Wednesday, 20 February 2013

The Pope Today

In 1971, Hans Urs von Balthasar published a collection of essays subsequently translated into English with the title Elucidations. One those essays had the title of this post and some of its themes were visited again in the concluding essay of the collection "Why do I still remain in the Church?"

The title - and the substance of the essay - refer at once to the office of the Successor of St Peter and to the individual who at that time filled that office, Pope Paul VI, though it leaves the latter un-named. Accordingly one can read the essay again today - that is, in the immediate "today" that are the final days of Pope Benedict's time as Successor of St Peter - and see its application anew to a different Pontiff.
It is astonishing to reflect that for a century [ie since the solemn definition of the First Vatican Council with regard to the Papal office] a man has been invested with such a power and has yet not broken under his burden. One is less astonished at the tempest which has finally been unleashed against him.
After describing Peter's humiliating threefold denial of Jesus and its subsequent denouement in the threefold profession of a love that is greater, von Balthasar writes in a characterstically forthright manner:
Peter is led where he does not wish to go ...., and even the Papacy today is led where it does not want to go. But it is precisely this way which completes the promise made to Peter. It not only gives him the final blessing, but it also makes clear what "authority" really means in such an office; it makes clear what position one must occupy if one is to exercise such authority properly. The lowest place which is where, by definition, the "servus servorum" must stand, the place of final contempt and insult, the rubbish-heap on which one is "a worm and no longer a man", this place which no man willingly occupies, is precisely the place where the office which he exercises may at last regain the greatest possible respect and credibility.
It is educative to reflect on one or two of those occasions when Pope Benedict has been subject to particular humiliation. There was the reaction to his address at Regensburg, which led to his apologising for the offense caused (the full text of the address is here). And yet the theme of the relation of reason to religious belief and its understanding of the nature of God, and the extent of a Catholic-Muslim dialogue that followed the address (see this report of the response of participants in that dialogue to the news of Pope Benedict's resignation), remain of permanent value. In January 2008, Pope Benedict - himself a former university professor - was prevented from visiting La Sapienza university in Rome following protests from some members of the university community to the effect that his presence was incompatible with the due freedom of scientific study, a view based on a mis-reading of a lecture pre-dating his time as Pope. Yet, again, if we look at the text of the address that was to have been delivered on that occasion, we find something of permanent value. It returns to the nature of reason, and the part that the Successor of Peter might have with regard to a university:
This brings me back to my starting-point. What should the Pope do or say at the university? Certainly, he must not seek to impose the faith upon others in an authoritarian manner – as faith can only be given in freedom. Over and above his ministry as Shepherd of the Church, and on the basis of the intrinsic nature of this pastoral ministry, it is the Pope’s task to safeguard sensibility to the truth; to invite reason to set out ever anew in search of what is true and good, in search of God; to urge reason, in the course of this search, to discern the illuminating lights that have emerged during the history of the Christian faith, and thus to recognize Jesus Christ as the Light that illumines history and helps us find the path towards the future.
There is a suggestion in an early part of this text that there is a kind of rationality based in what is received in the present times from previous generations and that, in recognition of this, the wisdom of the great religious traditions is to be valued as a heritage that cannot be cast aside with impunity. The relevance of such a consideration to the current debate on the nature of marriage in society is striking.
Is it not the case that, at least in these two instances, a moment of humiliation has also been a moment of quite effective exercise of the office of the Successor of Peter? The reflection upon them also perhaps suggests to us why Pope Benedict is so reluctant in public to react to applause - applause with a quite exceptional warmth and generosity towards his person - and instead directs his hearers immediately back to prayer (cf at the end of Mass on Ash Wednesday and at the Angelus on 17th February, which might almost have been any other Sunday Angelus even though some 50 000 people were present). These days at the end of his pontificate are characterised by this exceptional warmth, but also in other places by attack and reprobation. Perhaps we should expect that to be so, if the Successor of Peter is occupying the place that he should occupy? 
Should we not expect that the new Pope will also be one who will stand in the place of final contempt and insult?

And at the beginning of his essay on why we should still remain in the Church, von Balthasar observes:
Because, remarkable though it is, not even all that we idiots with all our measures can do has yet succeeded in destroying the Church. Indeed, almost the opposite seems true: the more one violates it, the more clearly appears its inviolable virginity. The more one humiliates it, the more clearly one can see that the Church is in its own, proper place. That is, of course, in the "last" place. 

No comments: