Pope knows hope and truth can flow from crisis of faith
RITE AND REASON:FOR CHRISTIANS, the current season of Advent focuses the gaze on that part of our innermost selves that longs for wholeness.
And it does so with a vocabulary that speaks, not of dehumanising daydreaming for the impossible, but of a confidence that truth, healing and justice are possible and not merely illusions or delusions.
During his 2011 pilgrimages Pope Benedict XVI addressed the widespread experience of crisis in our society and how church, itself marked by much disillusionment, might renew its call to generate energising hope. Some will disagree with the Pope’s analysis – but, for the integrity of their own arguments, critics need to know what they are disagreeing with.
Firstly, Pope Benedict is clear that both church and State are experiencing a time of profound crisis. As prison and psychiatric facilities fill up, many in society are paying a high price for this mix of social, personal and economic fragility marked by “the inconstancy and fragmentation of many people’s lives and in an exaggerated individualism”.
In terms of church, he is quite open that religious belief in general and the Catholic Church in particular are in a period of structural, mission and intellectual crisis.
But the Pope sees this as a crisis, not primarily of structures but of faith. During his visit to Germany in September, he said that some Christians see “the church merely as an institution, without letting it touch their hearts, or letting the faith touch their hearts.”
If they focus on just the outward form of church, then it will be rejected by those people “when their ‘dream church’ fails to materialise”.
Second, in response to this situation, Pope Benedict is clear that the Church should not seek to regain its power in European societies. Indeed, loss of church goods or privilege can actually be a great liberation for church. After all, it is not there to compete for status with other power blocs in society.
However, religion can continue to play an essential role in the creation of a modern society. Referring to the fact that large parts of Germany had known Nazi and Marxist dictatorships in the 20th century, the Pope underlined how ideology without God and political agendas without a sense of human dignity are inhuman.
If religion needs freedom, freedom also needs religion.
Third, despite the fact that church is entitled to be a key partner in building a society worthy of human beings, Pope Benedict insists that the church “will need again and again to set herself apart from her surroundings, to become in a certain sense ‘unworldly’ ”. Christ came among us “not merely to confirm the worldliness and to be its companion, leaving it to carry on just as it is, but in order to change it”.
The Catholic Church’s liturgy, beliefs and practices should clearly reinforce how it is different from other social partners.
Fourth, church renewal – according to Pope Benedict – will be based not merely on a simple managerial or structural paradigm, but solely by leading people to Christ. This is a work of grace and of profound discernment.
There is no future based on following the passing preoccupations of a western society that is itself in cultural crisis.
In the context of ecumenism, the Pope did not propose any major structural or symbolic leap forward. He underlined that church unity will not be built on intellectual bargaining and agreement. Christian unity will be God’s work, not ours.
This is all linked to a strong sense of the church as a core part of God’s presence in the world.
Following Jesus in faith means walking at His side in the communion of the church – a key theme of the 50th International Eucharistic Congress which takes place in Ireland next June.
Pope Benedict put it succinctly during World Youth Day in Madrid last August: “We cannot follow Jesus on our own. Anyone who would be tempted to do so ‘on his own’, or to approach the life of faith with that kind of individualism so prevalent today, will risk never truly encountering Jesus, or will end up following a counterfeit Jesus.”
For their own integrity, those who caricature Pope Benedict need to understand his diagnosis. Finding solutions to our modern crises will need wise heads, generous hearts and an Advent openness to being surprised. As Jesus knew, there are no simplistic solutions to complex problems.
But truth, hope and community are a great starting point.
Bishop Donal McKeown is Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Down and Connor and chairs the church’s Council for Vocations. He is also a member of its Council for Pastoral Renewal and Adult Faith Development.