A Distinct Voice?
Having been at work during Pope Benedict’s delivery of his Vespers address this evening, I spent the ride home on the train reading it. I suspect that reading it rather than hearing it may color these reflections.
My first thought, I have to admit, was that this was an address that had been touched by many hands. That’s always true with papal addresses, of course, but Benedict has a distinctive style that can often give his words great force. I found that the edges of that style had been sanded down a bit. There was also a certain “State of the
Thus the weaker parts of the speech were those where Benedict fell back into the kind of language reminiscent of fact sheets issued by parish social concern committees: “Is it consistent to profess our beliefs in church on Sunday, and then during the week to promote business practices or medical procedures contrary to those beliefs? Is it consistent for practicing Catholics to ignore or exploit the poor and the marginalized, to promote sexual behavior contrary to Catholic moral teaching, or to adopt positions that contradict the right to life of every human being from conception to natural death?” One senses the strenuous effort that was put into hitting the right issues in the right order in order to allay any concerns about political partisanship. This is not to say, of course, that the questions Benedict raised are unimportant, merely that the way that he—or his redactors—expressed them was not particularly memorable.
By contrast, Benedict was at his best when he was touching on themes that are clearly close to his heart. My favorite part of the speech was the section where he allowed his robust Augustinian sympathies to shine through:
People today need to be reminded of the ultimate purpose of their lives. They need to recognize that implanted within them is a deep thirst for God. They need to be given opportunities to drink from the wells of his infinite love. It is easy to be entranced by the almost unlimited possibilities that science and technology place before us; it is easy to make the mistake of thinking we can obtain by our own efforts the fulfillment of our deepest needs. This is an illusion. Without God, who alone bestows upon us what we by ourselves cannot attain (cf. Spe Salvi, 31), our lives are ultimately empty. People need to be constantly reminded to cultivate a relationship with him who came that we might have life in abundance (cf. Jn 10:10). The goal of all our pastoral and catechetical work, the object of our preaching, and the focus of our sacramental ministry should be to help people establish and nurture that living relationship with “Christ Jesus, our hope” (1 Tim 1:1).
None of this, of course, will be what the papers report on tomorrow. There has been a lot of speculation about how the pope will discuss the issue of the clerical sexual abuse crisis and tonight we heard his first real effort to address it.
I think that Fr. Jim Martin over at the New York Times blog has captured much of what was positive in Benedict’s statements about the crisis. He called it a “countersign to the Gospel” and a source of “deep shame.” He spoke of the “enormous pain that your communities have suffered” and called on the bishops to exercise their “God given responsibility as pastors to bind up the wounds caused by every breach of trust.” These were words that needed to be said and I am glad the pope said them.
There were other words that I wanted to hear, however, that I did not hear. The sexual abuse scandal has become a crisis for the Church in the
One wonders what might have happened if Benedict’s Augustinian voice had been allowed to shape and color this portion of the address. Would there have been as much emphasis on the “measures,” “policies,” and “programs” that the bishops have undertaken? Would the drafters have been more sensitive to how such talk could be perceived as self-justification? Would the address have included a frank acknowledgment of episcopal failures and a call for genuine repentance? One wonders what Augustine, if he were in the ambo this evening, would have said.