Hoping Pope Francis will one day publicly recognise and proclaim the value of Teilhard’s life of faith, his prophetic writings and the bridge he built between science and belief
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s life sparkles with the mixture of scholarship and faith.
Ordained in 1930 as a priest in the Society of Jesus, his life experience spanned the scientific world and his Christian belief.
He was named to the French Academy of Sciences in 1950 for his ground-breaking work in palaeontology whilst at the same time his writings incurred the displeasure of Rome.
For many years, up to his death in 1955, Teilhard was forbidden to publish his writings or lecture in Catholic institutes. He was effectively silenced. But he continued to write.
During one of his expeditions in the Ordos desert in China, he found himself without the means to offer Mass. Instead, he wrote the famous meditation, La Messe sur le Monde (“The Mass on the World”), a faith-filled statement of his Christian belief. That was in 1923.
The opening paragraph sets the tone of the whole essay.
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.
The book in which it was included, the Hymn of the Universe, was refused the imprimatur by Rome. That restriction on his publishing lasted through to his death in New York City on Easter Sunday in 1955.
His great work, the Phenomenon of Man, was submitted to Rome in 1941. That was also refused and in subsequent years, the restrictions on him were increased.
Yet through it all, Teilhard remained faithful to God, his priesthood and to the Society of Jesus.
In more recent years, there have been signs of a slow accommodation to his thought, beginning in the years of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) where his privately circulated thoughts are said to have had a considerable influence.
Back in the 1980s, I was visiting Lindisfarne, often known as Holy Island, off the North Eastern English Northumberland coast. Centuries ago, it had been the monastic home of Saint Cuthbert, the great Celtic saint. It is a remote place linked to the mainland by a causeway, passable only at low tide.
After wandering round the few narrow streets, I knocked on the door of the local Anglican chaplain who generously invited me in. Together over tea and cake we talked for more than hour, much of it about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
He had never read Le Messe sur le Monde. When I got home, I typed out a copy and sent it to him. This was in pre-lap top days and my typing was far from perfect.
I will always remember the letter he sent me on receipt of the text in which he wrote, “We may never meet again, but thanks for a lift on the way.” We did in fact meet a few years later when, on returning to Lindisfarne, I again knocked on his door and received the same hospitality.
Too many theologians of the 20th Century received similar treatment that Teilhard did from Rome, as do others — priests, sisters and layfolk — in our present time. Somehow, we must understand that restrictions such as those experienced by thoughtful men like him will not stand the test of time.
Now we have Pope Frances, Bishop of Rome, himself a member of the Society of Jesus.
It would be good if, at some time before he is called to the Lord, he could publicly recognise and proclaim the value of Teilhard’s life of faith, his prophetic writings and the bridge he built between science and belief.
Chris McDonnell is a retired headteacher from England and a regular contributor to La Croix International.
Reproduced with permission from La Croix International and Chris McDonnell.