The post-papal visit analysis is a week old now, the questions being asked, “What’s the impact? What’s the long-term effect?”
It depends on us.
The Pope spoke to everyone while he was in the United States, because he came as pastor, as successor of Peter, the Peter who was sent out with the rest of his brother apostles to spread the Gospel, to share the Good News of reconciliation and redemption, of God-Made-Flesh.
But his messages for Catholics were, I thought, very clear and consistent, no matter to whom he was speaking – bishops, educators, seminarians, youth…the rest of us.
The message, as I heard it, was essentially: “Good job so far. A great story, this Church in the United States. But now..get busy. Confront the divisions within the Church and work for unity in Christ. Let the point of this – the love of Christ, the presence of Christ – shine through and be what moves and motivates you, so that the world will, indeed, see the Light of Christ and come to Him to fulfill its hunger and quench its thirst.”
At every turn, the Pope highlighted, not only the strengths of the Church in the US, but weaknesses, sometimes in a backhanded way, but just as clearly. The ideological divisions. When Catholics fail to live their faith every day of the week. When bishops fail to be pastors or pursue holiness. When Catholic educational institutions turn from the fullness of faith and turn from the poor. When we let the voice of the culture guide us, not Christ. When we shrink from answering the questions, the needs of those around us, when we turn inward and are too afraid to let Christ lead us into this great adventure of faith.
Over and over, Benedict asked us to place Christ as the center. Challenged us to evaluate who, indeed, is at the center of our lives – Christ? Or someone else? Bishops, priests, religious…Christians of other traditions. Who is that we serve?
At the Commonweal blog, Fr. Robert Imbelli of Boston College reflects:
One cannot read a homily or a pastoral address of the Holy Father without sensing that the proclamation of Jesus as “Lord and Messiah” is the very heart of his message. Let one example, from his address in Washington to the Representatives of other religions, suffice:
Confronted with these deeper questions concerning the origin and destiny of mankind, Christianity proposes Jesus of Nazareth. He, we believe, is the eternal Logos who became flesh in order to reconcile man to God and reveal the underlying reason of all things. It is he whom we bring to the forum of interreligious dialogue. The ardent desire to follow in his footsteps spurs Christians to open their minds and hearts in dialogue.
But Benedict does not merely bear witness to this. He, in season and out of season, invites Christians to enter into ever-deeper relation with their Savior. Again, but one example — from his address to young people at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie:
Dear friends, truth is not an imposition. Nor is it simply a set of rules. It is a discovery of the One who never fails us; the One whom we can always trust. In seeking truth we come to live by belief because ultimately truth is a person: Jesus Christ. That is why authentic freedom is not an opting out. It is an opting in; nothing less than letting go of self and allowing oneself to be drawn into Christ’s very being for others.
We can argue ceaselessly about why there is something rather than nothing or about the ultimate foundation for human rights. We can passionately debate structural reform in the Church. But in the quiet hours of early morning or late night do we not ultimately wrestle with the question: do I love him?
In the New Testament, a rich, but sometimes neglected text is the First Letter of Peter. We are, of course, reading it during this Easter Season at Sunday Eucharist. Peter joyfully exults in the faith of his (newly baptized?) hearers: “Without having seen him, you love him!” (1 Pet 1:8).
Is Peter’s successor posing this to us as a question: “Without having seen him, do you love him?”
If so, the Lord himself provides the precedent: “Simon Peter: Do you love me?” Peter, dense like us, had to be asked three times (Jn 21:15-19).
I do think that that simple phrase: Christianity proposes Jesus of Nazareth is my takeaway from this journey. It is the core of evangelization, of catechesis, of the Gospel.
Obvious, right? Why would it need re-iterating?
Well, consider. Consider your own religious education. Consider the preaching you hear in Catholic churches. If you work in the Church, whether paid or volunteer, consider your programs – what you do and what you fail to do or shrink from doing. What motivates you, what guides your decisions on how to spend your time and resources. When you look at the community you serve, what you are trying to get across to them.
Are you proposing Jesus of Nazareth?
Here is the Catholic problem that I see when Benedict’s words bounce around my head. Let me see if I can say this concisely:
For hundreds and hundreds of years, the Catholic “way” of being in this world has been rooted in some assumptions. For my purposes, I’ll highlight this one: The Catholic Church is the Church founded by Christ. This is obvious to anyone with eyes to see and the relationship between one’s individual faith, Christ, and the Church is clear and intuitive.
You take that, and mix it with 1500 years of being able to maintain this assumption without any competing viewpoints, and you have a formula for being ill-equipped to make those connections in the contemporary world.
And as I see it, this is the core of what Benedict is trying to help us all do. Focus on Christ, take an honest look at the world around us, the questions people ask and the reasons people don’t believe and then be in this world, as the Body of Christ, in a way that makes it clear that Jesus Christ came to answers those questions, quench that thirst, give eternal life, and that the Church is where he is found.
I think in these present confused times, there are just a lot of missing links that Benedict is trying to help us refit.
A conference was recently held in which many involved in Catholic ministry, ordained and lay, came together to contemplate the future. The focus of the discussions and papers and conclusions was all on, well..ministry. How can we make members of the Church more aware of and appreciative of lay ministry? How can we interest people in lay ministry? What structural changes need to happen? Could, perhaps, a pastoral letter be written to highlight these issues?
Thousands of people. Good-hearted, faithful people. Challenging each other, not to go out and evangelize, but to revision, refashion, and think yet one more time about structures. Very anxious about numbers, about energy, about the Spirit, but totally blind, either through ignorance or a kind of bigotry, to the new movements and initiatives right under their noses which are drawing people to Christ through the Church, seeing all of these things, somehow, as problems instead of as good news.
It is so ironic to me that so many who have so much disdain for the institutional Church in terms of structure and even teaching function are fixated on structure and can’t seem to think about much else.
Secondly. I recently heard a homily. It was, naturally enough given the season, about a passage in one of the Last Discourses. The homilist spoke about Jesus, at a shared meal with his disciples, assuring them and telling them to not be afraid.
“Now,” continued the homilist, “We could imagine a situation in which Jesus gathered us, as his friends, having a meal with us, and talked to us about not being afraid. What would our response be?”
And he continued on in the vein of what objections we might raise to Jesus’ assurances.
I was waiting for what seemed to me to be a natural segue. It would go something like, “And do you know what? That is exactly what is happening here. Jesus has gathered us, his friends. He has, through his Word, told us not to be afraid. He has done this in the context of a meal – a meal in which he shares his very Self, his Presence, giving us, indeed, the strength and grace so that we will not, indeed, be afraid of what confronts us, whether it be small challenges we face today or death itself.”
But no. What then happened was a vague admonition that what Jesus wants us all to have is “faith” – and if we have this thing called “faith” we won’t be afraid.
To me, it was a vivid expression of this disconnect.
And why? What has disconnected us? That’s another blog post, but it all goes back to the last fifty years – not as any purposeful thing, but as the almost inevitable consequences of the confluence of circumstances both within and outside the Church. Circumstances in which sincere and well-meaning initiatives and movements to help people connect more intimately with Christ happened in a context that ended up leaving us more at sea, in many ways. There’s no blame – it’s just what happened. Perhaps it was even necessary. But the point is, when you take a rather urgent sense that perhaps there were some areas of Church life that were functioning as obstacles to Christ, rather than doors, combine that with Scriptural and historical studies which had the ultimate effect of casting doubt on the trustworthiness of anything we think we know about what the Scriptures or the Church tells us about Christ, and then combine that with ideological battles and then mix all of that up in a culture in which authority is a bad word, relativism reigns and the Catholic Church is not, to its great surprise, the only game in town…you have massive confusion as to why we are doing what we are doing and what we are doing at all.
In other words…the “new evangelization” called for by these last two Popes is not about reaffirming Catholic identity in some abstract or institutional sense. It’s about confidently believing that Jesus Christ is the answer and then just as confidently helping people see and experience Christ in the Church: in its spiritual tradition, sacramental life, teachings, artistic heritage and sacrificial service to the poor, sick and dying.
In other words: Cultural Catholicism, RIP.
What will rise in its stead?