“Methinks that this polished bow does not lightly yield itself to be strung.”

Departing for his epic voyage, the mythic hero Odysseus left his storied bow in his wife’s care. During his absence, it served as an identity test to ward off suitors, for it was so large and difficult to handle only Odysseus, with his almost superhuman strength, could draw the ends together.

In every age, true leadership requires a similar strength, to draw together ends that stand in profound tension. In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas, as Josef Pieper noted, took in hand a bow with ends that “seemed to be inevitably pulling away from one another”—the realm of the supernatural, accessible only by faith, and that of reason and natural reality—and joined them in a way that recognized and utilized the distinctiveness of each.

In the task of guiding the church on its continuing journey, Pope Benedict XVI will have quite a bow to draw. Neither the church nor our globalized world is lacking in the need to bring together elements that seem to be “inevitably pulling away from one another.” When it comes to the church, I will focus on just three: the tension in how it sees itself (ecclesiology); in how it relates to those outside the Christian community (missiology); and finally, in how it fulfills its social responsibilities in the world (social justice).

In the realm of ecclesiology, many Catholics continue to emphasize the church’s hierarchical and institutional dimensions. In this model, the church is, in essence, the pope, the bishops, and the priests who administer the sacraments, preside over church governance, and guard the magisterial tradition. But as John Paul II observed in a 1998 meeting with ecclesial movements, today’s world cries out for a much richer, multidimensional understanding of the church. In our time, often dominated by a secularized culture, “the faith of many is sorely tested, and is frequently stifled and dies.” Thus there is an urgent need for “mature Christian personalities, conscious of their baptismal identity, of their vocation and mission in the world.”

Quoting Vatican II’s Lumen gentium, John Paul II affirmed that “it is not only through the sacraments and the ministrations of the church that the Holy Spirit makes holy the people....Allotting his gifts according as he wills, he also distributes special graces among the faithful of every rank....He makes them fit and ready to undertake various tasks and offices for the renewal and building up of the church.”

Certainly, what has been termed the “charismatic” dimension of the church can and should be in profound harmony with its “institutional” aspect. In the same 1998 address, John Paul II defined the two as “co-essential” to the church’s constitution. But the two ends of this bow may not “lightly yield” because of deeply ingrained patterns within both clergy and laity who, for the most part, still imagine themselves only within a hierarchical model.

In the realm of ecclesiology, therefore, an important challenge for Benedict XVI will be to bring together the institutional and charismatic dimensions of the church so that they shine forth as truly “co-essential,” enabling the church to tap into all the resources the Holy Spirit is sending it for its renewal, holiness, and unity.

In the realm of missiology, how the church interacts with those outside the Christian community, “dialogue” and “witness” represent two ends in tension. As John Paul II observed in his 2001 apostolic letter Novo millennio ineunte, in a climate of increased cultural and religious pluralism, openness with followers of other religions is crucial in establishing a solid basis for peace. But what does it mean to be in sincere conversation with people of other faith traditions and at the same time to be authentically Christian, convinced of the unique role of Jesus Christ in salvation and of the duty to share this message with others?  

Novo millennio illustrates some headway in its description of “mission” by including a “willingness to listen” to others and attention to the presence and purpose of God in other religions—for the Spirit “blows where he wills.” The two ends of this bow need not inevitably pull away from one another. But here, too, the bow will not “lightly yield”—in part because this project is relatively new and because, historically, it is fraught with contentious and even violent conflict. Dignitatis humanae, the conciliar document which declared the right to religious freedom, is only forty years old. The challenge for Pope Benedict will be to lead the church through the delicate theological, philosophical, and interdisciplinary efforts to discover the relationship and harmony between dialogue and witness, and to implement this understanding in the most varied contexts throughout the world.

Finally, in the realm of social justice, in Novo millennio, John Paul II described another set of deep tensions: on one end, the developed world, offering the immense possibilities of economic, cultural, and technological progress to a fortunate few, and on the other, millions living in conditions far below the requirements of human dignity.

In a global church for a globalized world, one of the greatest challenges will be to communicate and instill a notion of freedom—so dear to Western culture—that is inextricably bound to solidarity with “the least,” in every sense of the word: the poor, the outcast, the unborn. Novo millennio described a spirituality of communion that enables Christians to see all their brothers and sisters in faith within the profound unity of the Mystical Body. This, in turn, makes them able to share one another’s joys and sufferings, and to attend to one another’s needs.

Still, neither of these tensions will “lightly yield”: the concrete task of moving economic systems and cultural lifestyles toward a model which recognizes humanity as one universal family is—to put it mildly—immense. The challenge for Benedict XVI’s pontificate will be to continue the church’s efforts, and to foster strong collaboration with people of other Christian denominations, other religions, and all people who are working toward that goal. The deepest hope for enhancing a global commitment to economic justice will be in bringing many hands to the bow.

As we contemplate the “superhuman strength” required to pull together these elements in tension, our greatest hope, of course, is Christ, who holds all things together and promised to be with us until the end of the age. As John Paul II wrote in Novo millennio, any “program” for the church ultimately has its center in Christ, “who is to be known, loved, and imitated, so that in him we may live the life of the Trinity, and with him transform history until its fulfillment in the heavenly Jerusalem.” Thus, perhaps the most important prayer for Pope Benedict—or any Christian leader, for that matter—is not superhuman strength but docility to the presence, voice, and light of Christ.


Related: What Next? Five writers look ahead to the challenges Benedict XVI will face

Published in the 2005-05-06 issue: View Contents
Amy Uelmen is director of the Fordham University School of Law Institute on Religion, Law, and Lawyer’s Work.
Also by this author
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.