Pope’s affirmation of Christianity transcends politics

By  John Thavis, Catholic News Service
  • October 27, 2006
Pope Benedict XVIVERONA, Italy - Navigating the murky waters of Italian ecclesial politics is no easy task, so interest was high when Pope Benedict XVI addressed the country’s most important Catholic gathering in 10 years.

The 2,700 delegates to the Fourth National Church Convention would carefully weigh the Pope’s words to find winners and losers — among bishops debating the church’s social and political role, among pastors proposing strategies for parish renewal and among lay movements looking for a sign of papal approval.

But when the Pope finished his hour-long speech in the northern Italian city of Verona Oct. 19, it was clear that his agenda did not fit the “winners and losers” model. Like many of the most important talks of his pontificate, this one was striking not for its political arguments or topical commentary but for its eminently religious affirmation of the Christian faith.

It said very little about church factions and a lot about the church’s most fundamental purpose, saving souls. At 20 pages, the papal talk resembled a miniencyclical. At its core was an explanation of Christ’s resurrection as the motivator of all Christian witness.

The Pope described the Resurrection as a historical event to which the apostles were the witnesses, not the inventors. The Resurrection, he said, was not simply a “return to earthly life, but the greatest ‛mutation’ that ever occurred, the definitive leap toward a profoundly new dimension of life, the entry into a different order.”

This new order, in which love triumphs over sin and death, continually penetrates and transforms our world, he said. The concrete way in which this happens is through the life and witness of the church, he said.

Here, as he has done so often in his pontificate, the Pope emphasized the positive aims of the church and the universal appeal of faith in Christ — rather than dwell on specific doctrinal teachings.

Christianity, he said, is like a great “yes” to human life, human freedom and human intelligence, and that should be seen in what the church says and does. Essentially, he said, the faith should bring joy to the world.

“Christianity in fact is open to all that is just, true and pure in cultures and civilizations, to whatever brings cheer, comfort and strength to our existence,” he said.

The Pope went on to briefly allude to a number of contemporary issues like abortion, gay marriage and state aid to church schools — perennial topics on Italy’s church-state horizon. He asked Italian Catholics to help resist encroaching secularization that tends to exclude God from public life.

But he said none of this will happen unless the faithful understand that being a Christian begins with a personal encounter with Christ — not with a social or political program.

In fact, the Pope seemed to go out of his way to de-emphasize the church as a political player in Italy when he said it was the responsibility of Catholic laypeople — and not the church as an institution — to bring the Gospel to political life, operating “as citizens under their own responsibility.”

Pope Benedict’s talk attempted to transcend the usual political patterns and strike a deeper religious chord.

“I don’t see in his speech the consecration of any group or individual,” Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto, Italy, told the newspaper La Repubblica. “There’s no space here for a group to try to use Christianity to advance its partisan ideas.”

In a sense, the Pope was continuing what he himself has dubbed a pastoral “strategy of intelligence,” presenting the faith as a fresh and compelling invitation and, at the same time, trying to liberate the church from popular prejudices.

As Forte remarked, the Pope wants to offer the Gospel as a source of inspiration and reject the negative vision of Christianity as “a repressive faith that tramples human freedom.”

Rather than present the Italian church with a list of political objectives, the Pope posed a broader challenge. He said Italian Catholics, by living their faith, need to provide “positive and convincing” answers to the ethical and spiritual questions of contemporary men and women.

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