Sunday, April 24, 2005

The Installation Homily of Pope Benedict

Pope Benedict's Homily at Installation Mass

I did not watch the installation but I just read the homily and a few things struck me.

First, he writes nice tight inspiring and symbol-rich homilies. But for the cynic like me, that means nothing. I'm more interested in true intent and seeking clues for his mindset and where he is taking things.

One thing that strikes profoundly at the onset of this Papacy is that it is very hiera-centric. There is great emphasis on the top-down approach in which the roles of everyone determined by their status in the hierarchy. Contrast this view with Lumen Gentium, the Vatican II document on the Church. LG was quite revolutionary in that the Bishops sought to establish a new model for the Church. As a result they began the document by speaking of the Church as a mystery and then proceeded to talk about the People of God and the universal call to holiness. This was seen as extremely significant because they were making the point that the mystery of the Church and our status as people of God and our call to live holy lives, preceded the breakdown into hierarchical slots.

Benedict, right out of the gate, has begun with the emphasis on his role as Peter and rock, and then moves to that of the Bishops and priests, and then mentions the laity.

He crossed the threshold of the next life, entering into the mystery of God. But he did not take this step alone. Those who believe are never alone – neither in life nor in death. At that moment, we could call upon the Saints from every age – his friends, his brothers and sisters in the faith – knowing that they would form a living procession to accompany him into the next world, into the glory of God.

The "Mystery of God" is present at the beginning of the homily but not as the Church as mystery but as the beatific vision attained in the after-life. The saints are introduced as companions, which invokes a sense of Church, but still a deficient sense of the the mystery that is the Church and the totality of the mysterious community of the Church. (He does say, a few lines down, that all baptized are saints, which is hair-ripping truth. That's what needs to be pushed and we need to drop this nonsense about saints and canonizations, etc)

He goes on the repeat the phrase "The Church is alive," making that a theme that may emerge for this papacy. Now, think about this. If you are in Africa were the Catholic numbers are rising rapidly, that the Church is "alive" is a no brainer. Also, in Latin America, with the pervasiveness of Catholicism, "the Church is alive," wouldn't strike anyone as a significant statement. In the North Americas, especially the US and Canada, where parish life and activity is the envy of the world, "the Church is alive" is not a significant statement, we know that already. Then for whom is the phrase significant? Europe. The Church is dying in Europe and so "the Church is alive" is being offered as a resurrection hope for Europe and a call for European Catholics to continue to believe in the re-Christianization (Catholicization) of Europe.

Pope Benedict then greets everyone. I raised an eyebrow at the greetings to "believers and non-believers alike." In my relativistic mindset, I would have prefered to use the phrase "all people of good will." Here again, is where I have this problem of "reaching out." You can't reach out to people if you want to assume the self righteous pedestal of superiority. To describe people of other religions as "non-believers" is insulting. They are believers, just not in what we believe. We may not believe what they believe, but we can respect the fact that they have their own longstanding religious beliefs, many of which pre-date Christianity.

Benedict then talks about the symbols of the papacy he received, the Pallium and the fisherman's ring. Here's a line that struck me:

The symbolism of the Pallium is even more concrete: the lamb’s wool is meant to represent the lost, sick or weak sheep which the shepherd places on his shoulders and carries to the waters of life.

"Lost, sick, or weak sheep." This phrase he later clarifies to mean the whole of humanity, but the correlation between sheep and the lay faithful is hard to miss: boy, we lay folks are not coming out on top in this homily. Earlier he mentioned that we are also saints since we are all baptized, then we get mentioned as those "immersed in the great task of building up the Kingdom of God which spreads throughout the world, in every area of life." Imbedded in this is the idea that we lay people are at least suceptible to failing at our task and are "sick" or "lost". But I am stretching this. Over the next few days we'll see how lay people stack up. Either way, there are a lot of other ways you can speak of the sheep, and to refer to them as primarily "lost, sick or weak" is problematic at best.

The other issue with this "lost, sick or weak sheep" is the clear meaning Benedict gives the phrase. He says plainly that he is speaking of humanity. I think here we see the optimistic Thomism of John Paul contrasted with the pessimism of the Augustinian Benedict. There is no grace builds on nature here. Nature is bad and grace is need to burn it down and redo it. (Shorter Augustine, babies are walking bags of unbridled original sin). This is definitely Christ against culture. The problem is that, as a Church, we've always regretted "Christ against culture" moves and been most proud of grace in/with/on nature.

Then there's this:

And yet, we need his patience. God, who became a lamb, tells us that the world is saved by the Crucified One, not by those who crucified him.

The whole idea behind what the general point is is fine. But in the context of a billion dollar grossing Passion movie that evoked concerns among our Jewish brethren, in the context of his membership in the Hitler Youth, surely he could have found a better phrase than "those who crucified him." That phrase, or similar derivative phrases, are often used for anti-Semitic purposes. Benedict's intention here has nothing to do with such uses, but it is still an unfortunate phrase.

“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.

Now, this is one of the clearest statements of where the Pope is going in this reign. He emphasizes his role to "feed," and to feed is to "love," and to love is to "suffer." Odd. Why is love equated with suffering? And who is going to suffer? Benedict. He is going to show his love in a way that may trigger suffering on his part. This is a sign that there will be some tough pruning on the way. The next sentence confirms this. "Loving means giving the sheep what is truly good." Again, the specter of destroying the tyranny of relativism. Loving is not giving the sheep what the sheep thinks is good, but what the shepherd knows to be good. The sheep are presented as incapable of knowing what is good for them. Thus, the shepherd out of love and concern for his sheep will force feed the sheep with what's good for them. This "good" is "the nourishment of God's truth" given to us in the "Blessed Sacrament," code for "I'm going to clean up the liturgy."

Those sentences highlight two things, one that the Pope is going to engage in a liturgical purge and he is willing to cross swords with anyone who resists. Secondly, truth and spiritual sustenance is in the hands of the hierarchy and the faithful are dependent on the hierarchy for truth. This will thus curb the excesses of lay theologians and others who act contrary to Church directives.

Then there's this line:

Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves.

This is so "Christ against culture" and back to the pre-Vatican II, "the world and the liberals hate us" entrenchment mode.

Here's more "Christ against culture":

But in the mission of a fisher of men, the reverse is true. We are living in alienation, in the salt waters of suffering and death; in a sea of darkness without light.

Then there's this interesting statement:

Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.

Where did this come from? Now, not only has he set the Church against the world, he has set us against science. How? He paints a charicature of science as stating that we are the "casual and meaningless product of evolution." That is nuts. If there are people, few, who say that, why use them to charicature the entire scientific enterprise? Can we be both the product of evolution and be each thought and willed by God, as more and more Catholics believe? Weird.

The task of the shepherd, the task of the fisher of men, can often seem wearisome. But it is beautiful and wonderful, because it is truly a service to joy, to God’s joy which longs to break into the world.

Again, this is dour and bleak view of the world. Contrast this with Vatican II's "Gaudium et spes" which means "joy and hope" which begins with unbridled optimism. For Benedict, the world is without joy. That is certainly not true and to say that maybe more a reflection of the man than the facts of the situation.

He then ends the homily with a nice exposition of JPII's "be not afraid," but I think he adds a twist that it is directed at the powerful, asking them to not be afraid of giving up power. And so the homily ends.

This is clearly over analysis. It's just one sermon, but I'm thowing out hypotheses that can be tested later. Clearly, he has set the Church up against he world. Clearly his view of church is dominated by the hierarchy. Clearly he intends a program of pruning that will hurt and may cause a backlash. If this is what he believes he is called to do, more power to him. I'll pray for him.


Blogger Ambrose said...

Okay, I totally never thought THIS could happen, but you make me feel like a Pollyanna.

12:18 AM  
Blogger Ono said...


It's not all darkness with the Pope, I do point out that it was a nice homily.

But, Cardinal Ratzinger crossed the line for me during the election and he gets absolutely zero breaks from me.

I'll pray for him, but I will not cut him any slack. He'll have to earn that. Besides, with all the Pope gushing going on with Catholics, someone's got to keep him honest.

1:24 AM  
Blogger Nate said...

I don't think anyone wants you to cut him any slack, Ono, but you could try thinking about other meanings he may have. For instance, you assume his comments on evolution mean that he doesn't believe in evolution. But as Joe Cecil points out on his blog, that's not the case; as Cardinal Ratzinger, he referred to Genesis as "myth." His comments are not saying that evolution is not true; rather, he is saying that it is not just a meaningless process.

Read more carefully, and in light of his past work, he is supporting theistic evolution -- not creationism. Theistic evolution is evolution with God as its author, and it perfectly in line with both faith and reason.

No need to cut him any slack, but thinking about other meanings he may have is essential. He's a die-hard intellectual, so his meaning may not always be entirely clear even to other intellectuals.

As for his comments on the laity -- he does say that we must carry each other, meaning that he must also be carried by us, and he says that we are all the communion of saints, and when he asked rhetorically how he would undertake his ministry his answer was the prayers of the faithful.

I think you're focusing too much on the negative. It's understandable, perhaps, but not fair.

4:03 AM  

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