Amidst some splendid Catholic theater, there were a lot of ideas to chew on in Benedict XVI’s visit to the United States. The pope’s sermon in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, in which he used the stained glass, the harmony, and the countervailing tensions of the building’s stonework as metaphors for the life of the Church, was a homiletic masterpiece — and a powerful reminder to our priests that “preaching up,” not dumbing down, is the way to inspire congregations. The pope’s U.N. address, picking up themes from John Paul II’s 1995 General Assembly address, made an intriguing argument: human rights, which can be known by reason, are the moral “language” by which the world can turn dissonance into conversation.
Those looking to extend their experience of Benedict XVI, master-teacher, might well buy a new book just coming out from Our Sunday Visitor Press: entitled, simply, Questions and Answers, the book collects the public conversations the Holy Father has had with children, young adults, and priests over the past several years. It’s a format in which Benedict shines, as the following examples illustrate:
“Q. In preparing for my first communion day, my catechist told me that Jesus is present in the Eucharist. But how? I can’t see him!”
“A. No, we cannot see him, but there are many things that we do not see but they exist and are essential…We do not see our soul, and yet it exists and we see its effects, because we can speak, think, and make decisions. Nor do we see an electric current…yet we see that it exists; we see this microphone, that it is working, and we see lights. Therefore we do not see the very deepest things, those that really sustain life, but we can see and feel their effects…So it is with the Risen Lord: we do not see him with our eyes, but we see that wherever Jesus is, people change, they improve. A great capacity for peace, for reconciliation, is created…We do not see the Lord himself, but we see the effects of the Lord. So we can understand that Jesus is present.”
“Q. Do I have to go to confession every time I receive communion, even when I have committed the same sins? Because I realize that they are always the same.”
“A. …you do not have to go to confession before you receive communion unless you have committed such serious sins that they need to be confessed. [Still], even…if it is not necessary to go to confession before each communion, it is very helpful to confess with a certain regularity. It is true: our sins are always the same, but we clean our homes, our rooms, at least once a week even if the dirt is always the same…otherwise, the dirt might not be seen but it builds up. Something similar can be said about my soul…if I never go to confession, my soul is neglected and in the end, I am always pleased with myself and no longer understand that I must work hard to improve…”
“Q. …in this silence [of non-belief], where is God?”
“A. …There was a very intelligent woman who was not a Christian. She began to listen to the great music of Bach, Handel, and Mozart. She was fascinated and said one day, ‘I must find the source of this beauty’ and the woman converted to Christianity, to the Catholic faith, because she had discovered that this beauty has a source, and the source is the presence of Christ in hearts — it is the revelation of Christ in this world….Christ came to create a network of communion in the world, where all together we might carry one another and thus help one another find the ways that lead to life, and to understand that the commandments of God are not limits to our freedom but the paths that guide us to the other, towards the fullness of life.”
A master-teacher who seeks to bring his student to friendships with Jesus: that is Benedict XVI. His answers to the basic questions of Christian faith and practice are very much worth pondering.