Nine months after his election, Pope Benedict XVI issued his much-anticipated first encyclical letter, entitled “Deus Caritas Est” (“God Is Love”). No doubt it will provide Christ-centered wisdom and encouragement to a world that increasingly looks for true love “in all the wrong places.”
As we drink in “Deus Caritas Est” and the many other blessings that God desires to give us this year, I'd like to focus our attention on the first year of Pope Benedict's reign. I'd like to do so not as an observer or critic, but through the eyes and heart of Pope Benedict himself. This past Christmas he gave a significant address to members of the Roman Curia, in which he reflected on some of the “great events” of the past year.
The Holy Father's reflections reveal a profoundly spiritual shepherd who is able to discern and rejoice in the Lord's saving presence in recent human history. His Christmas message recalls the mystery of the eternal Son of God becoming a little child in the humble grotto in Bethlehem so that we might have new, eternal life as children of God. With this perspective, he perceives the power of God's infinite goodness overcoming the sin, violence, and hatred that often seems, at least on the surface, to have the upper hand. What lessons are there for us in the pope's reflections?
Pope Benedict recalled the deep, lasting mark of his predecessor on the life of the Church. Through his many travels, prolific writings, and relentless witness to the Gospel, Pope John Paul II gave us so much. He truly offered everything he had to God for our sake. But as we consider the rich inheritance he has left the Church, one treasure surely is the lesson he taught us through the suffering he endured at the end of his pontificate.
Pope John Paul II's own faith deepened through what he suffered. Through his personal Way of the Cross, he experienced at a profound level how all human misery contains within itself the promise of salvation, a promise that is fulfilled when we accept our own sufferings and unite them with “the suffering of the crucified God.” He grew to understand from within the sublime truth that Christ's Passion transforms suffering consuming it with divine love.
Of course, it's one thing to affirm this theological truth, and it's quite another to live this reality on the world's stage before billions of onlookers. How can Pope John Paul II's eloquent witness, both in life and in death, not inspire us to take up our own crosses with confidence and joy?
The Church Is Alive!
Pope Benedict then turned his attention to two events that were initiated by Pope John Paul II and bore his distinctive stamp: World Youth Day and the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. The fact that these events went forward under Pope Benedict is a consoling yet subtle reminder that the Church is even “bigger” than a charismatic, larger-than-life leader of JPII's stature. This point really came home to me as I sat at a Wednesday Audience in Rome last September as Pope Benedict took his “chair.” Apostolic succession is a wondrous gift Christ has given His Church, and we've been singularly blessed to witness the transition from the 264th Vicar of Christ to the 265th.
And how providential it was that the World Youth Day “inherited” by the first German Pope in centuries happened to be held in Cologne! More than a million young people gathered there last summer to pray with the Holy Father and to rejoice in the Lord. The theme was “We have come to worship Him.” Pope Benedict stressed throughout the event not only the object of our worship, which is God Himself, but also on why each one of us needs worship. Worship alone, he notes, gives us the criteria for our action in the world.
Meanwhile, the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist last fall brought to a close the “Year of the Eucharist.” It also gave Church leaders from around the world the opportunity to reflect together on the Church's greatest gift: Jesus Christ, truly present under the appearance of bread and wine.
Pope Benedict emphasizes the spirit of adoration that has permeated the renewal of Eucharistic faith and piety fostered by the Year of the Eucharist. Specifically, he said he was moved at “how everywhere in the Church the joy of Eucharistic adoration is reawakening and being fruitful.” In recent decades, Mass and Eucharistic adoration outside Mass have often been cast in opposition to each other. The Holy Father says such antithesis is “nonsensical,” as we do not merely “receive” the Eucharist, but we encounter and unite ourselves to the eternal Son of God Who comes to meet us.
The Year of the Eucharist, incidentally, was never about adding more programs, devotions, or liturgical innovations. Rather, it was to help us recapture a spirit of recollection, indeed of adoration, so that we might recognize Jesus in the “breaking of the bread” and thereby live changed, “Eucharistic” lives. The Year of the Eucharist is now over, but it's never too late to slow down and “adore the Lord in His holy court” (Ps 29:2).
Vatican II Today
Another significant event of the past year was the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, the 21st ecumenical council in the Church's history. He candidly admitted the difficulties that have hampered the implementation of Vatican II. For the Holy Father, the key to correctly implementing Vatican II lies in using the “proper hermeneutics.” In other words, we must look at Vatican II through the appropriate lens.
Pope Benedict identified a “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture,” which would sever the Church in effect into two churches: the “pre-conciliar” Church and the “post-conciliar” Church. Following this model, the new, “post-conciliar” Church, claiming the mandate and so-called “spirit” of Vatican II, must revise Church teaching, practices, and structures to make them more compatible with the present age. This mindset has gained access to positions of authority, or at least power, in the Church. Others, in reaction to the loss of faith and ecclesial disarray caused by the indiscriminate application of this approach, have gone to the opposite extreme, clinging to the “pre-conciliar” Church, which doesn't seem so bad compared to what's gone on in their experience of the post-conciliar Church.
What the pope is asking of us is to use a “hermeneutic of reform” in understanding Vatican II. This approach eschews both a “creative” and a “suspicious” approach to the Council. Instead, he calls us to embrace the necessary continuity of the Church and her traditional teaching, while at the same time recognizing the ongoing need for a renewal ordered to the salvation of the whole world.
We rejoice that the Holy Father has validated the experience of those of us who have been “caught in the middle,” while calling all of us to a greater love for and fidelity to the Church.
This tension of continuity/discontinuity is present in our own lives. After all, Jesus Christ is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8), and at the same time He continually makes “all things new” (Rv 21:5). The Christian life is about living this paradox. The gift of faith, the faith of the Church that most of us received as baptized infants, reflects the continuity of our Christian vocation. Yet at the same time, in our own personal journey of faith, the Lord continually makes all things new and calls us to a dynamic relationship with Him right here and now.
I recently saw Codebreakers, a movie on the Army's football team set in the 1950s. While Army hasn't fielded a decent football team in my lifetime, way back when they were a perennial powerhouse. In the 1940s they had two Heisman trophy winners at the same time: Glenn Davis was “Mr. Outside” and Doc Blanchard was “Mr. Inside,” as Davis had breakaway speed and Blanchard was a powerful runner between tackles.
After reading Pope Benedict's Christmas address, I'm convinced more than ever that the Lord is asking each one of us, in a sense, to be “Mr. Inside.” Rather than allow ourselves to be disturbed by all the external, “outside” forces in our lives, we must be more attentive to the presence of the Holy Spirit within us, peacefully guiding us through any storms or difficulties that beset us.
As we look back on the many significant events of the past year in the world, in the Church, and in our own personal lives may we have the eyes to perceive God's abiding fidelity, thereby strengthening our childlike trust in the Lord of history.
© Copyright 2006 Leon J. Suprenant
Leon J. Suprenant, Jr. is the president of Catholics United for the Faith (CUF) and Emmaus Road Publishing and the publisher of Lay Witness magazine, all based in Steubenville, Ohio. He is a contributor to Catholic for a Reason III: Scripture and the Mystery of the Mass and an adviser to CE’s Catholic Scripture Study. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.