“I maintain that there is a center, or a heart, to the Catholic intellectual tradition,” said Rev. Robert Imbelli, whose last year at Boston College is drawing to a close, to a crowd in Gasson 100 last Thursday night. “One that distinguishes it from a Platonic or an Aristotelian, a Stoic or an Epicurean tradition.” BC’s Church in the 21st Century (C21) began its schedule of spring semester events with a panel titled “The Heart of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition,” consisting of Imbelli; Marina McCoy, a professor in the philosophy department; and Khaled Anatolios, a professor in the School of Theology and Ministry (STM). Imbelli spoke first, with McCoy and Anatolios giving shorter, follow-up statements. The floor was then opened to questions from the audience.
Imbelli began by referencing the most recent issue of the C21 publication, which he edited. “It is an invitation to explore this inexhaustible reality that is the Catholic intellectual tradition. Like the facets of a diamond or the threads of a tapestry, I hope in tonight’s presentation to offer a framework for reflection-not the only framework, but a framework for reflection-an invitation to reflect further-to broaden, to deepen, to modify, to add.”
“At its heart, the Catholic intellectual tradition is not a series of ideas, however brilliant and insightful, but a person, who bears a name and has a face … the face, of course, is Jesus Christ,” Imbelli said. “The resurrection of Christ lies at the heart of the Catholic intellectual tradition … It not only inspires devotion, worship and prayer-but then it also gives rise to thought and reflection.”
Imbelli enumerated some of these thoughts. “Does the Catholic intellectual tradition also place us before an existential challenge?” he asked. “A fundamental choice? I think it does, and to put it starkly, it asks: do we ultimately encounter, in our journey, presence or absence?”
On that theme of presence versus absence, Imbelli went on to recount an experience he had shortly after the Velvet Revolution of 1989-while visiting the newly liberated Czechoslovakia, he entered a 17th-century Jesuit church that had been destroyed. “I found there a place of devastation and dehumanization,” he said. “[It] created a sense of total absence, a void … There came to me a personal revelation-so not authorized, not official; private, and therefore not authoritative-that the denial of presence is also a denial of humanity, whether by a totalitarian state, or by everyday bullying and bias.”
Tradition, Imbelli said, is not what is old, or what is past, but a way of life. “Through its sacramental practices, the Catholic intellectual tradition promotes a Eucharistic way of life,” he said. During Mass, he said, if the congregation does not give thanks, then the Mass should cease. It is the duty of Catholics always and everywhere to give thanks-and that entails becoming the bearers of what he called “real presence,” in their care and concern for the earth, God’s community, and one another. Quoting Pope John Paul II, Imbelli said that Christ gives the assurance, “I am with you”-a promise, too, of presence.
After Imbelli concluded his speech, McCoy responded briefly. She specializes in ancient philosophy and the sophists, and does work with prison ministry-in her talk, she highlighted her involvement with the PULSE program at BC, referencing the Gospel of Mark, which focuses on Jesus’ mission: to heal, to feed, and to spend time with those who are poor in one way or another. “Jesus acts,” McCoy said. “Our intellectual tradition must never become disconnected from that call to action, especially in solidarity with those who are poor, hungry, imprisoned, tortured, or ostracized.”
Finally, Anatolios, who is a member of the STM’s ecclesiastical faculty, also gave a short response. He noted, in part, the atmospheric differences between ancient and modern worship: “Even loving Christ is much less prominent in our own time,” “The assurance that God loves us is a staple of every retreat and spiritual program-never does one hear much talk about loving Christ … we generally talk of following Christ, of imitating Christ’s love for others-yet rarely do we hear of loving Christ himself.”