Wednesday, April 16, 2008

See the Holy See Pt 2

I was able to listen to the ceremonies at the White House this morning (thank you XM Radio!) and I’ll post thoughts on that later after I have a chance to review the transcripts.

But I wanted to first follow up on the Newsweek article I linked last night. I want to primarily talk about the role of the Pope as a political and moral authority on the world stage. I’m no papal historian, so I just want to pull some quotes from the article and comment.

There are centuries of history tying the papacy to politics, empire building, wars, and corruption. But more recently, with less explicit political power, the Popes of the 20th Century have been agents of positive change helping WWI refugees, opposing Nazism and communism, and advocating what John Paul II frequently called the “Culture of Life.” Now the first Pope of the 21st Century, Pope Benedict XVI has some awfully big shoes to fill.

The Newsweek article points to John Paul II’s visit to Poland in 1979 as a watershed event in global politics not appreciated or recognized at the time. It wasn’t until the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Politburo collapsed that hindsight saw his visit as the catalyst that gave birth to the Solidarity movement. What’s striking about that visit, the article notes, was how Pope John Paul II never talked specifically about politics or economics. Rather, he focused on the country’s religious history and identity.

Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Lecture on Faith and Reason in 2006 is compared to JPII’s Poland visit by Newsweek as Benedict’s first geo-political battle. His statements are often reported in the press as insensitive, feeding anti-Muslim sentiment while fueling Islamic extremism. Yet the article points out that the opposite is really true and how it has forced Muslim leaders to look inward in the fight against Islamists.

Such an accomplishment sounds impossible in a world where it is widely felt that, “religious and moral conviction is irrelevant to shaping the flow of contemporary history. They may give meaning to individual lives; but change history? Please. The world has outgrown that.”

I think both John Paul II and Benedict XVI look like religious leaders should. Instead of directly attacking the current headline, they appeal to people’s hearts by applying the Gospel. Instead of debating red or blue, they address human nature and the power of the resurrection. Division of church and state? This approach is far from the theocracy that so many Americans fear and should be used as examples of how our candidates should approach their faith- as moral compasses, not policy defining.

The article continues to compare Benedict to John Paul in terms of the long range influence of their theology. The author notes how popular John Paul II’s encyclicals are in seminaries, but notes that should short change what the current Pope offers. Where I’ve come to admire Pope Benedict XVI the most is how his writings are Christ, not Church, centered. His is a theology, much like his predecessor’s, that can be embraced by Christianity as a whole.

One example from the article describes how a child asked how Jesus could be present in the Eucharist when we can’t see him. Transubstantiation is disputed in Protestant churches, but the Pope didn’t bog his answer down in that debate. Instead he replied, “No, we cannot see him; there are many things we do not see, but they exist and are essential … We do not see an electric current; yet we see that it exists. We can see that this microphone is working, and we see lights. We do not see the very deepest things, those that really sustain life and the world, but we can see and feel their effects … So it is with the Risen Lord: we do not see him with our eyes, but we see that wherever Jesus is, people change, they improve, there is a greater capacity for peace, for reconciliation …" And that answer, I believe, can be embraced by Catholic and Protestant alike.

Likewise another child asked about having to go to confession. Again, the Pope didn’t reply by answering, “whatever you loose on Earth will be loosed in Heaven and whatever you bind on Earth will be bound in Heaven,” and defending the role of the priesthood. Instead he described confession much like grace was described during the sermon at my church a couple of weeks ago. "It's very helpful to confess with a certain regularity. It is true: our sins are always the same, but we clean our homes, our rooms, at least once a week, even if the dirt is always the same … Otherwise the dirt might not be seen, but it builds up. Something similar can be said about the soul, about me: if I never go to confession, my soul is neglected and in the end I'm always pleased with myself and no longer understand that I must work hard to improve …"

I just read a thread on a message board mocking the current Pope- comparing him to Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars, harping on his involvement in the Hitler Youth, and noting how he’s “soooo much more boring than the last guy!” But those close to Benedict note that still waters run deep, and that while he may not have the magnetic personality of John Paul II he has a depth of practical theology that more than makes up for it. I happen to agree. And I look forward to this Pope being an Ambassador of Christ on the world stage.

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