Sandro Magister has a very interesting column today, in which he looks at five recent General Audience talks (remember, the Pope is going through the Greek and Latin Fathers) and pegs the moments when the Pope begins to extemporize.
After the Easter season, the pope will dedicate catecheses to other great Patristic figures like Gregory the Great, and then, little by little, to Western and Eastern pioneers of medieval theology like Anselm, Bernard, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Gregory Palamas.
For these catecheses, Benedict XVI draws upon the help of scholars, whom he asks to prepare an outline for him. He then works on the outline, eventually asking for revisions and introducing modifications himself. The text that the pope will read to the faithful emerges from this preparatory work. But it doesn’t end there. In addressing the faithful, the pope often looks up from the written text and improvises.
The final text that then appears in “L’Osservatore Romano” and is released by the Vatican press office corresponds to the one that the pope truly delivered, including the words added spontaneously.
Recognizing these additions is not difficult. All it takes is to attend the audience and watch carefully how Benedict XVI addresses those present, whether he is reading or looking up. This is at least the case for the Wednesday catecheses. It’s different for the homilies. In many cases, these are entirely the personal work of the pope, sometimes delivered without the help of a written text.
In the catecheses, identifying the words added spontaneously by Benedict XVI is an exercise of great interest. It permits one, in fact, to recognize the themes closest to his heart, the ones he believes to be the most important to emphasize and communicate.
Here below are the complete texts of the five catecheses that, between January and February, Benedict XVI dedicated to Saint Augustine, the Father of the Church who has always been his beacon.
But the reader will also find something new in the texts.
He will see that many of the words are underlined. And these are the very words that the pope added spontaneously, departing from the written text. They are the words that spring directly from his mind and heart.
“For the last rites of his body”, Possidius informs us, “the sacrifice in which we took part was offered to God and then he was buried” (Vita, 31, 5). His body on an unknown date was translated to Sardinia, and from here, in about 725, to the Basilica of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro in Pavia, where it still rests today. His first biographer has this final opinion of him: “He bequeathed to his Church a very numerous clergy and also monasteries of men and women full of people who had taken vows of chastity under the obedience of their superiors, as well as libraries containing his books and discourses and those of other saints, from which one learns what, through the grace of God, were his merits and greatness in the Church, where the faithful always find him alive” (Possidius, Vita, 31, 8). This is an opinion in which we can share. We too “find him alive” in his writings. When I read St Augustine’s writings, I do not get the impression that he is a man who died more or less 1,600 years ago; I feel he is like a man of today: a friend, a contemporary who speaks to me, who speaks to us with his fresh and timely faith. In St Augustine who talks to us, talks to me in his writings, we see the everlasting timeliness of his faith; of the faith that comes from Christ, the Eternal Incarnate Word, Son of God and Son of Man. And we can see that this faith is not of the past although it was preached yesterday; it is still timely today, for Christ is truly yesterday, today and for ever. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Thus, St Augustine encourages us to entrust ourselves to this ever-living Christ and in this way find the path of life.
But there is a last step to Augustine’s journey, a third conversion, that brought him every day of his life to ask God for pardon. Initially, he thought that once he was baptized, in the life of communion with Christ, in the sacraments, in the Eucharistic celebration, he would attain the life proposed in the Sermon on the Mount: the perfection donated by Baptism and reconfirmed in the Eucharist. During the last part of his life he understood that what he had concluded at the beginning about the Sermon on the Mount – that is, now that we are Christians, we live this ideal permanently – was mistaken. Only Christ himself truly and completely accomplishes the Sermon on the Mount. We always need to be washed by Christ, who washes our feet, and be renewed by him. We need permanent conversion. Until the end we need this humility that recognizes that we are sinners journeying along, until the Lord gives us his hand definitively and introduces us into eternal life. It was in this final attitude of humility, lived day after day, that Augustine died.
Here is what is important to me about this. It is not the Pope’s intelligence, or even the still-lively and absorbing mind of a man in his 80’s.
It is that what Benedict is moved to break from the text and emphasize is the reality of Jesus Christ for you and me, today, in this moment. Over the next two months, before the Pope arrives in our country, there is going to be a constant battle, it seems to me, to communicate clearly and authentically what this man is all about. There are a great number of commentors – even Catholic commentors – who are taking the stage with their own certain proclamations about what Americans should “look for” or what Americans “hope to hear” or what the Pope will “have to say” to us when he comes.
Most of those proclamations are about “clear Catholic identity” or involve metaphors that evoke closed doors, tightening reins and battening hatches.
Their paradigms are severely limited, it seems to me, because they can’t get out of adolescence – even the Catholics – in their relationship to the Church. Even the “thinking Catholics” see the Church as a fierce parent handing down arbitrary rules, so when Benedict comes along talking about Christ, they don’t know what to, well “think” anymore and they spend (waste) a lot of time trying to twist his words into, first their own definition of Church, and secondly their own pre-conceptions of Benedict.
So what we see is a lot of head-nodding, invariable commentary about Benedict “softening his image,” a little bit of sneering that faced with the problems of the Church Benedict will be content to tell us just to “pray more” or even to encourage the malcontents to get out.
What they don’t seem to grasp is that Benedict really believes this stuff. He believes that Christ instituted a Church through which He would teach and sanctify until the end of time and that this is it. And that the heart of the Christian faith is, well – faith – a deep personal faith in Christ that is marked by total trust, intimacy and love for the One who saves us from darkness, sin and death. And that it is through the Church, we meet Christ and we nourish that faith relationship. And this faith relationship – this orientation to God – is the most important thing in our lives and the most important thing we can can share with the world and the most important thing that the Church is called to share with the world.
And that what Benedict sees as the great tragedy of the modern age, both in and outside of othe Church, is not that people are “less faithful” to the institution of the Church or have “strayed” from doctrines or dogmas, but simply that innumerable forces both in and outside the Church have worked to sow doubt – real, serious doubt – in the reality of Christ and the redemptive love and mercy he offers, and that brings us back to full, flourishing life in God.
Materialism (in the broadest sense) teaches us that the transcendent is really not that real or important after all.
Materialism (in the narrow sense) teaches us that God is unnecessary -or even an impediment – to happiness.
Both of these and so many other forces in the world shut us up in small rooms with walls made up of our own striving, separating us from others, shutting us off from their suffering.
In the Church, the misuse of some forms of Scripture scholarship and some directions in theology work, as they make their way into preaching and catechesis, to cut us off from the reality of Jesus, communicating to us that there is no real way to really know what he was all about, that it is all mediated to the point of near-nihilism, that there is nothing we can really know for sure.
I could go on, but I think you get the idea.
For Benedict, Christ is at the center. He is the savior, He is the Light, the Living Water, the Bread of Life. Our joy as human beings comes from living in this faith, our pain from letting our own egos drive us away in the conviction that we know better. This is not a gimmick. It’s not a new communication technique that Benedict and his minions are dreaming up to soften his image or compete with the Protestants or even to avoid hard questions.
Look at us. Seriously. Look at us.
The commentators will scold the Pope, reminding him that we go to Church far more frequently than the blasted Europeans. We give all this money to support the Church throughout the world. We’ve got this highly educated laity, highly involved, committed Catholics.
Watch it, Pope. Be nice to us. Gives us our props. Be grateful.
Well. Maybe. But turning back to what the Pope’s focus actually is these days (and, essentially, always has been), and looking at ourselves with more humility…maybe it’s time to just listen.
After all, can you think of any other message we need to hear other than what he’s saying? Can you see why, in our wealthy, busy, wasteful brokenness, Benedict says what he does?
Seeing our own wretchedness in the light of God becomes praise to God and thanksgiving, for God loves and accepts us, transforms us and raises us to himself.