Thinking theologically about welcoming; beginning with the experience of an encounter in a common effort to build an inclusive citizenship

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Inconvenient for the liberals (although they owe much to him) and inconvenient for the establishment, the French Jesuit Jean Daniélou was doubtless one of the great twentieth-century theologians and one of the fathers of Vatican II. Born in 1905, he was made Cardinal by Paul VI in 1969 but was to be ostracized for many years after dying from a heart attack in the house of a prostitute in Paris one afternoon in May 1974. The Jesuits themselves were to ascertain later that he had gone to take her money to pay for a lawyer capable of getting her husband out of prison: it was the last of the works of charity he carried out in secret for people who were despised and in need of help and forgiveness.

His good faith, however, was left shrouded in a silence that did not dispel suspicions and this course of action was probably chosen in order to make him pay for theological positions that were not always appreciated within his own religious family. This member of the Académie Française who met and knew Sartre, Cocteau and Maritain and who had been Mounier’s friend from their youth onwards (they set out on the Esprit adventure together), the pupil and study companion of both Teilhard de Chardin and De Lubac at Fourvière and a friend of Mauriac, Pierre Emmanuel and Julien Green, was the author of some fundamental writings such as Essai sur le mystère de l’histoire (“Essay on the Mystery of History” – Éditions du Seuil, Paris, 1953), The Salvation of the Nations (Sheed and Ward, New York, 1950), The Presence of God, (Helicon, Baltimore 1959), In the Beginning…Genesis I-III. (Helicon, Baltimore, 1965) and that first volume of the Nouvelle Histoire de l’Église, written together with a great Christian layman, Henri Irenée Marrou, Des origines a saint Grégoire le Grand (Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1963. English translation: The Christian Centuries: The First Six Hundred Years, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1964). In his preface to Cardinal Daniélou’s Carnets Spirituels, Father Tilliette writes,

He deplored both theological speculation that was pompously called research and utopian sacramental pastoral work without roots, without a true experience of people, souls, their needs and their hunger. He rejected a laboratory theology with all his might.

In his Essai sur le mystère de l’histoire (1953), Daniélou outlines some of the thinking underpinning his theology of history: after identifying fundamental characteristics of God’s interventions, he highlights the problems springing from them and humankind’s response. The author is convinced that the fundamental given of the Christian faith is not a theory about God but a historical fact: God became incarnate, He became man, He died and rose again on the third day. For this reason, according to Daniélou, history cannot fail to interest Christians. It involves a sacred order and a profane one. Sacred history has God as its protagonist but it is also the history of saints and is the subject-matter of faith. Profane history is made by men who follow their ambitions but, of these, only the heroes are the subject-matter of research. Theologians have the task of discerning how these two historical orders interweave and inter-relate.

The fourth chapter of this essay is entitled “Deportation and hospitality.” It chiefly consists in a reflection on the theological meaning of the human quest for a homeland and stability in this world that is, on the other hand, perishable and transient. Jean Daniélou sees in this paradox all the ambiguity of “homeland”: it is the normal condition for living a moral life but also an obstacle to it, insofar as one forgets, precisely, that it is provisional when compared to the true destiny of every human being. An analogous paradox arises in situations where forced deportations uproot individuals and whole populations from their original habitat: an inhuman act and one contrary to God’s laws that can, nevertheless, inspire a hospitality thanks to which the status of stranger acquires a unique importance that is both profane and sacred. Daniélou does not hesitate to state that, “civilization took a decisive step… the day the alien, the enemy, became the guest. That is to say, the day when the human community came into being.” Normally, if people come across a fugitive, a wanderer or a stranger, they kill him, as the book of Genesis (4:14) already announced. The radical change occurs when such a person is received as someone sent by God. Burningly relevant today, these considerations are alive to all the complexity of the risk of welcoming –something that the very semantics of the terms have already anticipated. Indeed, both the Latin hospes and the Greek xénos are nouns sharing a root with the words for “guest” and “enemy”.

The objective therefore becomes one of thinking theologically about welcoming; beginning with the experience of an encounter in a common effort to build an inclusive citizenship. An objective that is achievable only if one succeeds in taking the other person’s existence seriously in all its “irreducible” difference, i.e. in all of its own substance and not simply with reference to what they have or do not have in comparison with us. This is why a truly hospitable exchange requires an act of responsibility that can only be achieved by taking on our own human condition, that condition which the presence of the person “other than us” points out. Hospitality therefore opens up new paths of convergence, including interreligious convergence. Thus it constitutes not only an economic or political challenge (or a simply religious imperative), but also a profoundly spiritual requirement in complex societies where peaceful co-existence is often difficult. Not by chance – and once again it is Daniélou who reminds us – faiths have elevated hospitality to the status of a criterion by which we shall be judged on the last day.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

To cite this article

Printed version:
Claudio Monge op, “Taking the Other’s Existence Seriously”, Oasis, year XII, n. 24, December 2016, pp. 105-106.

Online version:
Claudio Monge op, “Taking the Other’s Existence Seriously”, Oasis [online], published on 15th March 2017, URL: