“The third time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ He said, ‘Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep.’” —John, writing of Jesus’ final words to Peter (John 21:17)
“And then came the conferral of his mission: ‘Do not be afraid. Henceforth you will be catching men’ (Lk 5:1-11). Today too the Church and the successors of the Apostles are told to put out into the deep sea of history and to let down the nets, so as to win men and women over to the Gospel – to God, to Christ, to true life.” —Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, Inaugural Mass, April 24, 2005
There have been five great “crises,” five defining moments of decision thus far in the first half-decade of Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate (April 24, 2005-present). And we are now in the midst of the 5th moment of crisis.
The first defining crisis was on the inaugural day of the pontificate, April 24, 2005. Benedict, newly elected, came before the entire world, following the moving funeral of Pope John Paul II, to declare his proposed “program,” what he planned to do as Pope.
But instead of listing a series of specific goals (renewing religious life, or the liturgy, or reuniting with separated Christians), he did something profound. He pointed toward Christ, only toward Christ.
“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,” Benedict said.
Then the Pope spoke of two liturgical symbols used in the inaugural ceremony that day, the pallium and the fisherman’s ring.
He explained that the two symbols represented his two great tasks as Pope: to be a shepherd, and to be a fisherman, or rather, a “fisher of men.” And in his explanation of this task, he spoke powerful words.
“The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast,” Benedict said. “Therefore the earth’s treasures no longer serve to build God’s garden for all to live in, but they have been made to serve the powers of exploitation and destruction. The Church as a whole and all her Pastors, like Christ, must set out to lead people out of the desert, towards the place of life, towards friendship with the Son of God, towards the One who gives us life, and life in abundance…
“One of the basic characteristics of a shepherd must be to love the people entrusted to him, even as he loves Christ whom he serves. ‘Feed my sheep.’ says Christ to Peter, and now, at this moment, he says it to me as well.
“Feeding means loving, and loving also means being ready to suffer. Loving means giving the sheep what is truly good, the nourishment of God’s truth, of God’s word, the nourishment of his presence, which he gives us in the Blessed Sacrament.”
And then the Pope asked for our prayers. “My dear friends,” he said, “at this moment I can only say: pray for me, that I may learn to love the Lord more and more. Pray for me, that I may learn to love his flock more and more – in other words, you, the holy Church, each one of you and all of you together. Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves.”
He then spoke about what it means to be a true fisherman.
“It is really true,” he said. “As we follow Christ in this mission to be fishers of men, we must bring men and women out of the sea that is salted with so many forms of alienation and onto the land of life, into the light of God. It is really so: the purpose of our lives is to reveal God to men. And only where God is seen does life truly begin. Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is.”
From that moment on, the center of Pope Benedict’s mission has been “to reveal God to men,” to focus all his effort on recalling a secularized world to the Risen Lord it has either never heard of, or, having once heard and believed, has forgotten or rejected.
The second “crisis” occurred on December 22, 2005. On that day, Benedict delivered perhaps the single most important speech of his pontiticate. Speaking to his Curia, he laid out his vision for interpreting the Second Vatican Council and the post-conciliar period back into the perennial tradition of the Church. We needed to view the Council and the post-conciliar period through a “hermeneutic of continuity,” not of “rupture,” he said. The Church did not begin in 1965, breaking with her past; she continued to be what she always has been, adapting to the conditions and challenges of a new age.
The third “crisis” was on September 12, 2006, when he gave his great and controversial “Regensburg Address.” Profoundly misunderstood, his speech aroused the ire of the world’s Muslims and secular humanists alike. But the address was not intended to be a reflection on Islam. Rather, it was directed to the West, to our increasingly secularized Western culture as a whole. It was a call to the West to remember the transcendent, not to negate the transcendent, a negation which is ultimately “unreasonable” and which leads mankind down the road to darkness, savagery, cruelty, injustice and death.
The fourth “crisis” was on July 7, 2007, when he promulgated, against the strong objections of many of his bishops, the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, which restored access to the “old Mass” throughout the Church. This restoration of the “lex orandi” has barely begun, but it was initiated on that day.
The fifth “crisis” is the present one over cases of priestly sexual abuse of children, and the inadequate response of Church leaders to these sins and crimes. The crisis has been devastating, for the children harmed, for the Church, and for the Pope himself, and his mission.
The fact that the Pope spoke of this crisis during his recent trip to Fatima, Portugal, and connected this crisis, even if only obliquely, with the “Third Secret” of Fatima (see “Lead Story, p. 10), indicates how much this crisis is on the Pope’s mind, how seriously he regards it, and how committed he is to ensure that the abuse ends and that the Church’s priesthood is purified and restored to carry out its essential, critical task: to be shepherds to the faithful, and to be “fishers of men” to a world longing to be “caught” by an encounter with Christ.