January 19, 2007


Pope Benedict teaches the joy of Christian faith

(Listen to this editorial being read)

Remember the anxious hand-wringing that religious pundits around the world engaged in when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope?

Many feared no less than the return of the Inquisition. Many others appeared to welcome the fire and brimstone housecleaning that they were certain the new pope would initiate as soon as he assumed the papal throne.

Apparently, they all believed the cartoon images of “God’s rottweiler” and the conservative “Grand Inquisitor” that for many years filled the religious and secular press whenever Cardinal Ratzinger carried out his responsibilities as Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Obviously, they didn’t really know this man. No one who had read his many sensitive and insightful writings, or listened to his homilies, or observed him in his dealings with people ought to have believed the negative, iron-hearted and dogmatic stereotype that was readily assigned to this gentle man.

Yes, he was vigilant in carrying out his official responsibility to clarify Church teaching and to point out practices and points of view that strayed from authentic Catholic faith. Yes, he was outspoken in his personal views on liturgical practices and other aspects of life in the post-Vatican II Church. Certainly you could disagree with him. But call him mean-spirited? Intolerant? Hard-hearted? Never.

Joseph Ratzinger began his ministry as Pope Benedict XVI with a bold, but radically simple, affirmation of Christian faith: “The Church is alive, and young!”

Then, in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (“God Is Love”), he reminded us that God is not found in anger or vengeance or indifference. Where love is, God is found.

We are called to be loving, too, and generous and welcoming of all God’s people regardless of who they are or where they stand in the midst of life’s journey.

Even when he unintentionally caused an uproar in the Muslim world by quoting (without approval) the harsh words of a Byzantine emperor, he did not retreat from his persistent call for interfaith dialogue and a complete abandonment of the idea that human problems can ever be solved by violent means.

This pope is a lover, not a fighter. He is a passionate man of ideas who never wavers in his conviction that “Jesus Christ is the meaning of my life and of the world.”

Pope Benedict has a deep love and reverence for the Eucharist, and he firmly believes that adoration (contemplation) is the necessary prerequisite for Christian charity (social and political action in the world). He does not condone apathy or smug religious observance. He challenges all believers to live their faith and, in so doing, to transform the world.

In a recent address to lay leaders in Italy, the pope described the Resurrection as a historical event to which the Apostles were the witnesses, not the inventors. The Resurrection, he said, was not simply a “return to earthly life, but the greatest ‘mutation’ that ever occurred, the definitive leap toward a profoundly new dimension of life, the entry into a different order.”

This new order, in which love triumphs over sin and death, continually penetrates and transforms our world, he said. The concrete way in which this happens is through the life and witness of the Church.

Christianity, he said, is like a great “yes” to human life, human freedom and human intelligence, and that should be seen in what the Church says and does.

Essentially, he said, the faith should bring joy to the world. “Christianity, in fact, is open to all that is just, true and pure in cultures and civilizations, to whatever brings cheer, comfort and strength to our existence,” the pope said.

Pope Benedict went on to briefly allude to a number of contemporary issues like abortion, gay marriage and state aid to Church schools—perennial topics on Italy’s political and social horizon. He asked Italian Catholics to help resist encroaching secularization that tends to exclude God from public life. But he said none of this will happen unless the faithful understand that being a Christian begins with a personal encounter with Christ—not with a social or political program.

Can you take a firm and uncompromising stand on issues such as these and still proclaim Christianity as the most profound source of joy that human beings have ever experienced? This pope believes the answer is an overwhelming and enthusiastic “Yes!”

— Daniel Conway

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