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Church and Pope Benedict XVI

Church and Pope Benedict XVI

Why Stay in the Church, Benedict XVI?

– Father Johann G. Roten, S.M.


Would you ask a Pope why he is still a Christian or why he is still in the Church? The question was put to Benedict XVI. Not recently, of course. The year was 1971, and Josef Ratzinger was a professor of dogmatics at the University of Regensburg. Remember, those were the years of Man of La Mancha, the times of an "impossible dream" come true or, hopefully, at hand. Those were also years of high-riding criticism and cheerful iconoclasm. In sum, the Church was on the verge of a new Pentecost, for some, whereas for others it remained chained and enslaved, the victim of a new-old Babylonian captivity. It is against this backdrop of questioning and questioned identities that Josef Ratzinger was asked the question: Why are you still in the Church?

Like the Moon
His initial answer holds in an age-old image of the Church, widely popular among Church Fathers. He uses a lunar symbolism to describe the Church. Why would we compare the Church to the moon? There exists, first of all, a frequently-used association of the moon with woman. The Church is compared to a feminine figure, a mother. But the moon symbol also stands for all of humanity. It is receptive and fruitful from the power and riches given to it. A second characteristic necessarily follows: the light of the moon is "borrowed light." Without Helios, the sun, the moon would be darkness. The same applies to the Church: "In itself it is darkness, but it sends out light from another." The Church receives light from the true sun, from Jesus Christ.

His Church
Jesus Christ is the real reason why Josef Ratzinger is still a member of the Church. Our Church is first and foremost His Church. In the words of our Pope: "I am in the Church because I believe that now as formerly, and inexorably through us, behind our Church, His Church lives, and that I cannot remain with him except by remaining in His Church. I am in the Church because, in spite of everything, I believe that at the deepest level it is not our, but His Church." The Church and Jesus Christ cannot be divided up or separated. Jesus Christ goes on living through the Church. He speaks through the Church. He is united to us through the Church. He is our master, Lord and brother in and through the Church. Does that mean that the Church alone gives us Jesus? Ratzinger is quite explicit in affirming that "whoever wants Christ to be present in mankind will not find him there against the Church, but only in it."

A Venture of Love
Where does Pope Benedict get the courage to pronounce words of such magnitude and bravery? The answer is faith. Faith is a "power of union." It requires a community, and breaks through the frontiers of our ego. Thus, a self-made Church is a self-contradiction: "If faith requires a community, it must be one that possesses a power that comes to meet me, not one that is my own creation." And it is quite obvious who this "power" is: "What would the world be without Christ, without a God who speaks and knows men, and whom, therefore, men can come to know?" We see and understand to the extent that we love. According to the Pope: "The venture of love is the precondition of faith." Faith is an experiment, the Church is an experiment. Commit yourself, he tells us, and they will become a positive experiment, for "whoever does not commit himself at least a little . . . will only distress himself." Looking at the Church and ourselves, with eyes of love, we will discover that in the Church there are not only scandals, but "a history, too, of liberating grace," and a host of witnesses to this "liberating power of Christian faith." It is in this context that he speaks of the beauty of the Church. Beauty is the shining radiance of truth (Aquinas). The Church is beautiful because from her shines forth the truth of Jesus Christ.

Three Reasons
A professor is bound to teach, and a pastor is led by professional commitment to expound and exhort. But they are both human beings, individuals, with a personal history and its share of mixed experience. Speaking as professor and pastor, it would seem like children's play to juggle all the right theological answers, and to avoid with some dexterity the more obvious potholes of Church criticism. Benedict XVI is a master theologian. But where does the man Ratzinger stand, when it comes to witnessing his personal belief? What is the weight of his personal and existential truth regarding the Church? Answering the question, "Why am I still in the Church," professor Ratzinger in 1971 had three highly personal reasons for staying and remaining in the Church:
1) "I stay in the Church because I recognize the faith that in the end we can acquire only in the Church, and not in opposition to it, as a necessity for men and for the world, for by this the world lives, even when it does not share it."
2) "I remain in the Church because only the Church's faith can redeem mankind. This sounds terribly traditional, dogmatic, unreal, and yet it is said soberly, and meant to be taken seriously . . . In truth, man will be redeemed only through the cross, through accepting his own and the world's passion which, in the passion of God, has become the place of liberating meaning."
3) "To remain in the Church because it is itself worthy to remain; to remain in it because it is worthy of our love, and will constantly, through love, transform itself into its truer self."

Then and Now
Was Benedict XVI ever tempted to change his Christian allegiance? "Never!" he exclaimed--according to Messori. "The Catholicism of my native Bavaria knew how to provide room for all that was human, both prayer and festivities, penance and joy. A joyful, human Christianity." Has this joy survived the rigors of watching over Catholic orthodoxy? Asked only recently if--now Benedict XVI--would agree with John XXIII that the Church is "alive and young . . . and carrying her work on fearlessly into the future," he had this comment: "Yes! I can say that with joy. I can indeed see many old and dying branches in the Church . . . but above all else I can see the youth of the Church. And this enthusiasm cannot be shaken by any of the criticisms of the Church--which always have some basis--because their joy in Christ is just simply greater than that."

In his recent address to the College of Cardinals, on the day after his election, Pope Benedict XVI offered this inspiring assessment of the Church: "He (John Paul II) has left a more courageous, free and young Church. A Church that, according to his leading and example, looks with serenity to the past and has no fear of the future."

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