Guest Columnist Have we really read Pope Benedict? The essential itinerary he left us

Let’s be blunt: have we really read Pope Benedict, arguably one of the greatest popes in history? I won’t inquire any further than simply raising the question. I don’t mean skimming headline quotes from media sources (which usually miss the point), but actually being challenged and educated by what he told us. If my hunch is correct, it seems that few people at all – including many of us good Catholics – have actually read and been formed by the works of this gift of a man to us. It’s as if we sometimes reduced Pope Benedict to more of a protector and keeper of Faith rather than a living witness making a unique and concrete proposal to us – to me – to follow.

So many of us well-intentioned Catholics praise the now Pope Emeritus, but in the same breath shout certain phrases of ours which seem completely contrary to the novel emphases Benedict made to us in the last eight years. There is a living spring of refreshing water in all he told us as Pope which challenges us right to the core our understanding of Christianity and the faith. Furthermore, it was not merely “himself” guiding us, but Another from the very start: “My real program of governance is not to do my own will, not to pursue my own ideas, but to listen, together with the whole Church, to the word and the will of the Lord, to be guided by Him, so that He Himself will lead the Church at this hour of our history.” (i) This makes his words that much more urgent to be followed. Deep down we have a twofold temptation in front of Benedict: 1) He is way too smart for us and we simply cannot understand him (which is immediately defeated by his surprising humanity and the personality he puts into so many of his writings). 2) He really has nothing new to say to us – to me – but is simply mandated by his position to reiterate unintelligible (and seemingly irrelevant) Catholic theology in order to keep his flock from becoming heretics. But is this really all Papa Benedict has been up to the last eight years, or are we tragically missing the – dare I say – radical and novel approach he has been guiding us in? What is this unique approach guided by Christ? What has he been emphasizing so strongly? Have we allowed our freedom to be challenged – even us “good Catholics”? Have we walked the journey he has made for us? It is the goal of this terribly brief article to quickly try to synthesize the itinerary, the road map (it would be impossible to even try to synthesize his whole corpus of glory) which Benedict has laid out for us during his pontificate using his own words – a road map which is absolutely essential for us today.

The freedom to question everything

This pope didn't talk or write like any other. To the surprise of many, he begins not on the mountain-tops of unintelligible profundity and dusty theology (of anyone he is the intellectual who could do so) but with a humanity, honesty, and bluntness that is as shocking as it is refreshing. He simply does not take anything for granted, and has no problem with beginning by wrestling with those foundational human questions which most of us Catholics simply assume cannot be questioned: God's existence, the meaning of the experience of faith, who Christ is, or even more embarrassingly, what Christianity is, and what the heck it has to do with me.

These kind of questions seem to us like they should be censored by the Church, but they are for Benedict the only truly human starting point. We know by experience that if we skip or ignore them, faith loses relevance for our lives, Christ becomes a distant moral teacher, and we end up simply repeating prayers and going through the motions. But his emphasis on these human questions are the beginning of a true itinerary, a map, for us modern Christians, and in fact, for modern man. “Is God just a hypothesis or not? Is He a reality or not? Why do we not hear Him?”(ii). And again, “What is faith? Does faith still make sense in a world in which science and technology have unfolded horizons unthinkable until a short time ago? What does believing mean today? (...) What is life’s meaning? Is there a future for humanity?”(iii)  And again, what can point us to the way of “true freedom ... true joy of the heart, peace with everyone”? (iv)

There is a freedom in Pope Benedict which is truly radical, along with an exceptional concreteness which demands that nothing be abstract or taken for granted, but that faith be palpable, relevant, personal. “What can really satisfy man’s desire?”(v). If we – all of us – don’t stay with these fundamentally honest and human questions, we’ll never truly experience the answers, which remain absurd without the questions.

Our bunkers and broadening reason

Pope Benedict first sees that in modern man – yes, even in us faithful Catholics – a plague in us: we moderns tend more than ever to build our own little bunkers as he calls it, to protect ourselves from reality, other people, wonder, and ultimately Mystery. He gives the analogy: Our modern mentality “resembles a concrete bunker with no windows, in which we ourselves provide lighting and atmospheric conditions, being no longer willing to obtain either from God’s wide world”(vi). There is already in us a closedness to reality. We live life in our heads, are universes unto ourselves. Isolation is a norm, and true community, even in the Church, is rare. But Benedict is saying this sort of individualistic positivism is detrimental to us. We need no evidence but the newspapers to see what this kind of modern consciousness has led to. In order to breathe again, “the windows must be flung open, we must see the wide world, the sky and the earth once more.”(vii)  How can this happen?

In his very famous and controversial lecture at the University of Regensburg, Pope Benedict said that we desperately need a “broadening (of) our concept of reason and its application.”(viii)  What he means is we moderns reduce certainty to “only the kind of certainty resulting from the interplay of mathematical and empirical elements”(ix) – what science can measure. In this way we tragically weed out the things we are most certain about in life: my mother’s love for me, friendship, my irreducible need for fulfillment and happiness. Just following reason itself – not reduced to what we can measure under a microscope – we can know for certain that we are truly “beggars for the meaning of existence” (x). This is a also a challenge on the flip side for us Catholics. We sometimes think that faith is mere blind “belief,” but not worthy to be “rational,” and actually “a source of knowledge,”(xi), a way of knowing reality with as much certainty as I know two plus two equals four. “All this leads to a fundamental change in the way of relating to reality as a whole; everything appears in a new light so it is a true ‘conversion’, faith is a ‘change of mentality’.” (xii)

The pedagogy of desire

How do we make a journey to verify that faith is rational? I’ll let him say it himself. Truly this is one of the most important and liberating passages Pope Benedict has ever written, that of how to learn from our desires: “We must therefore...begin a journey...that shows how the gift of faith is not senseless, is not irrational. It would be very foster a kind of pedagogy of desire, both for the journey of one who does not yet believe and for the one who has already received the gift of faith. It should be a pedagogy that covers at least two aspects. In the first place, to discover or rediscover the taste of the authentic joy of life. Not all satisfactions have the same effect on us: some leave a positive aftertaste, able to calm the soul and make us more active and generous. Others, however, after the initial delight, seem to disappoint the expectations that they had awakened and sometimes leave behind them a sense of bitterness, dissatisfaction or emptiness. Instilling in someone from a young age the taste for true joy, in every area of life – family, of knowledge, art, the beauty of nature... Adults too need to rediscover this joy, to desire authenticity, to purify themselves of the mediocrity that might infest them. It will then become easier to drop or reject everything that although attractive proves to be, in fact, insipid, a source of indifference and not of freedom. And this will bring out that desire for God of which we are speaking. A second aspect ... is precisely the truest joy that unleashes in us the healthy restlessness that leads us to be more perceive ever more clearly that no finite thing can fill our heart.”(xiii)  “Everything, every relationship, every joy, as well as every difficulty, finds its ultimate reason in being an opportunity for a relationship with the Infinite, God’s voice that continually calls us and invites us to look up, to discover in adherence to him the complete fulfillment of our humanity.”(xiv) You must read this revolutionary General Audience from November 7, 2012. We are given a way to follow our desires and be educated by them, instead of simply suppressing them.

Not a formula but an event

So what is God’s response to this vertiginous position in which we find ourselves? “God came so close to us that he himself became a man: this should disconcert and surprise us again and again! He is so close that he is one of us. He knows the human being, he knows the ‘feeling’ of the human being, he knows it from within; he has experienced all its joys and all its suffering. As a man, he is close to me, close ‘within earshot’...Yes, He enters into our misery.”(xv)  Undeniably, one of the main challenges Pope Benedict proposed to us has been his repeated emphasis that Christianity is not a theology, morality, or formula, but an event that happened, and keeps happening presently. Perhaps the most important and quoted line from the Pope: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”(xvi) This phrase alone will have to be unpacked by the Church for decades.

Not merely an intellectual assent: faith as an encounter

Again, his words are clear and beautiful, challenging our much confused and reductive understanding of faith to doctrinal assent, morality, or ‘being good’. “Faith is not a mere intellectual assent of the human person to specific truths about God.”(xvii) “This is not an encounter with an idea or with a project of life, but with a living Person who transforms our innermost selves ... The encounter with Christ renews our human relationships, directing them, from day to day, to greater solidarity and brotherhood in the logic of love. Having faith in the Lord is not something that solely involves our intelligence, the area of intellectual knowledge; rather, it is a change that involves our life, our whole self: feelings, heart, intelligence, will, corporeity, emotions and human relationships. With faith everything truly changes, in us and for us, and our future destiny is clearly revealed, the truth of our vocation in history, the meaning of life, the pleasure of being pilgrims bound for the heavenly Homeland. However – let us ask ourselves – is faith truly the transforming force in our life, in my life? Or is it merely one of the elements that are part of existence, without being the crucial one that involves it totally?... Let us make a journey to reinforce or rediscover the joy of faith, in the knowledge that it is not something extraneous, detached from daily life, but is its soul.”(xviii)

“It becomes clear how the world of planning, of precise not enough on its own. We do not only need bread, we need love, meaning and hope, a sound foundation, a solid terrain that helps us to live with an authentic meaning even in times of crisis, in darkness, in difficulty, and with our daily problems. Faith gives us precisely this: it is a confident entrustment to a “You”, who is God, who gives me a different certitude, but no less solid than that which comes from precise calculation or from science. Faith ... is an act with which I entrust myself freely to a God who is Father and who loves me; it is adherence to a “You” who gives me hope and trust.”(ixx)

The Church as Communio

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As co-founder of the founders of Communio: International Catholic Review, Pope Benedict has emphasized the nature of the Church for decades as much more than a building in Rome or the one you go to on Sundays, but as communio – community. Commenting on Jesus’ high priestly prayer for unity, one of the most beautiful and audacious of Jesus’ prayers, “Father ... that they may all be one, even as we are one” (John 17:11), Benedict emphasizes: “It is in the encounter with (Christ) that we experience the recognition of God that leads to communion and thus to ‘life’... ‘Eternal life’ is thus a relational event... For this the Lord prayed: for a unity that can come into existence only from God and through Christ and yet is so concrete in its appearance that in it we are able to see God’s power at work. That is why the struggle for the visible unity of the disciples of Jesus Christ remains an urgent task for Christians of all times and places. The invisible unity of the ‘community’ is not sufficient.”(xx)  Furthermore, “If we take one last look back over the whole of the prayer for unity, we can say that the founding of the Church takes place during the passage, even though the word Church does not appear. For what else is the Church, if not the community of the disciples who receive their unity through faith in Jesus Christ.”(xxi) “It is the lifelong companion that makes it possible to perceive, ever anew, the marvels that God works for us.”(xxii-a)  “I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become, his own. Communion draws me out of myself towards him, and thus also towards unity with all Christians. We become “one body”, completely joined in a single existence.”(xxii-b) This authentic communion, he says over and over again in his writings, always leads to the liberation of true freedom and joy.

Who effects the New Evangelization?

This is a much needed reminder for us who think our initiative is everything: “We cannot make the Church, we can only announce what he has done. The Church does not begin with our ‘making’, but with the ‘making’ and ‘speaking’ of God. In the same way, the Apostles did not say, after a few meetings: now we want to make a Church, and that by means of a constituent assembly they were going to draft a constitution. No, they prayed and in prayer they waited, because they knew that only God himself can create his Church, that God is the first agent: if God does not act, our things are only ours and are insufficient; only God can testify that it is he who speaks and has spoken.”(xxiii). “God is always the beginning. Only God’s precedence makes our journey possible... The true initiative, the true activity comes from God and only by inserting ourselves into the divine initiative, only by begging for this divine initiative, shall we too be able to become – with Him and in Him – evangelizers (new creatures). God is always the beginning.”(xxiv)

For a moving exposition of what the “New Evangelization” really is, read his commentary on the encounter of Jesus with the woman at the well in his Message to the People of God at the Conclusion of the XIII Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, October 7-28, 2012.

His witness of freedom in retiring

Finally, in an announcement that shocked the world, Pope Benedict showed us the radical freedom that comes from putting the Church first, and being totally grasped by Christ. Not worrying about how the Church, media, or world would react, he felt free due to his physical incapacity to let go of his sacred Petrine ministry to show Who it is that truly guides the Church. In this, he is a true witness of freedom to all of us. Who doesn’t want this kind of freedom?

All of Pope Benedict’s Audiences, lectures, homilies, talks, and encyclicals are available for free online (and his books for purchase). Many of which we’ve missed. Don’t forget them! A great place to start is his General Wednesday Audiences for the Year of Faith, starting October 17, 2012. He truly gave us a unique and radical proposal, and journey on which we must remain.

(Column continues below)

Copyright Jonathan Ghaly, All Rights Reserved.

(i) Benedict XVI, Homily, Mass and Imposition of the Pallium and Conferral of the Fisherman’s Ring for the Beginning of the Petrine Ministry of the Bishop of Rome, St. Peter's Square Sunday, April 24, 2005.
(ii) Benedict XVI, Meditation during the first General Congregation XIII Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of bishops, Synod Hall, October 8, 2012.
(iii) Benedict XVI, The Year of Faith: What is faith? General Audience, St. Peter’s Square, October 24, 2012.
(iv) Ibid.
(v) Benedict XVI, The Year of Faith: The Desire for God. General Audience, November 7, 2012.
Benedict XVI, Homily, Holy Mass for the Closing of the Synod of Bishops, Vatican Basilica, October 28, 2012.
(vi) Benedict XVI, The Listening Heart: Reflections on the Foundations of Law, Address During the Visit to the Bundestag, Berlin, September 22, 2011.
(vii) Ibid.
(viii) Benedict XVI, Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections, Meeting with the Representatives of Science, Lecture at Aula Magna of the University of Regensburg Tuesday, September 12, 2006.
(ix) Ibid.
(x) Benedict XVI, Homily, Holy Mass for the Closing of the Synod of Bishops, Vatican Basilica, October 28, 2012.
(xi) Benedict XVI, Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections, Meeting with the Representatives of Science, Lecture at Aula Magna of the University of Regensburg Tuesday, September 12, 2006.
(xii) Benedict XVI, The Year of Faith: God Reveals His “Benevolent Purpose", General Audience, Paul VI Audience Hall, December 5, 2012.
(xiii) Benedict XVI, The Year of Faith: The Desire for God. General Audience, November 7, 2012.
(xiv) Benedict XVI, "Not Only My Soul, But Even Every Fiber of My Flesh Is Made to Find Its Peace, Its  Fulfillment in God", Message to the 2012 Meeting of Rimini, From Castel Gandolfo, August 10 2012.
(xv) Benedict XVI, Homily, Holy Mass concluding the Meeting with the “Ratzinger Schulerkreis” Mariapoli Centre, Castel Gandolfo, September 2, 2012.
(xvi) Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2006, Paragraph 1.
(xvii) Benedict XVI, The Year of Faith: What is faith? General Audience, St. Peter’s Square, October 24, 2012.
(xviii) Benedict XVI, The Year of Faith: Introduction, General Audience, St. Peter’s Square, Oct 17, 2012.
(ixx)  Benedict XVI, The Year of Faith: What is faith? General Audience, St. Peter’s Square, October 24, 2012.
(xx) Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2011, pp. 84, 96.
(xxi) Ibid., 101.
(xxii-a) Benedict XVI, Porta Fidei, Apostolic Letter for the Indiction of the Year of Fatih.
(xxii-b) Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2006, Paragraph 14.
(xxiii) Benedict XVI, Meditation During the First General Congregation of the XIII Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, October 8, 2012.
(xxiv) Ibid.

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