Friday, May 11, 2007

Pope to Brazilian Bishops: It's about Christ!

Fr Z posts the English translation of Pope Benedict's address to the bishops in São Paolo's cathedral. It's very Benedict, taking up many of the themes he sees as being essential and adapting them to the demands of the Latin American situation. This address will be analysed to death, but the following passages struck me as significant.
2. With its traditional hospitality, Brazil is hosting the participants in the Fifth Conference of Latin American Bishops. I express my gratitude for the kind welcome given to its members, and my deep appreciation for the prayers of the Brazilian people, particularly their prayers for the success of the Bishops’ meeting in Aparecida.
This meeting is a great ecclesial event and part of the missionary outreach which Latin America needs to undertake, beginning here—on Brazilian soil. That is why I wished to speak first to you, the Bishops of Brazil, evoking these words, so rich in content, from the Letter to the Hebrews: Although he was Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him" (Heb 5:8-9). Filled with meaning, these verses speak of God’s compassion for us, as expressed in the passion of his Son. They speak of Christ’s obedience and his free, conscious acceptance of the Father’s plan, which appears most clearly in his prayer on the Mount of Olives: "Not my will, but yours, be done" (Lk 22:42). Jesus himself teaches us that the true way of salvation lies in conforming our will to the will of God. This is what we pray for in the third petition of the "Our Father": that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, since wherever God’s will reigns, there the Kingdom of God is present. Jesus attracts us by his will, his filial will, and so he leads us to salvation. By freely accepting the will of God, in union with Jesus Christ, we open the world to God’s Kingdom.
We Bishops have come together to manifest this central truth, since we are directly bound to Christ, the Good Shepherd. The mission entrusted to us as teachers of the faith consists in recalling, in the words of the Apostle of the Gentiles, that our Saviour "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim 2:4). This, and nothing else, is the purpose of the Church: the salvation of individual souls. For this reason the Father sent his Son, and in the Lord’s own words transmitted to us in the Gospel of Saint John, "as the Father has sent me, even so I send you" (Jn 20:21). Hence the mandate to preach the Gospel: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Mt 28:19-20). These words are simple yet sublime; they speak of our duty to proclaim the truth of the faith, the urgent need for the sacramental life, and the promise of Christ’s continual assistance to his Church. These are fundamental realities: they speak of instructing people in the faith and in Christian morality, and of celebrating the sacraments. Wherever God and his will are unknown, wherever faith in Jesus Christ and in his sacramental presence is lacking, the essential element for the solution of pressing social and political problems is also missing. Fidelity to the primacy of God and of his will, known and lived in communion with Jesus Christ, is the essential gift that we Bishops and priests must offer to our people (cf. Populorum Progressio, 21).
I think we can exaggerate the danger of liberation theology as a theological movement. The intellectual figures of the movement seem to have more or less run out of steam. However, it's quite clear that as a pastoral mindset, it's still very powerful and Pope Benedict is unabashedly proposing a clear alternative. It's all about Christ.
It's notable that Benedict says: " wherever God’s will reigns, there the Kingdom of God is present." I wish I had the command of Portuguese to figure out whether he is in his vocabulary making a rather pointed reference to various liberation theology ideas about the 'reign of God' (and they always call it the 'reign', never the 'Kingdom') being understood as some kind of social or material ordering of this world which the Church should be striving to organise - by means of revolution, if necessary. Benedict responds to this with a resounding 'no.' The Kingdom of God has to do with conforming ourselves to God's will.
The role of the Bishop, therefore, is about bringing individual souls to this truth and to the salvation which Christ offers. It's about preaching, teaching and bringing people to the sacraments. That is the primary duty of the Bishop.
It's only if we, as a Church, get this part of the mission correct that we can then talk about 'the pressing social and political problems.' This is a recurring theme and appears in his forthcoming Jesus of Nazareth. Putting it very crudely, Benedict argues that if we don't get God's role right or if we exclude him from our consideration when we try to do good for others, then we find ourselves in a situation where we can't really help our neighbour at all. God has the primacy in all human works and activities. The Church cannot really help the poor, if she is not first and foremost aware of her mission of evangelization. It strikes me as being something like the Augustinian doctrine of grace expressed in social terms.
Now, it should be made clear that by this is not meant any kind of crass neglect of the needs of the poor. Benedict is not saying that we should stop giving bread to the hungry and should instead be giving them Bibles. He means no such thing. Deus Caritas Est makes clear that the charitable activity of the Church is irreplaceable. However, this charitable activity most properly draws its inspiration from Christ and always puts His love and His salvation in first place. This priority we give to Christ enlightens and informs our charity and saves us from the real danger of seeing material assistance to the poor as an end in itself. It cannot be, because that is the same as saying that the material ordering of society is an end in itself and an ultimate value. Charitable activity which does not take Christ as its starting point runs the real risk of regressing into atheistic materialism.
This can and does happen within the Church. I'm sure that for many of my readers it'll only take a little thought to think of well-intentioned priests and religious who gave their all to some worthy project and cause, but ultimately ended up losing their vocation and their faith in the process. From such happenings, may God preserve us!

There is much else in the speech, and it manages to hit many of the big problems facing the Church in Latin America, but this little section in particular caught my eye:
As you know, among the various documents dealing with Christian unity, there is the Directory for Ecumenism published by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Ecumenism—or the search for unity among Christians—has become in our time an increasingly urgent task for the Catholic Church, as is evident from the growth of intercultural exchange and the challenge of secularism. Consequently, given the rapidly growing number of new Christian denominations, and especially certain forms of often aggressive proselytism, the work of ecumenism has become more complex. In this context, a good historical and doctrinal formation is absolutely essential, so as to foster necessary discernment and lead to a better understanding of the specific identity of each of these communities, the elements that divide them, and those elements that can be helpful on the road to greater unity. The greatest area of common ground for collaboration should be the defence of fundamental moral values—transmitted by the biblical tradition—against the relativistic and consumerist cultural forces that seek to destroy them. Another such area is faith in God the Creator and in Jesus Christ his incarnate Son. Moreover, there will always be the principle of fraternal love and the search for mutual understanding and rapprochement. Yet we must also be concerned with defending the faith of our people, confirming them in the joyful certitude that "unica Christi Ecclesia…subsistit in Ecclesia catholica, a successore Petri et Episcopis in eius communione gubernata" ["The one Church of Christ…subsists in the Catholic Church which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him"] (Lumen Gentium, 8).
Here, and elsewhere in the speech, the Pope (as a good professor) stresses the importance of a formation that is strong doctrinally and intellectually. A certain intellectual flourishing will be needed if the challenge of the various Protestant sects are to be dealt with. I'm sure that Benedict would agree with Newman that to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.

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