Learning from the Popes

Based on personal observation, I’m obliged to conclude that many Catholics know very little about the teaching of the pope, whoever he may happen to be at any particular time.

People who can tell you the winner of American Idol not only this year but last, and who appear to have virtually total recall about sports and movies are likely to draw a blank on something as simple as the title of Pope Benedict's first encyclical. (In case you forgot, it's Deus Caritas Est — God Is Love.)

That's a shame. Many of these papal documents are very good. Sure, encyclicals and the like tend to be written in a style that folks generally aren't familiar with — but why can't they learn? And consider the source. Catholics believe the pope is universal pastor of the Church, Christ's vicar on earth — shouldn't they take a little trouble to find out what he says?

Catholic media aside, the news media are no help. Their coverage of the Church concentrates on the scandalous and the superficial. As for what the pope is really talking about, most of the time they haven't got a clue and couldn't care less.

You'd think homilists would regularly turn to papal documents as a source, but I am aware of just one pastor — that's right, one — who makes it a practice to incorporate the pope's message into his remarks. On the other hand, I find homilists these days drawing their examples from popular TV shows. I suppose that's a useful device for speaking to people about something they're familiar with, but doesn't the pope also rate a mention now and then?

All of this is by way of recommending two recent books which will help people ease their way into the reading of papal documents.

One is The Teachings of Pope John Paul II by John E. Fagan (Scepter Publishers). The volume brings together short summaries by Fagan, running five or so pages each, of 37 documents by the pope who was probably the most prolific writer — and among the most interesting thinkers — to occupy the chair of Peter. Also covered is an important document from the Pontifical Council for the Family.

The summaries don't substitute for reading the documents themselves, but they are helpful introductions. “The purpose of the volume is to make the Pope's teachings more accessible to busy lay people,” Fagan writes. The book succeeds admirably in doing that.

The other title is Let God's Light Shine Forth, edited by Robert Moynihan (Doubleday) as an introduction to the “spiritual vision” of Pope Benedict. The book also contains a valuable 73-page biographical introduction by Moynihan, who is editor of Inside the Vatican magazine.

Moynihan collects excerpts — generally, substantial ones — from the extensive pre-papal writings of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who among other things is one of the most interesting theological thinkers of our times. Like John Paul II, he has written and published a great deal. He writes well and has a knack for the telling, memorable phrase. Consider this: speaking of neglect of the sacrament of penance, he refers to the “delirium of guiltlessness” in which people tend to wrap themselves today. As that suggests, this sampler is a pleasure to read and also a challenge.

People willing to turn off the TV for a couple of evenings and spend time engaged in thoughtful reading can only benefit from hearing what Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II have to say. These two useful books will help those who have open minds and open hearts to do that.

Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, DC. You can email him at RShaw10290@aol.com.

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Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at RShaw10290@aol.com.

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