no more, I know, than a draught that dissolves. Yet in the very depths of this formless mass you have implanted — and this I am sure of, for I sense it — a desire, irresistible, hallowing, which makes us cry out, believer and unbeliever alike: ‘Lord, make us one.’

de Chardin was a controversial writer and the Vatican was strong in its warnings about his work. From a contemporary perspective, this Jesuit priest's words seem less threatening than they did some 55 years ago. Last week, Benedict XVI gave Père Teilhard a favorable nod as this story from NCR reports:
Though few might have cast him in advance as a "green pope," Pope Benedict XVI has amassed a striking environmental record, from installing solar panels in the Vatican to calling for ecological conversion. Now the pontiff has also hinted at a possible new look at the undeclared patron saint of Catholic ecology, the late French Jesuit scientist and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Benedict's brief July 24 reference to Teilhard, praising his vision of the entire cosmos as a "living host," can be read on multiple levels -- as part of the pontiff's rapprochement with the Jesuits, or as a further instance of finding something positive to say about thinkers whose works have set off doctrinal alarms, as Benedict previously did with rebel Swiss theologian and former colleague Hans Küng. The potential implications for environmental theology, however, are likely to generate the greatest interest among Teilhard's fans and foes alike -- and more than a half-century after his death in 1955, the daring Jesuit still has plenty of both. Admirers trumpet Teilhard as a pioneer, harmonizing Christianity with the theory of evolution; critics charge that Teilhard's optimistic view of nature flirts with pantheism.

Benedict's comment came during a July 24 vespers service in the Cathedral of Aosta in northern Italy, where the pope took his annual summer vacation July 13-29. Toward the end of a reflection upon the Letter to the Romans, in which St. Paul writes that the world itself will one day become a form of living worship, the pope said, "It's the great vision that later Teilhard de Chardin also had: At the end we will have a true cosmic liturgy, where the cosmos becomes a living host. "Let's pray to the Lord that he help us be priests in this sense," the pope said, "to help in the transformation of the world in adoration of God, beginning with ourselves."

Though offered only in passing, and doubtless subject to overinterpretation, Benedict's line nevertheless triggered headlines in the Italian press about a possible "rehabilitation" of Teilhard, sometimes referred to as the "Catholic Darwin." That reading seemed especially tempting since, as a consummate theologian, Benedict is aware of the controversy that swirls around Teilhard, and would thus grasp the likely impact of a positive papal reference.

At the very least, the line seemed to offer a blessing for exploration of the late Jesuit's ideas. That impression appeared to be confirmed by the Vatican spokesperson, Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, who said afterward, "By now, no one would dream of saying that [Teilhard] is a heterodox author who shouldn't be studied."
For more and for a look at Benedict's views of de Chardin, read the whole article.



  1. I wouldn't take NCR as an authoritative source given its past history of misinterpretations! As for Fr. Lombardi, he is not the one who will be lifting the ban. Benedict is quite capable of speaking clearly and issuing rulings on his own initiative. He hasn't overturned the ban on de Chardin as yet. It would be premature to assume that's what will happen.

  2. I read the Allen piece with great joy earlier today. I love Teilhard. For me he was so many things but if I were to sum it up, I would say that for me he helped me to return to the Church and he helps me to stay.

    I spent a lot of time pondering him this past fall in my sacraments class (with Richard Vosko) thinking about the cosmos as the primordial sacrament.

    I loved reading about your own experiences of Teilhard - thank you!


  3. I had to see this and smile.

    I quoted this line in my first homily at my Mass of Thanksgiving:

    One by one, Lord, I see and I love all those whom you have given me to sustain and charm my life.

    And wouldn't you know, someone after mass wagged a finger at me and said, "You know, Teilhard de Chardin has been condemned."

    Ah, memories. God bless our big, crazy church.

    Dcn. G.

  4. Deacon Greg,

    Certainly there's much in de Chardin's writing that is charming and quotable. He was a learned, witty man, probably very much at home at Manhattan dinner parties as well as archeological digs -- today he would be very appealing as a media figure. And yet, in his yearnings to reconcile God and evolution, he apparently overreached. (Disclaimer: My parents had a Jesuit friend who lived in residence with de Chardin for many years, so I heard about his silencing and its aftermath first-hand.) I understand de Chardin made an assent of the will and of the intellect to the church's decision.
    I wouldn't be so quick to disregard the controversy surrounding his writing -- or to belittle a member of your parish who is educated enough to recognize de Chardin's words and to recall the negative assessment of them by his fellow theologians.

    Irish Gal

  5. A few years ago an introductory prayer at a meeting I attended struck a chord with me. I had never heard of Teilhard de Chardin, but got a copy of the prayer, which I have recited daily ever since.

    Above all, trust the slow work of God.
    We are, quite naturally,
    impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.
    We should like to skip
    the intermediate stages.
    We are impatient of being on
    The way to something unknown,
    something new,
    and yet it is the law of all progress
    that it is made by passing through
    some stage of instability -
    and that it may take a very long time.

    And so I think it is with you.
    Your ideas mature gradually -
    let them grow,
    let them shape themselves,
    without undue haste.
    Don't try to force them on,
    as though you could be today
    what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting
    on your own good will)
    will make them tomorrow.

    Only God could say what this new spirit
    gradually forming within you will be.
    Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you,
    and accept the anxiety of
    feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.

    -- Teilhard de Chardin

    For Teilhard de Chardin and for so many others who have faced similar trials trust that God is with you and will lead you in time to be exonerated.


  6. I do enjoy the comments of those who make them in a balanced, reasoned, and well-read manner more than those with a consistently negative attitude toward people who disagree with them.

  7. Rosemary,

    For those who trust in God, the hope is that His will be done. Whether that results in "exoneration" or not is beside the point for such souls.

    Irish Gal

  8. If anybody is interested in reading the homily where he mentioned Teilhard, you can read it all here:


    Of course this is nothing new for Benedict. A great number of his books reference Teilhard in a positive way, and in many ways when you come to learn the theology of then Cardinal Ratzinger you will come to see that Teilhard is probably the only one who was able to express so precisely the vision that the Pope himself sought to convey, but felt uncomfortable doing so in such direct language. Personally I find that Teilhard's vision uniquely bridges that gap between the personalism of Augustine that drew Benedict to the faith, and the objectivity of Aquinas that naturally satisfies his own logical mind. These are the words of St. Paul, but in a modern language that opens up its understanding to the questioning, curious minds of today. Teilhard's vision is dangerously incomplete, but invaluable nonetheless.


  9. Rosemary - thank you for that prayer, I am making a copy of it for myself and for someone I have been in conversation with.

  10. Irish Gal,
    I am not sure that exoneration is beside the point. I imagine for those who have felt the heavy hand of Rome and have then been exonerated, the relief must be enormous. Particularly, I would think for scientists who know they are right, the humiliation they have endured must be very difficult to take. I dare say that Galileo must have thrown a whopping party in heaven once the powers that be acknowledged the rightness of his scientific findings. It sure took them a heck of a long time to get around to admitting that Galileo was correct in his findings.

    The hubris and lack of ability to say "we were wrong" is what makes Rome so unique.


  11. I hate to add to the fray, but if CP allows this comment, I will.

    Perhaps the essence of this discussion is exactly the point of the prayer that Rosemary presented in her comment.

    We simply do not know and we are on the journey.

    With due respect Irish Gal, and I must say perhaps I am misinterpreting you, your words present a scenario in which things are all sewn up.

    To this I must say that I believe our view of the temporal and God's is quite different. Of course the truth is there, it has just not all been revealed to us.

    Which is why people whose names, from Joan of Arc to Copernicus to Galileo to Sister Mary McKillop to Franz Jaegerstatter and countless others remain part of the great cloud of witnesses.

    You are free to not embrace the Teilhardian ethic, but why continue to to try to extinguish a fire that God Himself may have set?

    And that brings us back to the prayer of Teilhard de Chardin which reminds us to "Above all, trust the slow work of God."


  12. Anonymous July 28,

    Thought you might be interested to know that NCR won the Catholic Press Association's General Excellence Award for the tenth consecutive year in 2009.


  13. Piere Teilhard de Chardin was, is and always shall be a heretic and hero of all modernists.


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