Looking Forward and Looking Back
By Al Kresta
February 12, 2013
If you had asked me two months ago if Benedict XVI would be the first pope to resign in nearly 600 years, I would have said, I wouldn’t be at all surprised. After all, in July 2010 he had told an interviewer Peter Seewald that a pope could resign. Maybe he was setting expectations. Benedict had never grasped for power or position and would be one of the few people willing to relinquish power voluntarily.
But when I got a phone call early Monday morning that Benedict had indeed resigned I was surprised, stunned. The first thing to strike me about his resignation is that it came too soon. In the providence of God, I knew otherwise, but, from my standpoint, the tagteam of John Paul II and Benedict XVI had just successively pinned down the authoritative interpretation of the Second Vatican Council. Arguments about the amorphous “Spirit” of Vatican II were finished. Now was the time to apply and implement the Council and I looked forward to another five years of Benedict trying to do just that.
As successors of St. Peter, Popes have the responsibility, above all, of calling everyone into a deeper encounter with Christ. With one shortcoming to which I will refer later, it’s hard to imagine how John Paul II and Benedict XVI could have issued a clearer call.
For both Popes, Christ was front and center, circumference and diameter. John Paul II’s first encyclical on Jesus the Redeemer, Benedict’s three volumes on Jesus of Nazareth as well as his reminder that the greatest defense of the faith is the life of Christ radiating through the saints and believers on the earth. These two answered Christ’s call beautifully, gracefully, even heroically. There are only so many giants in the world and the Catholic Church has been blessed with a century of outstanding Popes- but our last two were exceptional even among those leaders of the past century.
Now to the shortcoming that I hope will be remedied by the new successor to Peter. A large percentage of those who bear the word “Catholic” have still not been confronted with the claims of Christ in a personal way. They don’t yet have ears to hear or eyes to see the glorious gospel of Christ. They remain conformed to the world and accommodated to their culture and haven’t yet personally answered the call of the Kingdom. I know it is always spiritually dangerous to speculate on any individual’s spiritual condition other than one’s own. But looking at public opinion polls of America’s self-identified Catholics, it is fair to say that far too many Catholics do not identify themselves as disciples of Christ Jesus. They do not accept Christ’s teaching on the Eucharist or chastity or the protection of innocent life or the voluntary sharing of goods with the poor. In short, most Catholics do not see themselves, first and foremost, as disciples of the King of Kings.
This is the great unfinished work. John Paul II called it the New Evangelization. Benedict XVI even created a new department in the Vatican for it. Last fall he held a major synod to work on the new evangelization globally. Ralph Martin from Renewal Ministries attended and summarized the discussion for Cardinal Wuerl of Washington which then went to Benedict as background for his still awaited apostolic letter on the New Evangelization.
Non-Catholics and even many Catholics might ask why a department on the new Evangelization is necessary. Isn’t proclamation of the gospel the reason Christ instituted the Church? Yes, that is a good point. Since the Second Vatican Council, I think its fair to say, the Catholic Church no longer claims that it has a mission but that it is a mission. This missionary mandate of the Church defines its very reason for existence. Proclamation of the gospel is certainly supposed to be central to the Church’s identity. This New Proclamation, or the New Evangelization means the re-evangelizing of areas of the world like Western Europe and North America which were once Christian but which have lost their first love. The New Evangelization is also directed to those individuals who have been sacramentalized but not evangelized and who remain unconverted and uncommitted to a life of discipleship. Living in a garage doesn’t make you a car. Neither does being in Church necessarily make you a disciple of Christ.
This brings up the question of the next successor to St. Peter. I am fully confident that he will be focused on Christ just as John Paul II and Benedict XVI were. I am not as confident that he will be a world-class philosopher as John Paul II or a world-class biblical theologian as Benedict XVI. It would be wonderful if the next pope could engage Europe’s most respected public intellectuals as witnessed Benedict XVI with German social philosopher Jurgen Habermas. Together they even published a dialogue on the secularization of the world. But John Paul II and Benedict XVI have taught so well and at all levels of education that we probably don’t need any more theologically or philosophically astute documents for the immediate future.
What we need is a grass roots style evangelist who is as intellectually, spiritually and sacramentally grounded as John Paul II and Benedict XVI. He should be a younger man who is very familiar with the world of media and popular conversation, who retains John Paul II’s love of youth ministry, who understands that ecumenism is not an afterthought to the Church’s mission but that the restoration of Christian unity is necessary for the successful evangelization of the world. This next Pope will continue to recognize that the needs of the Church are universal and that Christians in Africa and Asia are as authentically Christian as the Catholics of Europe and North America. Above all, he must always bear in mind that, at this moment in history, we bless the world by demonstrating the living Christ. Jesus taught that when a disciple is fully trained he will be like his Master. Christ must be seen reflected and refracted through the lives of his saints on earth. This goal is essential for the next papacy. If we are to bless the culture, we must first build the Church and that means forming saints. Our primary focus cannot be the culture wars or political liberation. Every Catholic must be taught to recognize the gifts of the Spirit they received at Baptism and Confirmation and then coached on how to use them to strengthen the Body of Christ. In short, build the Church and bless the nation. Build the Church, bless the world.