The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Pope Benedict's Challenge

I find it very difficult to keep up with Pope Benedict XVI. In my modest home library I have literally run out of shelf space to hold his published writings, and I have only a fraction of these. But I find it even more difficult to keep up with his homilies, reflections and speeches, and so I'm usually several weeks behind. Just yesterday, for example, I came across his annual Christmas address to the Roman Curia delivered on December 20. It is a remarkable address in which the Holy Father covered a number of key issues facing the Church today. 

Pope addresses the Curia (photo by Pool/Getty Images Europe)
His overall theme was encapsulated in the ancient Advent prayer, Excita, Domine, potentiam tuam, et veni (Awaken your power, Lord, and come!), a fitting prayer given the moral and societal decline that plagues our entire world today. In the pope's words, 
For all its new hopes and possibilities, our world is at the same time troubled by the sense that moral consensus is collapsing, consensus without which juridical and political structures cannot function. Consequently the forces mobilized for the defense of such structures seem doomed to failure.
He goes on to challenge us as Jesus challenged the disciples who, lacking faith, feared that their boat would sink while the Lord slept: They came and woke him, saying, "Lord, save us! We are perishing!" He said to them, "Why are you terrified, O you of little faith?" Then he got up, rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was great calm [Mt 8:25-26]. Alluding to this passage, the Pope said,
He will say the same thing to us. Our faith too is often asleep. Let us ask him, then, to wake us from the sleep of a faith grown tired, and to restore to that faith the power to move mountains – that is, to order justly the affairs of the world.
The Holy Father continued by addressing the joys and tragedies experienced by the priesthood during the recent Year for Priests. After a truly beautiful statement on the wondrous gift that is the priesthood, he addresses the abuse of that gift and the damage it has inflicted on the innocent and on the Church:
We were all the more dismayed, then, when in this year of all years and to a degree we could not have imagined, we came to know of abuse of minors committed by priests who twist the sacrament into its antithesis, and under the mantle of the sacred profoundly wound human persons in their childhood, damaging them for a whole lifetime.
He goes on by relating a vision experienced by St. Hildegard in the 12th century, a vision that applies to today's Church as well:

In the vision of Saint Hildegard, the face of the Church is stained with dust, and this is how we have seen it. Her garment is torn – by the sins of priests. The way she saw and expressed it is the way we have experienced it this year. We must accept this humiliation as an exhortation to truth and a call to renewal. Only the truth saves. We must ask ourselves what we can do to repair as much as possible the injustice that has occurred. We must ask ourselves what was wrong in our proclamation, in our whole way of living the Christian life, to allow such a thing to happen. We must discover a new resoluteness in faith and in doing good. We must be capable of doing penance. We must be determined to make every possible effort in priestly formation to prevent anything of the kind from happening again. This is also the moment to offer heartfelt thanks to all those who work to help victims and to restore their trust in the Church, their capacity to believe her message. In my meetings with victims of this sin, I have also always found people who, with great dedication, stand alongside those who suffer and have been damaged. This is also the occasion to thank the many good priests who act as channels of the Lord’s goodness in humility and fidelity and, amid the devastations, bear witness to the unforfeited beauty of the priesthood.
He condemns the moral relativism that is at the root of so many of society's ills and how this thinking penetrated not only secular institutions, but the Church as well. (One is reminded of Pope Paul VI's famous comment on June 29, 1972 that “from some fissure the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God.”)
It was maintained – even within the realm of Catholic theology – that there is no such thing as evil in itself or good in itself. There is only a “better than” and a “worse than”. Nothing is good or bad in itself. Everything depends on the circumstances and on the end in view. Anything can be good or also bad, depending upon purposes and circumstances. Morality is replaced by a calculus of consequences, and in the process it ceases to exist.
Beginning the second half of his address, Pope Benedict discusses the recent Synod of the Churches of the Middle East and his concern for the continued and growing violence and persecution in that part of the world, particularly as it affects Christians. Summarizing the Synod he refers back to his earlier comments on the need for strong faith during such troubled times as ours.
On the basis of the spirit of faith and its rationality, the Synod developed a grand concept of dialogue, forgiveness and mutual acceptance, a concept that we now want to proclaim to the world. The human being is one, and humanity is one. Whatever damage is done to another in any one place, ends up by damaging everyone. Thus the words and ideas of the Synod must be a clarion call, addressed to all people with political or religious responsibility, to put a stop to Christianophobia; to rise up in defense of refugees and all who are suffering, and to revitalize the spirit of reconciliation. In the final analysis, healing can only come from deep faith in God’s reconciling love. Strengthening this faith, nourishing it and causing it to shine forth is the Church’s principal task at this hour.
Pope Benedict continued with a reference to Alexis de Tocqueville's observations that
...democracy in America had become possible and had worked because there existed a fundamental moral consensus which, transcending individual denominations, united everyone. Only if there is such a consensus on the essentials can constitutions and law function. This fundamental consensus derived from the Christian heritage is at risk wherever its place, the place of moral reasoning, is taken by the purely instrumental rationality of which I spoke earlier. In reality, this makes reason blind to what is essential. To resist this eclipse of reason and to preserve its capacity for seeing the essential, for seeing God and man, for seeing what is good and what is true, is the common interest that must unite all people of good will. The very future of the world is at stake.
That last sentence shows how serious the Holy Father considers the challenge facing us today as believing Christians. 

In the final segment of his address the pope discusses the three conversions experienced by Blessed John Henry Newman whom he beatified during his recent visit to the United Kingdom. He focused primarily on the first of these conversions, a conversion from a materialist to a true realist who came to understand "that God and the soul, man’s spiritual identity, constitute what is genuinely real, what counts." 

He concludes in a spirit of thankfulness and hope:
Excita, Domine, potentiam tuam, et veni. We set out from this plea for the presence of God’s power in our time and from the experience of his apparent absence. If we keep our eyes open as we look back over the year that is coming to an end, we can see clearly that God’s power and goodness are also present today in many different ways. So we all have reason to thank him. Along with thanks to the Lord I renew my thanks to all my co-workers. May God grant to all of us a holy Christmas and may he accompany us with his blessings in the coming year.
It is a powerful and beautiful address, and I suggest you read it in its entirety, available in English on the Vatican's website: Holy Father's Address to the Roman Curia.

Come Lord Jesus!

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