5th Sunday of Easter, Year A, 2005

A new Pope

back to sermons year A

It has been a momentous week – for one day, at least, the general election was dislodged from being the main news item. “Habemus Papam” - who will forget those words, uttered from the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square, with such triumph but also such enormous hope and expectation – for a moment the world held its breath.  


A few seconds later, came a name which many of those who were watching, around the world, did not expect – Ratzinger.   A person who had never sought the same global profile as Pope John Paul II, but who had developed a reputation for rigidity and fierce conservatism.   Who was this man whom some commentators had called “God’s rotweiler”?   News reports swiftly made an association between his department of the Vatican and the old Inquisition; some also tried to arouse the fear that his brief – and forced – membership of the Hitler Youth had made him into an ecclesiastical fascist.


So where does the truth lie?   What can we expect from the new Pope – and how true are the suggestions about his character and his record as a Cardinal?


It is only fair to allow his words to speak for themselves.   You can easily find on the internet the first sermon which he gave following his appointment.   This sermon is dominated by the sense of tremendous responsibility which he says he feels towards his awesome role – and the humility with which he approaches it. “A humble worker in the Lord’s vineyard”, is how he describes himself.


The sermon is, in many ways, his manifesto – and it is a manifesto with a refreshing sense of vision and integrity, a welcome change to some of the other manifestos which currently dominate the news.    He set out three main areas of the Christian life which he intends to be at the heart of his Papacy:   working towards greater unity between the Churches; reinforcing the Eucharist as the centre of the life of the Church; and the importance of helping the young to grow in faith and to play their part in the Church.  


On the question of Church unity, the new Pope says that he “assumes as his primary commitment that of working tirelessly towards the reconstitution of the full and visible unity of all Christ’s followers”.   He talks of this as a “compelling duty”, which must go beyond “expressions of good feelings”.   There is a need for “concrete gestures” which lead towards the “inner conversion” which is the basis of any real coming together of the churches.   He even hints at the need to look at “the historical reasons behind past choices” – which suggests a degree of humility in the face of those past events which have led to splits in the world wide church.  


All this seems to be a very serious statement of the way in which Pope Benedict wants to lead the Church – it will be most interesting to see what it means in practice.   It is significant that Rowan Williams is the first Archbishop of Canterbury to attend the Pope’s inauguration, which takes place today.  


It will also be interesting to see what his comments on the centrality of the Eucharist in the life of the Church will mean in practice.   It could be that he is reasserting the need for people to approach the Eucharist with the seriousness that it deserves – this may be a veiled warning about the modernising and liberalising trends of the last thirty or forty years, in the Catholic church as well as well as in other churches.   He gave a reminder, in his first Papal sermon, that in the Eucharist we have a spiritual encounter with the Risen Christ, and that “f rom this full communion with Him comes every other element of the life of the Church, in the first place the communion among the faithful, the commitment to proclaim and give witness to the Gospel, and the ardour of charity towards all, especially towards the poor and the smallest.”


However, if the Eucharist is to be so central in his vision for the Church, which he wishes to become more united, it will be interesting to see whether there will be any relaxation of the restrictions on non-Catholics sharing communion with Catholics.


The third of Pope Benedict’s priorities for his Papacy is ministry to the young.   The Roman Catholic Church has, on the whole, a good record as regards nurturing children in the faith and enabling them to feel part of the Church.   In some Catholic churches the numbers of children are dwindling, to be sure, as in our own churches, but it is very good to see how the Church’s work with the young is receiving serious attention at the very highest level in the Catholic church – something the Anglican Church needs to emulate.   The Catholic church is also very good at organising the kind of mass youth events which enable the young to feel that they are being taken seriously – such as the gatherings at Taizé, in France, or the World Youth Day, planned to take place in Cologne in August, which 800,000 young people are expected to attend.


The Roman Catholic church has some major problems to deal with:   the serious shortage of new priests, the various child abuse scandals of recent years, and the controversies over its stance on some ethical issues, such as abortion, and the use of contraception.   As far as we can see, there will be no immediate change of policy on these.   It is important, however, to see all sides of the debate, and not be rushed into condemning the Catholic church without trying to understand why it takes the position it does on these matters.   In these, as in other areas, it sets out the ideal which God wishes human beings to aspire to – even if fallen humanity often falls far short of these.   The fundamental belief in the sanctity of life, for example, which underlies the Catholic church’s opposition to abortion and any form of euthanasia, is all too easily eroded when you admit that there are certain circumstances in which human life may be terminated, however plausible the reasons for this may appear.   Human nature is such that once the belief that abortion is sometimes acceptable is admitted, its acceptability subtly starts to increase, until it becomes the norm.


The opposition of the Catholic church to any form of artificial contraception, however, has probably caused more questioning of its authority and of the credibility of its leaders than anything else.   However, one can understand the Papacy’s reasoning if one recognises how the easy availability of contraception has contributed to the widespread increase in promiscuity and the breakdown of family life. Using condoms, also, is quite rightly seen by the Catholic church as not the answer to the problems of HIV/AIDS – this does not get to the heart of the problem, which is the need for monogamy, faithfulness in marriage, and abstinence outside it. However, it is also important to stress that artificial contraception has enabled women around the world to have more opportunities in life, and for families to be planned in a way which recognises the demands of today’s world.  


The last Pope was widely seen as a towering spiritual and indeed political figure.   Whatever you thought about some of his beliefs and pronouncements, he was a fierce opponent of anything which usurped the place of God in the world; a consistent spokesman for the poor and the oppressed, and one who never tired of showing his care for the Church by an unremitting programme of visits to countries around the world.   Let us hope and pray that inspiring spiritual leadership will also be shown by Pope Benedict XVI; that he will be true to his call for Christians to grow closer together, and that in a spirit of increasing unity we may seek and find God’s will for His Church in the face of today’s violent, divided and increasingly secular world.

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