The Primacy and Constancy of Christ-as-Truth – UPDATE

Reading the always-terrific John Allen the other day, I found myself miffed at the notion that some Vatican-watchers think our hard-working Benedict XVI is not engaged enough — is in fact, a “part-time Pope”.

At the end of John Paul’s reign, Politi writes, the papacy was widely understood to play these unique roles:

“Respected interlocutor of the religions of the world, beginning with the other two great monotheisms: Judaism and Islam.”
“Spokesperson for human rights, beyond geographic, political, religious and cultural frontiers.”
A bully pulpit “capable of authoritatively addressing questions of war and peace,” such as the war in Iraq.
A religious authority capable of critically challenging the “errors and horrors” of distorted forms of religion, such as violence, intolerance, fundamentalism, and excessive entanglement with power.

“This is the legacy, beyond the coherence of its own creed and the witness to its own values, upon which the greater or lesser presence and influence of the Catholic church in the planetary arena depends,” Politi writes.

So, naturally, in this weeks First Things column, I wonder if a man in this supernatural position isn’t being judged with very earthbound eyes:

Political action is perceived as glamorous. It has about it an illusory aura of perpetual primacy; to the world, political engagement is the ultimate vehicle of utility. Benedict’s predecessor, Blessed Pope John Paul II, was happy to practice political messaging both subtle and subversive; his colossal global presence helped enlarge the very definition of a “governing pope.” Not particularly interested in acting as a manager and Vatican overseer, John Paul steered the papacy toward the geopolitical stage, and it is clear from Allen’s piece that some believe a pope who lacks the interest, or the calling, toward such engagement is somehow only half on the job.

One would be mistaken to think of the papacy as, first of all, a political or governing entity. It is that, but only in the minor. In the main, the papacy is a priesthood writ large: a calling to sacramental service and clear, unambiguous instruction. John Paul’s broad focus served a time and purpose unto heaven. Times have changed. Our faith in the Holy Spirit should reassure us that Benedict’s Christological fixation, which can seem narrow and provincial to some, indeed suits heaven’s purposes, today.

The world and its things and theaters of illusions fades away. We see it happening before our eyes, even now. “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” (Mark 24:35)

Our pope is very right to bring the central message of his papacy back to Christ, Christ, Christ.

And it is perhaps a very fundamental lesson in trust, to stop insisting that the pope must be what our earthbound sensibilities and obsessions say he should be, but rather to wonder at it all, and believe that the Holy Spirit gives us precisely the pope we need for the times, if we will just pay attention.

It’s easy to get caught up in the world and the concerns before our faces, and to fall for the lie that the material reality is the primary reality I certainly fall for it often enough. Pope Benedict’s whole papacy has been about helping us to understand how ephemeral those things are, in contrast to the primacy and constancy of the reality of Christ

We can argue all sorts of smart and clever ideas, but that is why the simplicity of what is true must be kept before our eyes and repeated in our ears, so we can still find it.

UPDATE: I was very moved by this video of Benedict’s visit, the other day, to a Roman prison. And I was moved and inspired by his words, there: “I carry you all in my heart before the Lord…”

He is certainly thinner, and I’m sure this wore him out, but he seemed up to the work.

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Related: Illustrating Friendship with Jesus

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Maureen

    You know who determines the Pope’s to-do list? The Pope, based on his understanding of God’s to-do list for him.

    Honest to goodness, I don’t go to Allen’s workplace and give him an evaluation. The Pope doesn’t run around to any Vatican reporters’ workplace and give them an evaluation, unless maybe they go to the Pope for confession and confess some workplace sins. So how is it that all these Vatican watchers are so free about their opinions? It’s entertaining, I guess, but why does anybody care? Slow news week at the Vat?

    [In fairness to John Allen, he was by no means criticizing the pope. He was simply presenting -- in a very balanced way, I thought -- the thinking of various Vatican-watchers -admin]

  • Stephen Taylor

    I read that article also, and was a little surprised that people thought the pope should be doing something other than he is doing. I agree, John Allen was not belittling the pope, in fact he defined him as a “great teaching pope.” In some ways it comes down to what people want out of a pope. Again, the real question is what does the Church need the pope to be? Not do we want the pope to be. Benedict XVI is writing and teaching very good stuff. I salute his work and his papacy.

  • Viva Il Papa!

    Wow. That brought ready tears. He is so stalwart and present to these men! They sense this love for them and they seemed irresistably drawn. If he holds the place of Christ for us on earth, it is easy to see why. He seems to have authentically put on Christ. I am so grateful for this sampling so that I might reflect on how I still have the chance to follow his good example. I’d say, excellent example.

  • Annie

    The video and transcript are so touching. I love how the pope sweetly gestures to the prisoners trying to reach him as if to say “I’ll do this side now and I promise that I’ll get to you on the way back!” It is also beautiful and heartbreaking to see the worn faces of the inmates as they cry and sing Italian Christmas Carols.

    As for the John Allen article, he acknowledges that Marco Politi, the author of the critique on Pope Benedict rarely has anything nice to say about him as they come from two different theological planets.

    In Peter Seewald’s book, “Light of the World”, he recounts how the director of the papal residence, who had worked with every Pope since J23 whispered to him “This one here is an unusually fine Pope, and inconceivably hard-working”.

    Joseph Ratzinger is hardly a “part-time pope”.

  • Andy

    I read John Allen’s piece as well , I agree I did not see him putting the Pope down, he was reporting what someone else said. I agree that Pope BXVI is a teaching Pope, maybe because he was a teacher first, and once a teacher always a teacher. I think we, the world outside of the Vatican. expect Pope’s to be perfect in our eyes and we forget that they are men, just like the rest of us. I look at Pope BXVI and see an example of a committed person, committed to the God and the Church. Would we all find that commitment in our lives and our stations.