Our Contemplative Pope
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Deacon Keith Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC
Recent media reports have detailed a phenomenon following Pope Benedict XVI in his leadership- crowds, growing crowds. Some people did not expect this. After the Papacy of Pope John Paul II, an extraordinarily charismatic figure, few expected the response that has now followed his successor.
After all, Pope John Paul II was unprecedented in both popularity and appeal. The eyes of the modern world followed his entire pontificate with extraordinary interest. All of his activities, even unto his final Passover to the "house of His Father", caught the jaundiced eye of an age drunk on self idolatry, and shook the world. History will record him as "John Paul the Great", a modern day Church Father who left a written treasury, perhaps unequaled in the 2000 year history of the Church. He was a prophet, an apostle, an evangelist, and, I believe, a mystic. He was a true gift, not only to the Catholic Church, East and West, but to the whole Church, Orthodox, Protestant, and "non-aligned", as well as to the Jewish people, all other people of faith and all people of good will. We are blessed to have seen his day.
Then, while we still were in mourning over his loss, the gracious God who, in the words of the beloved disciple John, so "...loves the world that he gave His only begotten son", gave us another gift, Pope Benedict XVI. From the moment he stepped onto the balcony of St Peters, our hearts were calmed by his deferential manner, his "littleness", his humility and his holiness. Those who knew of him before he gave his "Fiat" to God's invitation to carry the cross that is the papacy, to have a belt tied around him by the Lord (see, John 21:18) and assent to being poured out for the Church and the world, know that he is a towering intellect and a theologian of the highest order. His writings were highly respected and his intellectual prowess and clarity of thought formed the framework for much of the truly good theology of our age.
Yet, this marvelous theologian and writer, has signaled that he will not write much during his service from the Chair. He has chosen instead to unpack the formidable legacy of his predecessor. In addition, he has, to the surprise of some "pundits", not acted with what was expected to be a forceful manner, in dealing with the difficulties facing the Church. Rather, he has quietly and strategically begun the work that he has been assigned, trusting that the Church is the Lords - and the "gates of hell will not prevail" (Matt. 16:18).
He is a man of deep, abiding faith; the kind that gets into the marrow of the bones of a man who truly walks with God, making him strong, steady and unafraid of any adversary. Of course, he knows the need for both ortho-doxy and ortho- praxy in the Church of our age. He also knows the serious threats to both. However, he is convinced that the Church belongs to Jesus and he has been enlisted into His service. It is the Lord who corrects, directs, purifies and restores His Body, His Church, in every age. He always ensures that she can continue His redemptive mission in every age. A correction of course has already begun and he knows it. His task is to simply continue it forward.
During the profound passing of Pope John Paul II, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger spoke these words: " None of us can ever forget how in that last Easter Sunday of his life, the Holy Father, marked by suffering, came once more to the window of the Apostolic Palace and one last time gave his blessing "urbi et orbi" (to the Church and the world) We can be sure that our beloved pope is standing today at the window of the Father's house, that he sees us and blesses us."
One of the fruits of that blessing was the selection of his friend, confidante, trusted theologian and beloved brother, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger to occupy the Chair of Peter as Pope Benedict XVI at this vital moment. He is a builder who understands who, most importantly, knows the Divine Architect, and is in touch with him, minute by minute, through his life of deep, contemplative prayer. He also knows, because of that intimacy he has with the Lord, that none of all of this is about him but, rather, it is all about Jesus Christ and His Church. The Church continues to be Gods' plan, there is no "plan B". This Popes countenance reveals the virtue of humility. It also reveals faith. It is like a prophetic rush of wind in a stagnant age.
He also knows that the materials needed for the rebuilding the Church in this age must be carefully chosen, in fidelity to the blueprints established by the Architect and Cornerstone. St Paul wrote the following words to the Corinthian Christians concerning building: "Therefore, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who causes the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters are equal, and each will receive wages in proportion to his labor. For we are God's co-workers; you are God's field, God's building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it. But each one must be careful how he builds upon it, for no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw" (I Corinthians 3:7-12)
Pope Benedict knows the disrepair in the House in which he lives, the Church that he loves, the household of the faith. He has written in the past concerning the breaches in the walls, and the structural weaknesses, even in the foundations. But now, he has assumed the Chair of Peter, and. with the grace of that office, he has undertaken the work of rebuilding not with wood hay and stubble, and but with gold, silver and precious stones. The plans laid by the Divine Architect, the Holy Spirit, for the Rebuilding of the Church and, then, through her, for the renewal of all human culture, were placed on paper by his beloved friend and benefactor, John Paul II who left behind a treasury of extraordinary encyclicals, exhortations, letters and allocutions.
Now, Benedict the Builder steps up, supplied with the bricks and mortar, trowel in hand, to begin the work. If there is anyone who understands the writings and the work of Pope John Paul, it is Pope Benedict XVI. Anyone who has studied theology in the last two decades (and I am included in that number) have read Joseph Ratzinger and eaten from his rich bounty. He is one of the most brilliant, insightful and fecund theologians of the age. He knows the burden that the Lord placed on the heart of his predecessor for "a New Evangelization." He understands the challenges that the Church faces as she walks forward to the future. He prepared and he is chosen for this very hour.
He knows the legacy of Pope John Paul II and will use those precious resources to advance the authentic renewal of the Church and the transformation of contemporary culture. He has plumbed the depths of theology and philosophy symbolized in the pregnant phrases such as "adequate anthropology", "new humanism", "new feminism", "universal call to holiness", "true and authentic freedom", the "Church as communion", the call to the whole Christian Church to heed the prayer of Jesus "Ut Unum Sint", the "theology of the Body", "the theology of the gift" the "two lungs" of the Church, East and West, breathing together, the "new advent", the "new springtime"... and so many more.
Yet, though these phrases sprung from the last pontificate, Benedict helped his predecessor to develop and, in some instances, express them on the written page. He will use them as the mortar and bricks in his papal mission. Like Pope John Paul II, he was present at and participated in the Second Vatican Council. He understands the authentic teaching of that Council and led the way in its proper implementation both within the Church and in her mission to the modern world. He also knows that the Council was hijacked in some circles, disregarded in others and absolutely misinterpreted in still others.
He is a steady voice for dynamic orthodox and faithful Catholic Christian faith, practice, worship and life. However, he speaks with a quiet spirit, deriving his authority from the truth of what he teaches. From his first homily forward, he has continued the trajectory of his predecessor and friend. He has done so "from his knees", as a man of adoration and worship, calling the Church, so desperately in need of conversion, to contemplative prayer.
Sandro Magister, one of the finest Church reporters and commentators of our age, wrote concerning the phenomenon of Pope Benedict XVI in the October 27, 2005 edition of Chiesa:
"...if one looks at the attendance figures for the Wednesday audience at the Vatican and the Sunday Angelus in St. Peter's Square, the new pope is seeing twice the numbers of his predecessor. From May to September of 2004, 194,000 persons attended the audiences of John Paul II. During those same months in 2005, 410,000 have attended those of Benedict XVI. It's the same for the Angelus: 262,000 were present over five months for those of pope Karol Wojtlya, and 600,000 over the same months in 2005 for the new pope. These figures were compiled by the prefecture of the pontifical household, the Vatican body that oversees the audiences.
And yet Benedict XVI doesn't practice any showmanship, he doesn't stress any flashy phrases, doesn't encourage applause or acclamation. He withdraws from the festive mass gatherings that continue to be organized in the style of pope Wojtyla. He arrives only to celebrate the liturgy and preach. In Cologne, he offered to a million young people a demanding lesson on Eucharistic theology. To the children celebrating their first communion, he explained why they should go to Mass, confess their sins, and adore Jesus in the sacrament of the Eucharist.
In both cases, the focal point was a moment of silent adoration before the consecrated host. And it worked. Silent adoration is truly a distinctive characteristic of this pope on the public stage."
This adoration is the symbol that reveals the mission and substance of Benedict XVI; he is a Pope of contemplation. This contemplation is the symbol of his service and reveals the heart of the Church to modern world. He calls for the kind of deep and genuine conversion that comes only through prayer. He focuses us all upon the Eucharist, which reveals the heart of the Church and opens us to communion. The Church, the Body of Christ, is called to be a living tabernacle, making the Lord of the Eucharist "incarnate" in an age that has lost its way and is again searching for God.
In his bearing - and in his example of authentic piety and intimate interiority and prayer - Pope Benedict is helping to restore the "mystery" of the Christian faith experientially among the faithful. The God, who fashioned the entire universe for love, came into our midst and, in and through His Son, re-opened for every man, woman and child, a communion of love that is eternal. The lived experience of that communion by the members of the Church, will lead to the authentic "new evangelization" called for by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. Evangelization presupposes conversion. Conversion requires a relationship with the Lord, which proceeds through prayer.
I believe that the Third Millennium will be the Millennium of the Church. However, only a Church of holiness, mystery, mission and true majesty can accomplish the huge task that lies ahead of us. The Church that was born from the wounded side of Jesus Christ, who stretched His arms out on the tree of our redemption to embrace the world, is desperately in need of deep and profound conversion. The Lord continues His embrace of the world now, through those who are born into His family through the new womb of Baptism. We are the ones who, fed on His Body and Blood, instructed through His Word, and strengthened through His Mysteries, the sacraments, are now being sent into the world of this age, a world in labor, waiting to be reborn in Christ. We must walk in an intimate relationship with the One whom we serve, the One for whom we are named. We must be fully, wholly and truly "Christian."
In his first homily as Pope Benedict spoke these words: "The Church today must revive within herself an awareness of the task to present the world again with the voice of the One Who said: 'I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.' In undertaking his ministry, the new Pope knows that his task is to bring the light of Christ to shine before the men and women of today: not his own light but that of Christ."
He has engaged the task as a man of profound prayer, an adorer of the God whose light alone can dispel the darkness of this age. He calls us all to contemplate the face of Christ, through his humility and his example. More than anything else, the Church today is desperately in need of true and authentic conversion. If she is to rise to the challenge of this new missionary age she must be filled with the Lord and thus able to give Him to others. This kind of deep conversion will only come through prayer. Pope Benedict is leading us to our knees - or for our brethren from the East - to a profound bow.
He is, our contemplative Pope.
Deacon Keith Fournier is a deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia. A graduate of Franciscan University, the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University, he is currently a PHD student in historical theology at the Catholic University of America. He is an editor of catholic Online and a contributing editor of traditional catholic Reflections and reports. His eighth book, the prayer of Mary": Living the Surrendered Life" is currently in bookstores.
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