Pope in Santiago (2): we need to hear God again under the skies of Europe

[BARCELONA] Over on the other side of Spain, speaking in the Plaza del Obradoiro outside the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Pope Benedict has issued a bracing and often lyrical call for Europe to see faith as "our guiding star in the night of time".

"From this place, as a messenger of the Gospel sealed by the blood of Peter and James, I raise my eyes to the Europe that came in pilgrimage to Compostela," he said, before announcing the Good News: "God exists and he has given us life."


Tragically, he went on -- and no country better exemplifies this in its past than Spain -- "above all in nineteenth-century Europe, the conviction grew that God is somehow man's antagonist and an enemy of his freedom". As a result, he said, in a veiled reference to the state secularism and anticlerical purges of the early twentieth century, "there was an attempt to obscure the truth biblical faith in the God who sent into the world his son Jesus Christ".

The Pope made no reference to the reasons why, in the nineteenth century, for a complex series of reasons, the Church lost the working classes, and ideologies -- anarchism, socialism, communism -- made Catholicism their enemy.

But by acknowledging the cause of that alienation  -- the false opposition of God and freedom (he might also have said "God and justice") -- he sought to heal it with a direct statement of contradiction.

God, he said, "is the origin of our being and the foundation and apex of our freedom, not its opponent."

How can it be, he went on, issuing a direct salvo against the secularist attempt to drive faith from the public sphere, "that there is public silence with regard to the first and essential reality of human life? How can what is most decisive in life be confined to the purely private sphere or banished to the shadows?"

Reversing the symbolism of the Enlightenment, he went on: "We cannot live in darkness, without seeing the light of the sun. How is it then that God, who is the light of every mind, the power of every will and the magnet of every heart, be denied the right to propose the light that dissipates all darkness?"

That is why, he said, "we need to hear God again under the skies of Europe".

But he warned against a vice which has not been alien to Spanish Catholicism -- of religion being placed at the service of either of right-wing politics, or of an aggressive "integrism", which is the mirror of anticlericalism.

"May this holy word not be spoken in vain," he said, "and may it not be put at the service of purposes other than its own. It needs to be spoken in a holy way."

Europe, he added passionately, "must open itself to God, must come to meet him without fear, and work with his grace for that human dignity which was discerned by her best traditions: not only the biblical, at the basis of this order, but also the classical, the medieval and the modern, the matrix from which the great philosophical, literary, cultural and social masterpieces of Europe were born."

The Pope began by telling his 7,000 listeners that had come "as a pilgrim among pilgrims" to Santiago, before making clear that, however diverse and mixed the motives of the hundreds of thousands who journey each year there, they are all looking for God, and find Him in the physically gruelling, heart-opening encounter with nature and people. 

That is what, in the secret of their heart, knowing it explicitly or sensing it without being able to express it, so many pilgrims experience as they walk the way to Santiago ... The fatigue of the journey, the variety of landscapes, their encounter with peoples of other nationalities -- all of this opens their heart to what is the deepest and most common bond that unites us as human beings: we are in quest, we need truth and beauty, we need an experience of grace, charity, peace, forgiveness and redemption.

"Deep down", he said, "all those who come on pilgrimage to Santiago do so in order to encounter God".

That comment may surprise many people who worry that the rise in "pagan" pilgrims risks secularizing the Camino. Pope Benedict appears to be taking a realistic view that - as a quick glance at Chaucer's Tales tells us -- people have always gone on the Camino for a whole series of reasons, and the Church shouldn't worry overly much about motives. Pilgrimage, like silence, works its own magic.

It's not quite Karl Rahner's theology of "anonymous Christians", and more like St Augustine's famous saying that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. The search for God, in other words, is what draws pilgrims, even if they experience only a restlessness or a struggle for meaning. 

He returned to the pilgrimage theme at the end of his homily.

At every juncture of the Way of St James crosses are to be found, he said, the supreme sign of God's love. "Blessed cross," he exclaimed, "shine always upon the land of Europe!"

Benedict XVI closed with another robust challenge to secularism -- in a country where secularism has in recent years been at its most aggressive -- by spelling out the consequences of driving out faith from thought and education, warning of a truncated, narrow, impoverished Europe which turns in on itself and ignores the plight of the weak and voiceless.

Allow me here to point out the glory of man, and to indicate the threats to his dignity resulting from the privation of his essential values and richness, and the marginalization and death visited upon the weakest and the poorest. One cannot worship God without taking care of his sons and daughters; and man cannot be served without asking who his Father is and answering the question about him. The Europe of science and technology, the Europe of civilization and culture, must be at the same time a Europe open to transcendence and fraternity with other continents, and open to the living and true God, starting with the living and true man. This is what the Church wishes to contribute to Europe: to be watchful for God and man, based on the understanding of both which is offered to us in Jesus Christ.

It was a neatly developed and powerful case, argued from the place which, after the tomb of St James was "discovered" in the ninth century, lit a torch in the Dark Ages. Incidentally, to those who say this was a medieval ruse, the Church points to sixth-century documents recording that St James was martyred in Haifa under King Herod, and his body was brought to Finis Terrae in Hispania -- modern-day Galicia -- to be buried. To sceptics, it is not reassuring that this document is known as the inventio. But the fruits of this outpouring of faith are beyond dispute.

Santiago, as St James is called here, would become the model and symbol of the Christian reconquest of Spain over the next centuries, culminating in the fall of Granada in 1492.

That was a conquest of arms, and it led to what would be in many ways Spain's curse: the linking of Catholicism and nationalism. The Fall of Granada was followed by the expulsion of Jews and Moors, and an early form of ethnic cleansing -- the sixteenth-century Spanish Inquisition, a kind of ethnic paranoia that beset the country's Golden Age.

It would be to the "Catholic Kings", Ferdinand and Isabella, that the right-wing monarchist and nationalist movements of nineteenth and twentieth century Spain later looked, and which gave the Franco dictatorship its guiding ideology.

Without addressing that complicity -- which he may do tomorrow, at the Mass at the Sagrada Familia here in Barcelona -- some of the Pope's message may fall on stony ground in many sectors of "progressive" Spain.

But the other side of that story, the one told in the saints, poets, cathedrals, and hospitals of Catholic Spain --  the greatness of a nation forged in the humble witness of its Christians, in service to neighbour, in both the hospitality of the pilgrim route and the trade and prosperity to which it was linked -- was brilliantly invoked at the Mass just ending. That is the history of which, amidst a crowd of cheering pilgrims, Pope Benedict reminded Spain and Europe this afternoon.



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