The National Catholic Review
Mindful of JoyFew RebukesInterpreting Scripture, Moral Issues
"All of us long for a pentecostal church: a church in which the Spirit rules, and not the letter; a church in which understanding breaks down the fences we erect against each other. We are impatient with a church which seems so unpentecostal, so unspiritual, so narrow and fearful. Joseph Ratzinger spoke these words at his episcopal ordination as archbishop of Munich on the Vigil of Pentecost, May 28, 1977. Would he repeat them today? To answer that question we could do no better than to look at the talks he gives to his fellow bishops when they make their regularly scheduled visits to Rome to meet with the pope and give reports about their dioceses to Vatican administrative offices.

A priest involved in the production of these addresses in the previous pontificate said that under Pope John Paul II the talks were made up of things that the bishops themselves had listed in the reports on their dioceses as goals or challenges they needed to face. This enabled the bishops to go home and say, Look, we have to take care of these things. They’re not just our ideas. The pope said so too. Sometimes, however, the media would get hold of other things the pope had said and stir up controversy. Whereupon the bishops would tell the folks back home, Wow, we have no idea why the pope singled us out for this criticism.

Pope Benedict XVI works differently. Since attaining his majority, Joseph Ratzinger has lived by his wits. He continues, as pope, to write his own material. A professor to the core, he made freedom to continue writing for publication a condition of his acceptance of the office of Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1981.

Refusing assistance can trip him up, as in the case of his Regensburg speech. Yet it can also produce moments of touching candor, as when he told the Swiss bishops on Nov. 9, 2006:

I would like to ask you to excuse me for having come without a prepared text; I had of course given it some thought, but I did not have the time to write. And so, once again now, I am presenting myself with this impoverishment; but it might be right also for a pope to be poor in all senses at this time in the church’s history.

Who is not grateful for a pope who speaks so openly about the limitations he shares with all humanity?

Just three weeks into his pontificate, on May 7, 2005, Benedict delivered his first ad limina address, to the bishops of Sri Lanka. After expressing sympathy for the devastation their people had experienced in the tsunami the previous December, Benedict pointed to a reason for great hope: one-third of their country’s population is under the age of 15. He reminded the bishops of how Jesus had opened the truth of the Scriptures to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and rekindled their hope when he made himself known in the breaking of the bread. He also accompanies you as you lead your people forward on the road to discipleship. Renew your trust in him! Open your hearts to him! Plead with him, in union with the whole church throughout the world: Stay with us Lord.’

Mindful of Joy

Despite his lifelong engagement with theology, Benedict knows, as John L. Allen Jr., the Vatican correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter, has written that people are not convinced of the Christian message on the basis of doctrinal debates. They want to see that Christianity is a joyful thing, a source of life and hope, that it lights fires of love and self-sacrifice. The note of joy, prominent in Luke’s account of the church in the Acts of the Apostles, and called by the Jesuit scientist and religious thinker Pierre Teilhard de Chardin the infallible sign of the presence of God, runs like a golden thread through Benedict’s ad limina addresses.

Speaking to the bishops of Ghana on April 24, 2006, he rejoiced that the lay catechists in their country, though often hindered by lack of resources or hostile environments, remain undaunted messengers of Christ’s joy. The bishops must also help their seminarians to become effective and fulfilled ministers of Christ’s joy.

To the bishops of Ontario, Canada, on Sept. 8, 2006, Benedict said the fundamental task of evangelization of culture is the challenge to make God visible in the human face of Jesus.... There is an urgent need to recapture the profound joy and awe of the first disciples whose hearts, in the Lord’s presence, burned within them,’ impelling them to tell their story’ (another reference to the Emmaus narrative).

The exuberance with which the peoples of Africa give praise to God in their liturgical worship is known all over the world, Benedict told the bishops of Malawi on Sept. 29, 2006. Their joyful celebration expresses the great vitality of your Christian communities, and it reflects the predominance of young people in your population. Catechists and teachers should be well formed in faith and able to communicate both the joy and the challenge of following Christ.

To the bishops of Zambia on Oct. 13, 2006, Benedict quoted St. Jerome: Let the bishop practice abstinence with respect to all the troubles that can agitate the soul: let him not be inclined to anger or crushed by sadness, and let him not be tortured by fear. This was especially important, the pope said, in dealing with your brother priests, who at times can be led astray by the many temptations of contemporary society.... You must always communicate to them the joy of serving the Lord with a proper detachment from the things of this world. Tell them that they are close to the pope’s heart and in his daily prayers.... May your witness as men filled with the hope of the resurrection lead [your people] to an ever greater appreciation of the joys that the Lord has promised us.

Benedict’s address to the Irish bishops on Oct. 28, 2006, made headlines worldwide because it mentioned the many heart-rending cases of sexual abuse of minors by priests and religious. Bringing healing to the victims and to all those affected by these egregious crimes was of paramount importance, the pope said. Hardly mentioned in the media was his insistence that the principles of justice be fully respected. Completely ignored was Benedict’s injunction to help people recognize the inability of the secular, materialist culture to bring true satisfaction and joy. Be bold in speaking to them of the joy that comes from following Christ and living according to his commandments. Remind them that our hearts were made for the Lord and that they find no peace until they rest in hima reference to the well-known words of St. Augustine. The pope also said:

Our prayer for vocations must lead to action, so that from our praying hearts a spark of our joy in God and in the gospel may arise, enkindling in the hearts of others a readiness to say yes. Even if Christian commitment is considered unfashionable in some circles, there is a real spiritual hunger and a generous desire to serve others among the young people of Ireland. A vocation to the priesthood or the religious life offers an opportunity to respond to this desire in a way that brings deep joy and personal fulfillment.
Few Rebukes

A naturally kind and shy man, Benedict does not find it easy to be stern. Finger-wagging rebukes, like the one a red-faced Pope John Paul II administered on an airport runway in Nicaragua in 1983 to the Jesuit turned cabinet minister, Ernesto Cardenal, telling him to regularize your position with the church, as Cardenal knelt to kiss the papal ring, are not this pope’s bent. This makes the occasions when Benedict does speak sternly noteworthy.

Such an occasion was his address to the Austrian bishops on Nov. 5, 2005. After welcoming them with deep joy, and recalling the freshness of the Church’s vitality and her global missionary energy manifest at World Youth Day in Cologne the previous August, the pope invited his fellow bishops to look courageously into the eyes of reality without letting optimism...become an obstacle to calling things by their proper name, with full objectivity and without embellishment. The bishops needed to proclaim the church’s faith without abridgements to make it more acceptable.

We need to bring about a change of course, Benedict told his brothers from Austria. Secularization, constantly gaining momentum in Europe, has not even halted at the gates of Catholic Austria, Benedict said. We need a clear, courageous and enthusiastic profession of faith in Jesus Christ, who is also alive here and now in his Church and in whom, true to its essence, the human soul oriented to God can find happiness.

Bishops are called above all, the pope said, to proclaim the faith in its fullness. Though prudence is always necessary, it must not prevent us from presenting the Word of God in its full clarity, even those things that people are less willing to hear, or that never fail to arouse protests and derision.... An incomplete Catholic teaching is a contradiction in itself and cannot be fruitful in the long term.... The clarity and beauty of the Catholic faith are such that they brighten human life even today! This is particularly true if it is presented by enthusiastic and convincing witnesses.

The precept of love urges us not only to provide our neighbor with one or other social service, but also to help him or her to do the greatest good, to turn constantly to the living God, to communion with Jesus Christ, to the discovery of one’s vocation to holiness, to openness to God’s will, to the joy of a life that in a certain sense already anticipates the eternal bliss. Who can doubt these words reflect Benedict’s own experience?

Interpreting Scripture, Moral Issues

Benedict’s fullest message to date came during the visit of the Swiss bishops from Nov. 7 to 9, 2006. It consisted of his homily at their concelebrated Mass, followed by lengthy impromptu remarks on contemporary theological and pastoral problems. Two days later he continued these reflections in another lengthy talk.

Speaking on the first day about the need for sound theological education, Benedict mentioned a very specific wish:

Our exegesis has progressed by leaps and bounds. We truly know a great deal about development of texts, the subdivision of sources, etc., we know what words would have meant at that time.... But we are increasingly seeing that if historical and critical exegesis remains solely historical and critical, it refers the Word to the past; it makes it a Word of those times, a Word which basically says nothing to us at all; and we see that the Word is fragmented, precisely because it is broken up into a multitude of different sources.

In the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (1965), the Second Vatican Council affirmed the historical-critical method. But the council also said that Scripture should be read in its unity and must be read within the living community of the church. These two dimensions are absent in large areas of exegesis.... I would very much like to see theologians learn to interpret and love Scripture as the council desired...may they experience the inner unity of Scripture. In the already published introduction to his forthcoming book on Jesus, Benedict signals his intention to pursue this topic in greater depth. This is sure to provoke lively debate among both exegetes and the participants in the World Synod of Bishops on Scripture in October 2008.

In his concluding address on Nov. 9, Benedict deplored the widespread identification of the church...

with certain commandments and prohibitions; we give the impression that we are moralists with a few somewhat antiquated convictions, and not even a hint of the true greatness of the faith appears. I therefore consider it essential always to highlight the greatness of our faith. One way of doing this is to train people in prayer, through which we can become joyful in God.... Prayer is hope in action.

Turning to moral questions, Benedict found morality split in two today. On the one hand was social justice and ecology; on the other protection of human life.

I believe we must commit ourselves to reconnecting these two parts of morality, and to making it clear that they must be inseparably united. Only if human life from conception to death is respected is the ethic of peace possible and credible; only then may non-violence be expressed in every direction, only then can we truly accept creation and only then can we achieve true justice.

Joseph Bernardin, the late cardinal archbishop of Chicago, would have rejoiced at this reaffirmation of the seamless garment he tirelessly proclaimed in the face of misunderstanding and opposition.

God’s Failures and God’s Banquet

The homily with which the pope opened that meeting with the Swiss bishops is a text of great beauty and vintage Ratzinger. Preaching on the theme God never fails, the pope pointed out that in fact God does fail, time and again. He failed in Adam, who was not satisfied with God’s friendship, but wanted to be a god himself.

Yet God did not fail, for [in Christ] he becomes a man himself and so begins a new humanity; he roots God’s being in a human being...and descended to the deepest abysses of man’s being: he humbled himself even unto the cross. He overcame pride with the humility and the obedience of the cross.

The parable of the banquet in Luke 14 is also about divine failure. God’s invitation to his banquet was rejected by the leaders and authorities of Jesus’ day. It is rejected by many in the West today, who excuse themselves, who have no time to come to the Lord. And yet,

God does not fail because he finds ever new ways to reach people and to open wider his great house so that it is completely filled. During the ad limina visits, I hear of many serious and tiresome things, but always precisely from the third worldI also hear this: that people listen, that they come, that even today the message spreads along the roads to the very ends of the earth and that people crowd into God’s hall for his banquet.

How can we reach those too busy to accept God’s invitation to his banquet? Benedict responds:

We must make an effort above all to listen to the Lord in prayer, in deep interior participation in the sacraments, in learning the sentiments of God in the faces and suffering of others, in order to be infected by his joy, his zeal and his love, and to look at the world with him and starting from him. If we can succeed in doing this, even in the midst of the many no’s, we will once again find people waiting for him who may perhaps often be oddthe parable clearly says sobut who are nevertheless called to enter his hall.

The homily modeled the use of Scripture for which Benedict pleads. No summary can do it justice. Those who take the time to read it with open hearts and open minds will sense that the wind unleashed on Pentecost is still blowing, and the fire kindled on that day is still burning.

John Jay Hughes is a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis and a church historian. His memoir, No Ordinary Fool: A Testimony to Grace, will be published in the fall.