Saturday, September 26, 2009

Speaking From The Heart Will Change Hearts And Minds

Pope delivers upbeat message in ambivalent spot
by John L Allen Jr on Sep. 26, 2009

In the first spiritually evocative moment of his itinerary in the Czech Republic, Pope Benedict XVI paid a visit early this afternoon to the Church of Our Lady of Victorious, home to the famed statue known as the “Infant of Prague.”

The pope’s words were warm and devotional, even if the spot has a somewhat more ambivalent spot in the popular Czech imagination.

The 16th century statue of the child Jesus is known for its reported miraculous powers, but Benedict’s remarks today dwelt instead on the reminder it offers of Christ’s early years under the care of his parents, Mary and Joseph. That led Benedict to offer a few words about the families of his listeners “and all the families in the world, in their joys and difficulties.”

“We pray for families in difficulty,” Benedict said, “struggling with illness and suffering, for those in crisis, divided or torn apart by infidelity.” Family harmony, the pope said, is important “for the true progress of society and for the future of humanity.”

The infant Jesus also offers a reminder, Benedict said, that every human being is a child of God. “May our society grasp this truth!” the pope urged. “Every human person would then be appreciated not for what he has, but for who he is, since in the face of every human being, without distinction of race or culture, God’s image shines forth.”

This theme of the family naturally led the pope into a reflection on children, calling them “the future and the hope of humanity” and warning against their “exploitation by the unscrupulous.”
Strikingly, the pope did not make two points which typically surface whenever he ventures into the theme of the family: opposition to abortion and gay marriage.

In general, Benedict’s approach on the first day of his visit to one of the most secular nations on earth appears to be to stress the positive, presenting Christianity as a resource for a more humane society. (This is the strength of Christianity. If the hierarchy would concentrate on presenting the positive face of Christianity we would all be a lot better off.)

Though the pope’s tone was upbeat and affirmative, some local observers noted that the venue this afternoon was a bit more ambiguous.

The “Church of our Lady Victorious” was originally built as a Lutheran church in 161, at which time it was named for the Holy Trinity. The church was later reclaimed by Catholics and assigned to the Carmelites during the Counter-Reformation, after Protestant forces were defeated in the Battle of White Mountain in 1620.

In some ways, the Church of Our Lady Victorious became the symbol of what some Czechs remember as the forced re-Catholicization of their nation under Jesuit missionaries and with the official backing of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The church is built in the Baroque style, an architecture associated with the Austro-Hungarian period that stands in contrast to the Gothic look of other Czech landmarks.

Indeed, the word “victorious” in the name of the church recalls the Catholic triumphalism of that era, which still leaves a bad taste in some circles here.

Welcoming the pope, Prague’s major, Pavel Bern, said that precisely because the Czech Republic “has the reputation of being one of the most atheistic societies on earth,” the papal visit is “an exceptional event … that means a great deal to us.”

Both before and after his brief remarks, Benedict spent time greeting the Carmelites in the church, as well as ordinary Czech Catholics who gathered both outside and in the church itself. He was accompanied, as he will be throughout the trip, by the 77-year-old Cardinal Miloslav Vlk of Prague, who has announced that this will be his last major public event before retirement.


Before I fell asleep last night, I was thinking that for some reason this visit of Pope Benedict to Czechoslovakia is going to be important for the future direction of the Church as it relates to the world. I was really encouraged to read John Allen's words that the Pope was stressing the positive contribution Christianity offers to the world, rather than the usual condemnation of gay marriage, abortion, and dire warnings about secularism.

Plus there was the additional statement that: “Every human person would then be appreciated not for what he has, but for who he is,". I appreciated this comment because one of the most devastating aspects of secularism is consumerism, and we don't hear too much about this aspect of secularism from the usual voices.

Speaking of which, Archbishop Burke's speech, given at Deal Hudson's little get together for, has been published. Burke spent many many words on abortion, gay marriage, and warning against secularism. It left me more or less unmoved. It started out OK, but soon hit all the main talking points we've come to expect. Ostensibly he's offering advice on how to advance the cause of human rights in the US, but apparently advancing the cause of human rights of one group involves taking away the human rights of another group.

Advancing the cause of the traditional family can not be accomplished by taking away the rights of gays to marry. Advancing the cause of the unborn will not be advanced by rescinding Roe v Wade. Appreciating the fact that our children are our future will not be advanced by ignoring the real needs or born children in favor of the unborn. It is not dignifying for any child to be forced to be born into situations which instantly deny them any dignity at all. In my mind I still see the photo of five year old children scrounging for food on the garbage dumps in Manila, and the battered face of a seven month old child whose 'parents' were high on meth and not inclined to be parental. Picking out one or two threads in the 'seamless garment' just weakens the whole garment. (Come to think of it, that may be Burke's whole motivation.)

The easy and deceptive path is to concentrate on one side of the equation in these debates--the legal side. From this vantage the debate is clean, cerebral, and also totally out of touch with reality. I think the Bishop Martino resignation was in some part all about Martino distancing himself from the reality of his diocese. It is reported that he had virtually isolated himself in his chancery by the last six months of his reign, impossible to see face to face. This self imposed isolation freed him up to enforce his Catholic world view on his diocese with out any debate or reality check, but in the end it probably cost him his position and his humanity. (if not his sanity) Moral teaching can not be effectively presented in an academic vacuum or from a walled off fortress, be that actual or mental. It must be lived in the real world to have meaning.

Pope Benedict seems to have operated from his heart, and not his vast intelligence when in the presence of the Infant of Prague. That's a good thing because it is when we operate truthfully and humbly from the depth of our souls, that we change hearts and minds. Pope John XXIII frequently operated openly from his heart, and that's why he was known as the beloved pope. Reason may indeed inform faith, but reason devoid of heart falls on deaf ears. Maybe Benedict's reason is being informed by Pope John's heart.

This speaking from the heart and allowing compassion to inform reason is what my definition of the "Spirit of Vatican II" was on about. That's why you won't find the Spirit of Vatican II referenced in the documents. It was an attitude, a Spirit if you will, brought with you when you read the documents and interpreted the doctrine and Canon. It's that Spirit that is being lost. Hopefully it's found Pope Benedict in Prague.


  1. a deeply moving experience today, but I'm too bushed to reflect on it, maybe tomorrow. Nice to see John Allen's take on it.

  2. Colleen, I thought the same thing regarding the tone after I read Allen's piece. Instead of condemnation, I heard what my faith is so often about for me - hope and the goodness of Christ in the world.

    It is when Benedict, or anyone else for that matter, can access the heart with more ease and generosity, that this comes through. Sadly not as often as I would like it to - but grateful for the chinks of sunlight in the wall. That too is hope.

  3. Colleen, thanks for this analysis that gives me a tiny bit of hope church leaders can begin to recognize the damage they're doing through their anti-gay politics.

    As you say, it's possible to speak about and promote what Christianity is all about without linking that to homophobia. I think you are right on the mark in noting that we end up in some strange cul-de-sacs when we follow positions that are totally cerebral and seem rationally compelling, but turn out to be positions from some other world.

    I wish those who keep talking about the truth as if truth and love can be divorced in the Christian tradition would remember Augustine and his insistence that it's through love we enter into truth.

  4. Bill, from what I have read about Augustine his idea of love was to publicly shame people. I am not so positive about Pope Benedict changing the Church from the path of destruction and implosion that it is on. It seems the same old, same old stuff and he is sort of the soft cop while his appointees like Burke are the hard cops. If Benedict did not approve of Burke's stance he would not have placed him in such a high office.