Monday, December 26, 2011

Pope Benedict And The State Of The Church

Love this photo.  Poor bishops and archbishops stuck in the second row on inferior chairs.  No wonder some people so desperately want that red hat.  It's the only way to get a good front row seat.

 The following excerpt is from Pope Benedict's Christmas message to the Vatican curia.  It's a sort of his State of the Church message.  The full speech can be read here, courtesy of Rocco Palma's Whispers in the Loggia Blog.

.....As this year draws to a close, Europe is undergoing an economic and financial crisis, which is ultimately based on the ethical crisis looming over the Old Continent. Even if such values as solidarity, commitment to one’s neighbour and responsibility towards the poor and suffering are largely uncontroversial, still the motivation is often lacking for individuals and large sectors of society to practise renunciation and make sacrifices. Perception and will do not necessarily go hand in hand. In defending personal interests, the will obscures perception, and perception thus weakened is unable to stiffen the will. In this sense, some quite fundamental questions emerge from this crisis: where is the light that is capable of illuminating our perception not merely with general ideas, but with concrete imperatives? Where is the force that draws the will upwards? These are questions that must be answered by our proclamation of the Gospel, by the new evangelization, so that message may become event, so that proclamation may lead to life.

The key theme of this year, and of the years ahead, is this: how do we proclaim the Gospel today? How can faith as a living force become a reality today? The ecclesial events of the outgoing year were all ultimately related to this theme. There were the journeys to Croatia, to the World Youth Day in Spain, to my home country of Germany, and finally to Africa – Benin – for the consignment of the Post-Synodal document on justice, peace and reconciliation, which should now lead to concrete results in the various local churches. Equally memorable were the journeys to Venice, to San Marino, to the Eucharistic Congress in Ancona, and to Calabria. And finally there was the important day of encounter in Assisi for religions and for people who in whatever way are searching for truth and peace, representing a new step forward in the pilgrimage towards truth and peace. The establishment of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization is at the same time a pointer towards next year’s Synod on the same theme. The Year of Faith, commemorating the beginning of the Council fifty years ago, also belongs in this context. Each of these events had its own particular characteristics. In Germany, where the Reformation began, the ecumenical question, with all its trials and hopes, naturally assumed particular importance. 

Intimately linked to this, at the focal point of the debate, the question that arises repeatedly is this: what is reform of the Church? How does it take place? What are its paths and its goals? Not only faithful believers but also outside observers are noticing with concern that regular churchgoers are growing older all the time and that their number is constantly diminishing; that recruitment of priests is stagnating; that scepticism and unbelief are growing. What, then, are we to do? There are endless debates over what must be done in order to reverse the trend. There is no doubt that a variety of things need to be done. But action alone fails to resolve the matter. The essence of the crisis of the Church in Europe is the crisis of faith. If we find no answer to this, if faith does not take on new life, deep conviction and real strength from the encounter with Jesus Christ, then all other reforms will remain ineffective.
On this point, the encounter with Africa’s joyful passion for faith brought great encouragement. None of the faith fatigue that is so prevalent here, none of the oft-encountered sense of having had enough of Christianity was detectable there. Amid all the problems, sufferings and trials that Africa clearly experiences, one could still sense the people’s joy in being Christian, buoyed up by inner happiness at knowing Christ and belonging to his Church. From this joy comes also the strength to serve Christ in hard-pressed situations of human suffering, the strength to put oneself at his disposal, without looking round for one’s own advantage. Encountering this faith that is so ready to sacrifice and so full of happiness is a powerful remedy against fatigue with Christianity such as we are experiencing in Europe today.  (Faith fatigue in Europe has a lot to do with the blatant hypocrisy and self survivalism of Christian leadership. Both Roman Catholic and Protestant leadership sold out to the fascist dictators that tore Europe to shreds.  That was only the latest sell out in a long historic line of sell outs.  The same 'fatigue' is showing in South and Central America and for the same reasons.)


Pope Benedict's message then goes on to extol the virtues of World Youth Day.  He mentions five things that impressed him in Madrid:  1) The universal 'catholicity' of the participants.  WYD was a statement about the global Church.  2)The volunteerism and sense of self sacrifice of youth leaders. 3) Eucharistic Adoration.  4) The more central place of Confession. 5) A sense of joy.

I wasn't the least bit surprised that the bulk of his talk dealt with World Youth Day and his trip to Africa because in his opening paragraphs he concedes the Church in the first world is old and dieing off, the seminaries are hardly full, and skepticism reigns supreme.  He even goes so far as the concede the need for reform, but gives no direction for that reform.  Instead he switches his talk to the wonders of the thoroughly orchestrated WYD.  Benedict also fails to mention in the West, it is amongst the generations attracted to WYD that the church has failed most miserably--unlike in Africa. But then in it's purest form, it has always been among the poor and disenfranchised that Christianity has thrived.  It is at it's core a spirituality by a poor and marginalized Man for the poor and marginalized.  The real question is how do you make Christianity relevant to people who don't have any particular need to hear it's core message?  I guess that's where Eucharistic Adoration comes in.  On the other hand, I imagine Benedict would have a tough time preaching the truth of the marginalized/poverty thing while sitting on his throne in the splendors of the Vatican with his hierarchy ranked by chair and row in front of him.  

Pope Benedict gave a number of well thought out and interesting speeches and homilies during this Advent and Christmas season.  I just have a real problem hearing his words on St Francis of Assisi when they are juxtaposed against such incredible wealth.  By the way I'm not meaning to imply that Benedict is obsessed by wealth because in fact, I don't think he is at all.  Comfort maybe, but not wealth. I don't see wallowing in wealth as being particularly high on his bucket list. What I do see though, is a man who seems to be getting more unsure of himself as he spends more time in the Papacy. I do believe he sees the incongruities between the Church on the ground in Benin, and the hierarchical church with which he was surrounded as he gave this speech.  I think he knows where Jesus is most apt to be alive and well, and it wasn't sitting in front of him.  I just don't think he has the energy or will to do anything about that perception.  I think he was telling us that.


  1. Declare the year of the Catholic Woman. Recruit women to become deacons, immediately.

    I have been thinking a lot about Mary Magdelene lately. I would love to provide some links to articles but for some unknown reason I am not permitted to paste web addresses in the comment box here.

    May I recommend you google the Christian church house (Circa 246 AD) at Dura-Europos? There is a remarkable representation of Mary in the "Procession of Women" as they procede to witness the resurrection.

    The pre-Constantinian Christians emphasized deliverance and salvation. The baptistry has images depicting the Good Shepherd, Christ and Peter walking on water, Christ healing the paralytic, the women about to witness resurrection, and the Samaritan woman at the well. Draw your own conclusions.

    This year Yale is exhibiting some of the treasures of Dura-Europos. I particularly love the earliest surviving depiction of Mary. See:

    Scroll down to see the Procession of Women as it has been restored by Yale.

    And what are we to make of Africa and the Pope's visit to Benin? Who was most prominent in the crowds greeting the Pope? It was the women.

    I love this photograph of three African women, viewed through a lattice, who could be the modern equivalent of those portrayed at Dura-Europos. See: November 18th Photo 1

    Scroll all the way down.


    If the Pope wants more advice, I've got it.

  2. The churches of Europe usually get funded in some way from the state; they get stale because they get fed and housed and even educated at state expense and don't have to depend on the folks in the pews for their money. Such a group, fed no matter what it does or doesn't do gets lazy and complacent.
    The best thing for religion in the developed world would be for it to become disestablished and lose its tax breaks. Clearly this partnership is costing the governments of these countries a great deal and should be ended.

  3. "The essence of the crisis of the Church in Europe is the crisis of faith. If we find no answer to this, if faith does not take on new life, deep conviction and real strength from the encounter with Jesus Christ, then all other reforms will remain ineffective."

    ## He can have the answer - or he can have unreformed (& often sinful) Church structures. But he can't have both. The Bad News is that Jesus is not the prisoner or plaything or fetish of the Church, but its Lord. He is not a *guarantee* of anything - not even in the Church.

  4. @Nixon
    Agree 100%. I believe the lack of a state church is the main thing that has made religion far more vibrant in the U.S. than in Europe.

    Even in the early 90s, I felt like I was visiting museums rather than active houses of worship in Germany and Austria.


  5. This link, to three parts of an essay on spiritual abuse, may be relevant:

  6. Rat, this is an excellent article. Thanks for the link, and yes it is relevant. When I got done reading all three parts, I couldn't help but think Pope Benedict could easily be seen as a co conspirator who suddenly became the leader. That would certainly be a confusing place for him, and one from which he would very likely want to distance himself. Not surprising Benedict is being described as aloof and withdrawn from the actual governance of the Church.

  7. The papacy has become a cult of personality in the manner of John Paul II. +Dolan already has papal gestures when in a throng and he believe the processions to and from the sanctuary are actually parades for him to receive the affection of the aisle-side adorers. WYD is perfect for Nuremberg-like worship of fearless leader.

    The reduction of religious life to yearly "theme" years is silly so as to render the theme meaningless and forgettable. The "Year of Faith" in consort with the "The New Evangelization" effort is perfect ecclesial synergy...feverish inertia.

    I think this is a way to wrest control of the church away from the Holy Spirit, too unpredictable and uncontrollable, and Scripture, raw and unmediated. Bring out the papal platform, yard-tall miters, the code of canon law, the catechism and the missal. Everything is just fine.