Recently I helped plan and direct a seminar by Edward Schillebeeckx. I have rubbed shoulders with some famous persons before but I was a bit more nervous this time. An aspiring teacher in theology, I was like a hungry kid from a small town stepping on the hockey rink and meeting Wayne Gretsky in the flesh. I was all eyes and ears, looking at the “great one.” A lot of folks look in awe at Edward Schillebeeckx. Famous and infamous, he is loved by some, hated by others and known by all.
His book, Christ, the Sacrament of the Encounter with God, has sold over a million copies (a remarkable achievement for any book, but incredible for a specialized book on Roman Catholic sacramentology) More recently he published a book on ministry and three books on Christology and has been called to Rome a couple of times to answer accusations of heterodoxy at the holy office. The media, always anxious for something with an edge, has jumped on his case both positively and negatively. Certain elements paint him as a radical antihero, the misunderstood and persecuted Christ-figure, the badly needed catalyst to challenge a growing conservatism in the church. Opposing elements paint him as the “enfant terrible,” the John-McEnroe-super-brat of the church, the heretic after his own glory, ruthlessly driving his talent and scholarship without concern for where the pieces might fall.
Being so surrounded with these myths, it was obviously with some awe, trepidation and curiosity that I set out to pick him up at the train station. What would the real Schillebeeckx be like? Saint or heretic? Spoiled child or persecuted hero? A strange thing happened: I didn’t recognize him. I thought I knew what he looked like. I had seen scores of photographs of him, seen him on TV and even met him once (for a brief minute or two) at a conference. But when I approached a man that fitted my mental description of him and timidly asked: “Are you Father Edward Schillebeeckx?” a very surprised man answered in the non-affirmative. As things would have it that was not an inappropriate omen. He lectured on Christology and answered our questions. I sat there listening, looking, measuring: The male in me was sizing up the body, the build, the dress, the grooming. The teacher and theologian in me was assessing his message and pedagogy; the Roman Catholic in me was judging his orthodoxy; the priest in me was scrutinizing with all kinds of questions about prayer and commitment.
And perhaps not least, the Saskatchewan farm-boy in me was watching theology’s superstar. It was immature and unfair, but I couldn’t stop myself! The information flowed: Yes, Jesus did rise! Yes, he was the Son of God! Yes, he did pre-exist! We breathed a sigh of relief. Then regarding himself: Yes, he did go to Rome on heresy charges and, no, it was not a cherished experience! But, yes, he did consider himself a loyal son of the church. Yes, he was clear of the charges. Yes, there were still tensions, but no, he had nothing personal against John Paul II. Yes, there was room for both of them in the same church, but, no, that doesn’t mean they would always agree. It went on with lots of yeses and nos, basically all at the right places. Things were clearing out but they weren’t clear. Sometimes our hearts burned within us as we listened to him. Finally we abandoned the classroom for wine and cheese and scotch. We were looking at a man, flesh, blood, full of both fear and strength, like all of us, struggling (perhaps with more overt talent) to find the key that leads out of exile. In the drinking of the scotch we recognized him as neither a spoiled child nor a prosecuted hero, but as a man, a priest, a committed Christian, a son and brother in a family, a hard worker, a searcher. I suspect that a goodly number of folks would not recognize Edward Schillebeeckx. Many of us, I suspect, think we know what he looks like, but if we approached someone who fitted that mental description and asked: “Are you Edward Schillebeeckx?” we would in all likelihood, to our surprise, find that we were talking to someone who doesn’t even know Edward Schillebeeckx.