by Sandro Magister
ROME, March 27, 2009 – On the flight back from his trip to Cameroon and Angola, Benedict XVI told the journalists that two things in particular had been ingrained in his memory:
"On the one hand, the almost exuberant hospitality and the joy of a festive Africa. In the pope, they saw the personification of the fact that we are all children of God and his family. This family exists, and we, with all of our limitations, are in this family, and God is with us.
"On the other hand, there was the spirit of recollection at the liturgies, the strong sense of the sacred: in the liturgies, there was no self-representation of groups, no self-promotion, but the presence of the sacred, of God himself. Even the movements, the dances, were always respectful and cognizant of the divine presence."
Popularity and presence of God. The interweaving of these two elements is the secret of Joseph Ratzinger's pontificate.
That Benedict XVI is a popular pope might seem to be contradicted by the storm of hostile criticism rained down on him daily by the media all over the world. Over the past month, these criticisms have reached an unprecedented crescendo. Even official government representatives no longer hesitate to accuse the pope.
But the impression gathered from looking at the big numbers is different. On his voyages, Benedict XVI has always demonstrated levels of popularity beyond expectations. Not only in Africa, but also in difficult venues like the United States or France. In Rome, at the Angelus on Sunday at noon, St. Peter's Square is more packed, every time, than during the years of John Paul II.
This does not mean that these same crowds consistently accept and practice the teachings of the pope and of the Church. Countless surveys show that on marriage, sexuality, abortion, euthanasia, contraception, the views of a large number of people are more or less distant from the Catholic magisterium.
At the same time, however, many of these same people demonstrate a deeply rooted respect for the figure of the pope and the authority of the Church.
Italy is a case in point. On March 25, in "la Repubblica" – the leading progressive newspaper, and very caustic in criticizing Benedict XVI – the sociologist Ilvo Diamanti provided yet another confirmation of the high levels of confidence that Italians continue to show toward the Church and the pope, in spite of widespread disagreement on various points of their teaching.
For example, when asked to say whether they are for or against the pope's statement that condoms "do not resolve the problem of AIDS, but aggravate it," three out of four say they are against.
But the same respondents, when asked whether they trust the Church, respond "greatly" or "very much," to the tune of 58.1 percent. And confidence in Benedict XVI is also very high, at 54.9 percent.
Not only that. From the same survey, it emerges that trust in the Church and in Benedict XVI has not fallen, but has risen since a year ago.
This is how professor Diamanti explains the apparent contrast:
"The Church and the pope speak out on sensitive topics of public and private ethics in an open and direct way. They offer answers that are debatable, and are often debated, contested by the left or by the right. Nonetheless, they offer certainty to an unsure society, in search of points of reference and values. For this reason, 8 out of 10 Italians, among the non-practicers, consider it important to give their children a Catholic education, and enroll them in the hour of religious instruction. For this reason, a very large majority of families, close to 90 percent, choose to direct 0.8 percent of their income taxes to the Catholic Church."
And it is for this same reason – one might add – that Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has not joined in the recent chorus of criticisms against the pope from representatives of France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, etc. On the contrary, he has taken the opposite approach.
On March 21, he said that the Church must be respected, and that its freedom of speech and action must be defended "even when one finds it proclaiming principles and concepts that are difficult and unpopular, far from the fashionable opinions." With this, Berlusconi simply expressed the view shared by many Italians.
So the facts outlined above already provide a glimpse of the substance of the question: that Benedict XVI's popularity has its source precisely in the way in which he carries out his mission as successor of Peter.
This pope is respected and admired for one fundamental reason. Because he has placed above all else this priority, which he formulated in the letter to the bishops last March 10, one of the essential documents of his pontificate:
"In our time, during which in vast areas of the world the faith is in danger of being extinguished like a flame that has run out of fuel, the priority that stands above all others is that of making God present in this world, and revealing to the eyes of men the path to God. And not to any sort of god, but to that God who has spoken on Sinai; to that God whose face we recognize in love to the end (cf. John 13:1), in Jesus Christ crucified and risen. The true problem at this moment in history is that God is disappearing from the horizon of men, and that with the extinguishing of the light that comes from God, humanity is seized by a lack of direction, the destructive effects of which are becoming increasingly clear."
On Sunday, March 15, two days before he left for Africa, Benedict XVI did not say anything different in explaining the reason for his trip to the crowd that had come to St. Peter's Square for the Angelus:
"I leave for Africa with the awareness that I have nothing else to offer and give to those I will meet except for Christ and the good news of his Cross, the mystery of supreme love, of divine love that overcomes all human resistance and makes it possible even to forgive and love one's enemies. This is the grace of the Gospel that is capable of transforming the world; this is the grace that can also renew Africa, because it generates an irresistible force of peace and of profound and radical reconciliation. The Church does not pursue economic, social, and political objectives; the Church proclaims Christ, certain that the Gospel can touch to hearts of all and transform them, thus renewing persons and societies."
In Cameroon and Angola, the heart of the pope's message was effectively this. Not the denunciations – which he nonetheless voiced in strong words – of the evils of the continent and the responsibilities that they generate. But in the first place, that which was the announcement of Peter to the crippled man in chapter 3 of the Acts of the Apostles: "I have neither silver nor gold, but what I have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ, the Nazarene, arise and walk!"
It would be interesting to present an anthology of the most significant passages from the nineteen speeches, messages, interviews, and homilies that Benedict XVI gave during his seven-day trip to Cameroon and Angola.
But in order to understand the profound meaning of his mission, it is enough to present here a single emblematic text: the homily given by Benedict XVI at the Mass on Saturday, March 21, in Luanda, in the church of St. Paul.
The spirit of recollection, the strong sense of the presence of God that remained impressed on the pope's memory at the sight of the crowds that followed the liturgy, and also the exuberant celebration with which they welcomed and surrounded him, are explained in part in this homily from pope Ratzinger, in a remote church of Africa:
"Let us make haste to know the Lord"
by Benedict XVI
Dear brothers and sisters, beloved labourers in the Lord’s vineyard, as we have just heard, the children of Israel said to one another, “let us make haste to know the Lord” (Hos 6:3). They encouraged one another with these words amid their many tribulations. These misfortunes had overtaken them – the Prophet explains – because they lived without knowledge of God; their hearts were poor in love. The only physician capable of healing them was the Lord. Indeed, he himself, as a good physician, opened their wounds so that the sore might heal. And the people made up their mind: “Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn, that he may heal us” (Hos 6:1). Thus human poverty was to intersect with divine mercy, which desires only to embrace the poor.
We see this in the Gospel passage that we have just heard: “Two men went up into the temple to pray”; the one “went down to his house justified rather than the other” (Lk 18:10, 14). The latter had paraded all his merits before God, virtually making God his debtor. Deep down, he felt no need for God, even though he thanked him for letting him become so perfect, “not like this tax collector”. And yet it was the tax collector who went down to his house justified. Conscious of his sins, and so not even lifting his head – although in his trust he is completely turned towards Heaven – he awaits everything from the Lord: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Lk 18:13). He knocks on the door of mercy, which then opens and justifies him, for, as Jesus concludes: “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 18:14).
Saint Paul, the patron saint of the city of Luanda and of this splendid church built some fifty years ago, speaks to us from personal experience about this God who is rich in mercy. I wanted to highlight the second millennium of the birth of Saint Paul by celebrating the present Pauline Year, so that we can learn from him how to know Jesus Christ more fully. This is the testimony which Paul has bequeathed to us: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Tim 1:15-16). In the course of the centuries, the number of people touched by grace has continually grown. You and I are among them. Let us give thanks to God because he has called us to be part of this age-long procession and thus to advance towards the future. In the footsteps of all Jesus’ followers, let us join them in following Christ himself and thus enter into the Light. [...]
The decisive event in Paul’s life was his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus: Christ appeared to him as a dazzling light, he spoke to him and he won him over. The Apostle saw the Risen Jesus; and in him he beheld the full stature of humanity. As a result Paul experienced an inversion of perspective; he now saw everything in the light of this perfect stature of humanity in Christ: what had earlier seemed essential and fundamental, he now considered nothing more than “refuse”; no longer “gain” but loss, for now the only thing that mattered was life in Christ (cf. Phil 3:7-8). Far from being merely a stage in Paul’s personal growth, this was a death to himself and a resurrection in Christ: one form of life died in him, and a new form was born, with the Risen Christ.
My brothers and sisters, “let us make haste to know the Lord”, the Risen One! As you know, Jesus, perfect man, is also our true God. In him, God became visible to our eyes, to give us a share in his divine life. With him a new dimension of being, of life, has come about, a dimension which integrates matter and through which a new world arises. But this qualitative leap in universal history which Jesus brought about in our place and for our sake – how is it communicated to human beings, how does it permeate their life and raise it on high? It comes to each of us through faith and Baptism. This sacrament is truly death and resurrection, transformation and new life, so much so that the baptized person can say together with Paul: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). I live, but no longer I. In a certain way, my identity has been taken away and made part of an even greater identity; I still have my personal identity, but now it is changed and open to others as a result of my becoming part of Another: in Christ I find myself living on a new plane. What then has happened to us? Paul gives us the answer: You have become one in Christ Jesus (cf. Gal 3:28).
Through this process of our “christification” by the working and grace of God’s Spirit, the gestation of the Body of Christ in history is gradually being accomplished in us. At this moment I would like to go back in thought five centuries, to the years following 1506, when, in these lands, then visited by the Portuguese, the first sub-Saharan Christian kingdom was established, thanks to the faith and determination of the king, Dom Alphonsus I Mbemba-a-Nzinga, who reigned from 1506 until his death in 1543. The kingdom remained officially Catholic from the sixteenth century until the eighteenth, with its own ambassador in Rome. You see how two quite different ethnic groups – the Bantu and the Portuguese – were able to find in the Christian religion common ground for understanding, and committed themselves to ensuring that this understanding would be long-lasting, and that differences – which undoubtedly existed, and great ones at that – would not divide the two kingdoms! For Baptism enables all believers to be one in Christ.
Today it is up to you, brothers and sisters, following in the footsteps of those heroic and holy heralds of God, to offer the Risen Christ to your fellow citizens. So many of them are living in fear of spirits, of malign and threatening powers. In their bewilderment they end up even condemning street children and the elderly as alleged sorcerers. Who can go to them to proclaim that Christ has triumphed over death and all those occult powers (cf. Eph 1:19-23; 6:10-12)? Someone may object: “Why not leave them in peace? They have their truth, and we have ours. Let us all try to live in peace, leaving everyone as they are, so they can best be themselves.” But if we are convinced and have come to experience that without Christ life lacks something, that something real – indeed, the most real thing of all – is missing, we must also be convinced that we do no injustice to anyone if we present Christ to them and thus grant them the opportunity of finding their truest and most authentic selves, the joy of finding life. Indeed, we must do this. It is our duty to offer everyone this possibility of attaining eternal life.
Dear brothers and sisters, let us say to them, in the words of the Israelite people: “Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn, that he may heal us.” Let us enable human poverty to encounter divine mercy. The Lord makes us his friends, he entrusts himself to us, he gives us his Body in the Eucharist, he entrusts his Church to us. And so we ought truly to be his friends, to be one in mind with him, to desire what he desires and to reject what he does not desire. Jesus himself said: “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (Jn 15:14). Let this, then, be our common commitment: together to do his holy will: “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation” (Mk 16:15). Let us embrace his will, like Saint Paul: “Preaching the Gospel... is a necessity laid upon me; woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16).
All of the speeches and homilies from Benedict XVI's trip to Africa, on the Vatican website:
> Apostolic journey to Cameroon and Angola, March 17-23, 2009
The previous article from www.chiesa on the pope's statements about how to combat AIDS:
> Drifting Mines. In Africa the Condom, in Brazil Abortion (23.3.2009)
The pope's reservations about the effectiveness of condoms have found some prominent supporters. One of these is Edward Green, director of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at the Harvard School of Public Health and Center for Population and Development Studies. This is what he said in an interview with ilSussidiario.net:
> "As a liberal, I say the Pope is right"
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Saint Louis, Missouri, U.S.A.