Tag Archives: Pope Benedict XVI

Benedict XVI reflects on St Francis of Assisi: responding to a deeper call to renew Christ’s own Church

I would be remiss if I didn’t offer Pope Benedict XVI’s catechesis on Saint Francis (General Audience, January 27, 2010):

St Francis holding up the churchDear Brothers and Sisters, […] I would like to present to you the figure of Francis, an authentic “giant” of holiness, who continues to fascinate a great many people of all age groups and every religion.

“A sun was born into the world”. With these words, in the Divine Comedy (Paradiso, Canto XI), the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri alludes to Francis’ birth, which took place in Assisi either at the end of 1181 or the beginning of 1182. As part of a rich family his father was a cloth merchant Francis lived a carefree adolescence and youth, cultivating the chivalrous ideals of the time. At age 20, he took part in a military campaign and was taken prisoner. He became ill and was freed. After his return to Assisi, a slow process of spiritual conversion began within him, which brought him to gradually abandon the worldly lifestyle that he had adopted thus far. The famous episodes of Francis’ meeting with the leper to whom, dismounting from his horse, he gave the kiss of peace and of the message from the Crucifix in the small Church of St Damian, date pack to this period. Three times Christ on the Cross came to life, and told him: “Go, Francis, and repair my Church in ruins“. This simple occurrence of the word of God heard in the Church of St Damian contains a profound symbolism. At that moment St Francis was called to repair the small church, but the ruinous state of the building was a symbol of the dramatic and disquieting situation of the Church herself. At that time the Church had a superficial faith which did not shape or transform life, a scarcely zealous clergy, and a chilling of love. It was an interior destruction of the Church which also brought a decomposition of unity, with the birth of heretical movements. Yet, there at the centre of the Church in ruins was the Crucified Lord, and he spoke: he called for renewal, he called Francis to the manual labour of repairing the small Church of St Damian, the symbol of a much deeper call to renew Christ’s own Church, with her radicality of faith and her loving enthusiasm for Christ. This event, which probably happened in 1205, calls to mind another similar occurrence which took place in 1207: Pope Innocent III’s dream. In it, he saw the Basilica of St John Lateran, the mother of all churches, collapsing and one small and insignificant religious brother supporting the church on his shoulders to prevent it from falling. On the one hand, it is interesting to note that it is not the Pope who was helping to prevent the church from collapsing but rather a small and insignificant brother, whom the Pope recognized in Francis when he later came to visit. Innocent III was a powerful Pope who had a great theological formation and great political influence; nevertheless he was not the one to renew the Church but the small, insignificant religious. It was St Francis, called by God. On the other hand, however, it is important to note that St Francis does not renew the Church without or in opposition to the Pope, but only in communion with him. The two realities go together: the Successor of Peter, the Bishops, the Church founded on the succession of the Apostles and the new charism that the Holy Spirit brought to life at that time for the Church’s renewal. Authentic renewal grew from these together.

Let us return to the life of St Francis. When his father Bernardone reproached him for being too generous to the poor, Francis, standing before the Bishop of Assisi, in a symbolic gesture, stripped off his clothes, thus showing he renounced his paternal inheritance. Just as at the moment of creation, Francis had nothing, only the life that God gave him, into whose hands he delivered himself. He then lived as a hermit, until, in 1208, another fundamental step in his journey of conversion took place. While listening to a passage from the Gospel of Matthew Jesus’ discourse to the apostles whom he sent out on mission Francis felt called to live in poverty and dedicate himself to preaching. Other companions joined him, and in 1209 he travelled to Rome, to propose to Pope Innocent III the plan for a new form of Christian life. He received a fatherly welcome from that great Pontiff, who, enlightened by the Lord, perceived the divine origin of the movement inspired by Francis. The Poverello of Assisi understood that every charism as a gift of the Holy Spirit existed to serve the Body of Christ, which is the Church; therefore he always acted in full communion with the ecclesial authorities. In the life of the Saints there is no contradiction between prophetic charism and the charism of governance, and if tension arises, they know to patiently await the times determined by the Holy Spirit.

Actually, several 19th-century and also 20th-century historians have sought to construct a so-called historical Francis, behind the traditional depiction of the Saint, just as they sought to create a so-called historical Jesus behind the Jesus of the Gospels. This historical Francis would not have been a man of the Church, but rather a man connected directly and solely to Christ, a man that wanted to bring about a renewal of the People of God, without canonical forms or hierarchy. The truth is that St Francis really did have an extremely intimate relationship with Jesus and with the word of God, that he wanted to pursue sine glossa: just as it is, in all its radicality and truth. It is also true that initially he did not intend to create an Order with the necessary canonical forms. Rather he simply wanted, through the word of God and the presence of the Lord, to renew the People of God, to call them back to listening to the word and to literal obedience to Christ. Furthermore, he knew that Christ was never “mine” but is always “ours”, that “I” cannot possess Christ that “I” cannot rebuild in opposition to the Church, her will and her teaching. Instead it is only in communion with the Church built on the Apostolic succession that obedience too, to the word of God can be renewed.

It is also true that Francis had no intention of creating a new Order, but solely that of renewing the People of God for the Lord who comes. He understood, however, through suffering and pain that everything must have its own order and that the law of the Church is necessary to give shape to renewal. Thus he placed himself fully, with his heart, in communion with the Church, with the Pope and with the Bishops. He always knew that the centre of the Church is the Eucharist, where the Body of Christ and his Blood are made present through the priesthood, the Eucharist and the communion of the Church. Wherever the priesthood and the Eucharist and the Church come together, it is there alone that the word of God also dwells. The real historical Francis was the Francis of the Church, and precisely in this way he continues to speak to non-believers and believers of other confessions and religions as well.

Francis and his friars, who were becoming ever more numerous, established themselves at the Portiuncula, or the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, the sacred place par excellence of Franciscan spirituality. Even Clare, a young woman of Assisi from a noble family, followed the school of Francis. This became the origin of the Second Franciscan Order, that of the Poor Clares, another experience destined to produce outstanding figures of sainthood in the Church.

Innocent III’s Successor, Pope Honorius III, with his Bull Cum Dilecti in 1218 supported the unique development of the first Friars Minor, who started missions in different European countries, and even in Morocco. In 1219 Francis obtained permission to visit and speak to the Muslim sultan Malik al-Klmil, to preach the Gospel of Jesus there too. I would like to highlight this episode in St Francis’ life, which is very timely. In an age when there was a conflict underway between Christianity and Islam, Francis, intentionally armed only with his faith and personal humility, travelled the path of dialogue effectively. The chronicles tell us that he was given a benevolent welcome and a cordial reception by the Muslim Sultan. It provides a model which should inspire today’s relations between Christians and Muslims: to promote a sincere dialogue, in reciprocal respect and mutual understanding (cf. Nostra Aetate, 3). It appears that later, in 1220, Francis visited the Holy Land, thus sowing a seed that would bear much fruit: his spiritual sons would in fact make of the Sites where Jesus lived a privileged space for their mission. It is with gratitude that I think today of the great merits of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land.

On his return to Italy, Francis turned over the administration of his Order to his vicar, Br Pietro Cattani, while the Pope entrusted the rapidly growing Order’s protection to Cardinal Ugolino, the future Supreme Pontiff Gregory IX. For his part, the Founder, dedicated completely to his preaching, which he carried out with great success, compiled his Rule that was then approved by the Pope.

In 1224, at the hermitage in La Verna, Francis had a vision of the Crucified Lord in the form of a seraph and from that encounter received the stigmata from the Seraph Crucifix, thus becoming one with the Crucified Christ. It was a gift, therefore, that expressed his intimate identification with the Lord.

The death of Francis his transitus occurred on the evening of 3 October 1226, in the Portiuncula. After having blessed his spiritual children, he died, lying on the bare earthen floor. Two years later Pope Gregory ix entered him in the roll of saints. A short time after, a great basilica in his honour was constructed in Assisi, still today an extremely popular pilgrim destination. There pilgrims can venerate the Saint’s tomb and take in the frescoes by Giotto, an artist who has magnificently illustrated Francis’ life.

It has been said that Francis represents an alter Christus, that he was truly a living icon of Christ. He has also been called “the brother of Jesus”. Indeed, this was his ideal: to be like Jesus, to contemplate Christ in the Gospel, to love him intensely and to imitate his virtues. In particular, he wished to ascribe interior and exterior poverty with a fundamental value, which he also taught to his spiritual sons. The first Beatitude of the Sermon on the Mount “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5: 3) found a luminous fulfilment in the life and words of St Francis. Truly, dear friends, the saints are the best interpreters of the Bible. As they incarnate the word of God in their own lives, they make it more captivating than ever, so that it really speaks to us. The witness of Francis, who loved poverty as a means to follow Christ with dedication and total freedom, continues to be for us too an invitation to cultivate interior poverty in order to grow in our trust of God, also by adopting a sober lifestyle and a detachment from material goods.

Francis’ love for Christ expressed itself in a special way in the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist. In the Fonti Francescane (Writings of St Francis) one reads such moving expressions as: “Let everyone be struck with fear, let the whole world tremble, and let the heavens exult, when Christ, the Son of the living God, is present on the altar in the hands of a priest. Oh stupendous dignity! O humble sublimity, that the Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God, so humbles himself that for our salvation he hides himself under an ordinary piece of bread” (Francis of Assisi, Scritti, Editrici Francescane, Padova 2002, 401).

In this Year for Priests, I would also like to recall a piece of advice that Francis gave to priests: “When you wish to celebrate Mass, in a pure way, reverently make the true sacrifice of the Most Holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Francis of Assisi, Scritti, 399). Francis always showed great deference towards priests, and asserted that they should always be treated with respect, even in cases where they might be somewhat unworthy personally. The reason he gave for this profound respect was that they receive the gift of consacrating the Eucharist. Dear brothers in the priesthood, let us never forget this teaching: the holiness of the Eucharist appeals to us to be pure, to live in a way that is consistent with the Mystery we celebrate.

From love for Christ stems love for others and also for all God’s creatures. This is yet another characteristic trait of Francis’ spirituality: the sense of universal brotherhood and love for Creation, which inspired the famous Canticle of Creatures. This too is an extremely timely message. As I recalled in my recent Encyclical Caritas in Veritate, development is sustainable only when it respects Creation and does not damage the environment (cf. nn. 48-52), and in the Message for the World Day of Peace this year [2010], I also underscored that even building stable peace is linked to respect for Creation. Francis reminds us that the wisdom and benevolence of the Creator is expressed through Creation. He understood nature as a language in which God speaks to us, in which reality becomes clear, and we can speak of God and with God.

Dear friends, Francis was a great Saint and a joyful man. His simplicity, his humility, his faith, his love for Christ, his goodness towards every man and every woman, brought him gladness in every circumstance. Indeed, there subsists an intimate and indissoluble relationship between holiness and joy. A French writer once wrote that there is only one sorrow in the world: not to be saints, that is, not to be near to God. Looking at the testimony of St Francis, we understand that this is the secret of true happiness: to become saints, close to God!

May the Virgin, so tenderly loved by Francis, obtain this gift for us. Let us entrust ourselves to her with the words of the Poverello of Assisi himself: “Blessed Virgin Mary, no one like you among women has ever been born in the world, daughter and handmaid of the Most High King and heavenly Father, Mother of our Most Blessed Lord Jesus Christ, spouse of the Holy Spirit. Pray for us… to your most blessed and beloved Son, Lord and Master” (Francesco di Assisi, Scritti, 163).

Pope Benedict defends record

Our emeritus pope Benedict broke a self imposed silence to defend his record against false accusations the he did little to correct the misconduct, particularly sexual abuse behavior of clergy. He did this in Italy’s La Repubblica and it was also picked up by Daily Telegraph in the form of a letter a well-known atheist, Piergiorgio Odifreddi, about this issue (and others) that he originally published in a 2011 book, Dear Pope.

You read the article here and here. The letter is in Italian at the moment.

Here in the USA, the Catholic Church once again has had to deal with the craziness –immorality and criminal behavior– of her priests.

We know from the press several weeks ago a Boston priest was taken out of ministry for constant contact with a prostitute, there’s Scranton priest charged with molesting a teenaged boy he met on Craigslist, a Benedictine monk in Wisconsin who stalks young girls looking for a “quicky” and then we have Curtis Wehmeyer a Minnesota priest who simply is a creep and a criminal. Plus you can call to mind the NJ priests Michael Fugee and Robert Chabak, among others.

Who wouldn’t feel, after reading about pedophile clergy, that the Church has not done enough? That the Church is not too serious about this issue. After all, it is said that the Church has cleaned up her game. Or, so the church and civil authorities claim. In fact, the Catholic Church is a benchmark for cleaning up clergy sex abuse and other misbehavior. The Church record today is vastly different than 10 years ago while civil institutions have yet to address the problem. Nevertheless, you hear that the Vicar General of Wehmeyer’s archdiocese is portrayed as an unfaithful, ignorant, arrogant, incompetent churchman. You can read the story here.

The critics are right to question. Catholics have not left their mind at the door. But the questions of the critics are misplaced if they think that going after Benedict is the right thing to do. He was the pope, not the universal police chief. A pope can only do so much. The local authorities in the Catholic Church are most directly responsible for the faithful and they are to be held accountable. Look at the bishops and various vicars before pointing fingers at the Pope. That’s how the Church has worked for the last 2000 years.

Barbara Dorris of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) sheds no light for the path nor does she adequately convey with exactitude what, in fact, Benedict tried to do in his previous work the CDF, or as the Roman Pontiff. Dorris is good at complaining and stirring the emotions of victims and antagonists but does not speak the truth. Some of SNAP’s tactics lack charity for both victim and victimizer. Remember the Lord does have concern all the sheep and goats of the Kingdom. And yet, SNAP does attempt to keep the toes of some clerics over the fire and honest).

Within his area of pastoral authority Benedict did everything he could to root out the evil, but the bishops and their close collaborators have obstructed the truth and justice from all. Benedict strengthened church law, spoke out against misconduct, removed clergy, heard the stories of victims and responded according to law of charity.

In one address to the Church, the emeritus pope noted that the spiritual decay has happened, and that it unfortunately continues, and we all have to be vigilant. Supervision is not easy. AND, unfortunately, there are lots of priests, bishops and religious superiors who are neither honest nor holy. In time their malfeasance will be dealt with. But the matter of supervising priests and other church ministers is the obligation of all people, even non-believers, not merely the pope.

Reported Benedict XVI mystical experience untrue

GansweinCindy Wooden of Catholic News Service is reporting that the recent press on the mystical experience of the emeritus pope is untrue. She writes,

Archbishop Georg Ganswein, retired Pope Benedict XVI’s longtime personal secretary, said a story about the pope resigning after a “mystical experience” was completely invented.

“It was invented from alpha to omega,” the archbishop said Aug. 24 in an interview on Italy’s Canale 5 television news. “There is nothing true in the article.”

Ms Wooden’s CNS article is here in full.

Baptismal rite changes

One of the last significant changes made in our Rite of Baptism was made shortly before the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI. This is the news that Sandro Magister speaks of in his article today, “Pope Benedict’s Parting Shot.”

The official vernacular texts are not yet available, but you can read all of what is expected in Magister’s article. Antonius Cardinal Cañizares, the Prefect of the Congregation For Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments signed the decree on 22 February 2013. The decreed was effective on 31 March 2013.

What Pope Benedict does is to tighten up our sacramental and ecclesiological theology by changing those phrases that have vague or merely generic language. I am not a generic Christian: I am a member of the Catholic Church in all the fullness that it implies. The sacrament of Baptism as lived in the Catholic Church is clear: the baptized person is made a member of the Body of Christ –the Catholic Church, he is an adopted child of God, his is washed of Original Sin and he is given a pledge of eternal life.

The decree’s opening paragraph reads:

“The gate of life and of the kingdom, baptism is a sacrament of faith, by which men are incorporated into the one Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him.”

The push back from some may come down to saying that the Pope emeritus was being overly fussy or causing more ecumenical controversy or exerting more ecclesiastical power. All of which, in my opinion, criticism that is not well-placed.

I am curious, as Sandro Magister is, why the Holy See has been quiet about this change. While it is not appropriate to second guess the Holy See but it seems like there is something of goof here by not letting the rest of the world know about the change in the rite of Baptism. Remember: Baptism is the gateway sacrament to all else in our personal and ecclesial history of salvation in Jesus Christ.

Gay men and the priesthood: change in content, or difference in style?

This morning a friend asked me about Pope Francis’ statement on the plane ride to Rome coming from Brazil about gay men and the priesthood: did the pope change the Church’s teaching? No, was my reply. The teaching is not changed as the Pope echoed what the Catechism teaches. What the Pope did, I told Harry, was to emphasize a pastoral approach of mercy and helping each person attain a mature Christian faith, and that the Church has always held this approach but frequently gets forgotten due the subject. The approach of Pope Francis is to speak about the merciful face of Jesus Christ; but I have to say, Benedict also said as much but he was often roundly dismissed because of some people’s ideology. Hence, there is a line of continuity in the teaching and style of Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI. I don’t see the hard differences between the two.

Aaron Taylor wrote the following piece, “Francis and Benedict on gay priests,” for On the Square published online at First Things (7 August 2013). Taylor’s piece is a short but good piece covering the basic matters at hand; gives perspective that can’t be dismissed. I recommend the article.

Given the ruckus over Pope Francis’ comments on homosexuality, one could make the mistake of thinking he had announced a revolutionary change, not restated basic Christian doctrine:

If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge that person? . . . These persons must never be marginalized, and “they must be integrated into society.” The problem is not that one has this tendency. No, we must be brothers.

While the substance is old as the Gospel, the form is not what we are used to. Secular journalists are likely to see an irreconcilable contradiction between the Pope who made these comments and the Cardinal who warned that same-sex marriage is a “total rejection of God’s law engraved in our hearts,” a “move by the father of lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”

Yet Christians ought to see no contradiction between a robust commitment to defending the dignity of all people, including gays and lesbians, and a robust commitment to opposing sexual sin. In both instances, Francis was simply doing what he does best: stating basic truths in blunt, common-sense words that everyone can understand.

Another alleged contradiction at which many reports are hinting lies in the fact that the Pope’s remarks do nothing to alter the current ban on ordaining homosexual men. Some may ask, if Francis is willing to admit that gays can seek God and be persons of good will, why not allow them to be priests?

Current Vatican policy on the ordination of homosexuals is a disciplinary matter, not a doctrinal one. In theory it could change (though I think it unlikely). But even if it did, there would be no reason to assume that more than a small minority of homosexuals have a genuine vocation. The idea often heard that the priesthood is an “ideal” state of life for homosexual men since they are already compelled to be celibate is woefully misguided.

Rather than focusing on the narrow question of gays and the priesthood, what we need most urgently at the present time are spiritual approaches that help gay Christians to integrate their sexual orientation with their faith in a manner that steers a safe course between the Scylla of indulging in sexual vice and the Charybdis of destroying their sanity through denial about their sexuality.

One such approach, suggested by Cardinal Ratzinger in his Pastoral Letter on the Care of Homosexual Persons, is a spirituality of vicarious redemptive suffering for gay people:

What, then, are homosexual persons to do who seek to follow the Lord? Fundamentally, they are called to enact the will of God in their life by joining whatever sufferings and difficulties they experience in virtue of their condition to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross. That Cross, for the believer, is a fruitful sacrifice since from that death come life and redemption.

The fact that God gives homosexuals a heavy cross means that they have an opportunity to unite their sufferings to those of Christ and become instruments of salvation on behalf of others. It is classic Pauline spirituality: “In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col 1:24).

Ratzinger’s approach will not be appealing to all gay people, nor need it be. The Church has always accommodated a range of spiritualities within the boundaries of orthodoxy, and gay Christians’ own experience of their sexuality is diverse. For some, it is a great struggle bound up with a history of abuse and compulsive sexual behavior. For others, it is a fact of life that does not cause particular suffering.

Elizabeth Scalia suggests that “homosexuals are in fact ‘special and exceptional others,’ . . . created and called to play a specific role in our shared humanity.” And Joshua Gonnerman tells us that, as a celibate gay Christian, there are nevertheless many things in his experience of being gay that he finds valuable. These new approaches complement rather than contradict the spiritual approach outlined by Ratzinger, and are also grounded in the Pauline witness. In his First Letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle makes clear that every Christian is given gifts for the building up of the Church. There is no reason whatsoever to assume that gay Christians are an exception to what Paul says.

Aside from the litmus test of orthodoxy, the mark of a healthy spiritual approach to homosexuality should lie in the fact that it empowers gay Christians with a sense of moral agency. Gays are not to be “marginalized,” as the Pope notes, but neither are they to be patronized by well-meaning Christian organizations that portray them as helpless sex addicts who are simply passive recipients of the Church’s pastoral care. With the recognition that one has received gifts from God for active participation in the life of the Church, there comes a grave responsibility to follow the moral law. Christ’s calling restores to people the grace necessary to live in right relationship with God, but this means that gay Christians cannot portray themselves as victims of external forces if they fail to live up to their Christian calling.

Above all, a healthy spiritual approach to homosexuality ought to make clear that gay Christians have a legitimate place within the Body of Christ without having to pretend that they don’t exist by being pressured either into marriage or into becoming closeted priests. Though we should not overstate the innovation in Francis’ off-the-cuff remarks, the Pope has made a significant contribution to the development of a healthy spirituality for gay Christians by speaking of the need to integrate them within society (the Church is a society, too, after all), and by his recognition that many gay Christians already exist within the Church who are of “good will” and wish to “seek the Lord.”

Aaron Taylor, a Ph.D. student in ethics at Boston College, holds degrees from the University of Oxford and from Heythrop College, University of London.

About the author

Paul A. Zalonski is from New Haven, CT. He is a member of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic ecclesial movement, and an Oblate of Saint Benedict. Contact Paul at paulzalonski[at]yahoo.com.
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