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from issue no. 03 - 2007

A rigorous and determined message pervaded with joy

by Cardinal Georges Cottier OP

When on 19 April 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was called to the Chair of Peter, he had behind him an imposing theological production, certainly one of the most far ranging and meaningful of our time.
Without doubt this work represents an appropriate preparation, decided by Providence, for the succession to John Paul II, a Pope of an exceptional human and spiritual stature. In this succession, we all perceived that we were living a favorable moment, a kairós in the life of the Church of Christ.
The birthday of Benedict XVI offers us the opportunity to meditate on the meaning of this kairós and therefore to listen to what the Spirit says to the Church.
Benedict XVI himself, reflecting on the witness of John Paul II, asserts that his predecessor leaves us «a more courageous, more free, younger Church. A Church that, according to his teaching and example, looks with serenity at the past and is not afraid of the future» (Message of 20 April 2005). The subject is found developed again in the liturgy of the following 24 April.
The Church is young. It is brave. It looks to the future with hope. Thus we can translate the spiritual climate, the tone of the extraordinary days at the beginning of the pontificate.
The protecting presence of John Paul II was so to speak palpable, and the consciousness of a renewed thrust of the Church on the paths of history was strong.
The present number of 30Days – a number of filial homage – offers an analysis of various aspects of a message already very rich and the initiatives that accompany it. At the center of everything there is naturally the illuminating encyclical letter Deus caritas est of 25 December 2005.
In these few pages I have concentrated on some of the very first speeches of the new Pope, seeking what might be the inspiration and style of the pontificate. I know that thereby I am taking a risk. But to reflect on beginnings is always worthwhile.
The homily of Cardinal Ratzinger on 18 April, in the Mass pro eligendo Romano Pontifice aroused a great deal of interest. It begins with a profession of faith that is also a foundation of hope.
Jesus Christ, who is the Divine Mercy in person, through His Cross is victor over evil.
Public opinion has kept in mind the strong denunciation of the “dictatorship of relativism” without lending due attention to the opposite response to this ruinous ideology: friendship with Christ, Son of God and true Man, measure of true humanism. Such friendship is expression of an adult faith.
The homily concludes with a meditation of almost lyric tone, inspired by the Gospel (John 15, 9-17) on the wonder of this divine friendship. The Lord made a gift of himself to us going as far as death on the cross and remains with us, sacramentally present in the mystery of the Eucharist. The third phrase of the Pater noster expresses our answer to this gift: may Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.
The Lord chose His disciples so that they would bring a fruit that remains. In view of the life of the spirit to be sown, He made us a gift of the ministries. That God may give us a pastor according to His heart to lead us to the knowledge of Christ, to His love, to true joy: this triple prayer on the part of one who did not know he was to become the future pontiff seems to express a program. The subject of the true joy that flows from the knowledge of the love of Christ will occur frequently in the teaching of Benedict XVI.
The first message of the new Pope is above all a prayer of faith, where the Petrine ministry is contemplated in the very mystery of the Church. In the soul of the Pontiff two contrasting feelings coexist: the sense of inadequacy and human upset for the responsibility entrusted to him but also a living and deep gratitude to God, Who «does not abandon His flock, but leads it through the ages, under the guidance of those who He Himself has elected vicars of His Son and has made pastors» (cf. Preface 1 of the Apostles).
Benedict XVI greeting the crowd at the end of the Holy Mass for the beginning of his ministry, 24 April 2005

Benedict XVI greeting the crowd at the end of the Holy Mass for the beginning of his ministry, 24 April 2005

One understands why Benedict XVI can assert that in him this feeling prevails: only the eyes of faith looking on his vocation as Successor of Peter explain such audacious courage. In fact, with words of vibrant emotion, the new Pontiff evokes Peter’s profession of faith in Caesarea of Philippi, living it almost in the first person. His is a total and trusting adherence and, because he knows that it is the Lord who wanted him as His Vicar, the “rock” «on which all can lean with security». He continues with a supplication: «I ask Him to make up for the paucity of my strength, so that I may be a brave and faithful Pastor of His flock always docile to the inspirations of His Spirit».
The entire message is as if illuminated by the memory of John Paul II: his example is taken on, his protecting presence felt, the will to continuity is asserted, especially in enacting Vatican Council II.
Another salient point in the inaugural message: Benedict XVI draws attention to the spiritual significance of the fact that his pontificate begins in the Year of the Eucharist established by his predecessor. The Eucharist is source and culmination of the life and mission of the Church, where everything flows from communion with the Risen One, present in the Sacrament of His Body and His Blood: fraternal communion, commitment to the announcing and the witness to the Gospel, the ardor of charity towards all, especially the poor and the small.
The Pope moreover announced significant events that would center on the Eucharist: the Eucharistic Conference in Bari, the World Youth Day in Cologne in August, the Synod of Bishops in October.
The Pontiff asked all of us to intensify our love and devotion to the Eucharistic Jesus and «to express in a courageous and clear fashion faith in the real presence of the Lord, above all by means of the solemnity and correctness of the celebrations». With affection, Benedict XVI asked the clergy especially, recalling the Holy Thursday letter addressed to them by his predecessor. The priestly life must have a “Eucharistic form” by special right. «To that purpose, devout daily celebration of holy mass, center of the life and the mission of every priest, contributes first of all».
Supported by the Eucharist Catholics must strive toward the full and visible unity fervently wished for by the Lord at the Last Supper.
The vigor and clarity of the words on ecumenic commitment made a big impression. The Successor to Peter made himself available for the cause of Christian unity.
In analogous fashion, he will not spare his efforts for dialogue with the various civilizations and with the followers of other religions.
Thus, from the first message, the orientation of the pontificate was delineated. All are called to meet Christ, the Son of the Father. In communion with Him is true joy and the sense of the Church and the Eucharist are discovered, the mysteries of faith. The Successor to Peter has committed himself personally to the announcement «of that unique Gospel of salvation». He was to stress it again on 22 April to the cardinals. Notwithstanding his human fragility God «has entrusted him with the task of sustaining and guiding the Church, so that it may be sacrament of unity in the world for all of mankind. We are sure, it is the eternal Pastor who leads His flock with the strength of His Spirit, assuring it, at all times, Pastors chosen by Him».
The homily of the solemn Eucharistic concelebration for the assumption of the Petrine ministry on 24 April was striking in its beauty. It is a text to meditate on. Form and content match each other so perfectly that every attempt to summarize it risks betraying it.
The homily itself fuses with the liturgical movement. The litanies of saints thus carry us to the memory of the experience gone through in the days of the sickness and death of John Paul II, and to the contemplation of the Church in Heaven, which supports the new Pontiff. In these unforgettable days we have experienced the joy that the Risen One has promised us: the Church is alive, the Church is young, «it carries in itself the future of the world and therefore shows also to each one of us the way towards the future».
«Like a spreading wave», the Pope’s thinking is moving through the entire world. The image brings us back to the great encyclical of Paul VI Ecclesiam Suam.
The message of 20 April set out the outline of a program of governance, emphasizing some priorities. But it did not yet make clear the essential. In fact the Pontiff continued: «my true program of governance is not to do my own will, not to pursue my own ideas, but to set myself to listen, with the whole Church, to the word and will of the Lord and to allow myself to be guided by Him, so that it will be He Himself to guide the Church in this hour of our history».
Two liturgical signs mark the assumption of the Petrine ministry: the pallium and the consigning of the ring of the fisherman. The homily developed their symbolic richness.
The first one evokes the figure of the Good Pastor. The servant of the servants of God, which is what the bishop of Rome is, takes on his shoulders the yoke of God, that is the will of God, – a yoke that does not oppress, but frees, purifies and is source of joy. The entire comment should be read. I pick out these strong affirmations: «The God, who became lamb, tells us that the world is saved by the Crucified and not by the crucifiers. The world is redeemed by the patience of God and destroyed by the impatience of men».
The sign of the ring refers to the calling of Peter to be fisher of men (cf. Luke 5, 1-11). «There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to communicate to others friendship with Him. The task of the pastor, of the fisher of men, can often seem laborious. But it is beautiful and great, because it is once and for all a service to joy, to the joy of God Who wants to make His entrance into the world». From both images «the call to unity emerges in an explicit way».
In conclusion Benedict XVI invited us to return in memory to 22 October 1978 to Saint Peter’s Square, when the ministry of John Paul II began, and to let his words reverberate in us: «Don’t be afraid, open, indeed throw wide, the doors to Christ».
Certainly, the new pontificate will be sustained by a great missionary effort.
Benedict XVI, on the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Lourdes, incensing the statue of the Madonna in the Vatican Basilica, 11 February 2007

Benedict XVI, on the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Lourdes, incensing the statue of the Madonna in the Vatican Basilica, 11 February 2007

From the beginning a pastoral and missionary preoccupation were clearly delineated as priorities: living from the heart of the faith and the vocation to which all are called, but above all the children of the Church: friendship with Christ, love of the Church that is His Church and love of the great gift of the Eucharist. The encyclical Deus caritas est will lead us to the source of the mystery that is the divine agápe.
In this perspective, the importance of the speech to the Curia of 22 December should be underlined.
The Church, mystery of faith, is in fact the heart of the teaching of Vatican Council II. Benedict XVI, examining its reception, highlighted a hermeneutic conflict; the hermeneutics of discontinuity and of disruption and the hermeneutics, the only correct one, of reform in continuity. The growth of the Church in history must be interpreted in this sense. The example of religious freedom evinces how concrete forms, dependent on the historical situation, can be subordinated to change. Fundamental affirmations remain valid while the forms of their application can change according to the context. The condemnations of Pius IX attacked the presumption to base religious freedom on relativism, while Vatican Council II asserted, in relation to the nature of the modern State and, even more, in line with the requirements of truth itself, the principle of religious freedom, in harmony with the teaching of Jesus Himself and the witness of the first martyrs.
I have tried to summarize a line of reasoning amply developed by the Holy Father, who has made of this topic one of the greater themes of his teaching.
A last observation, in no way marginal: often in the words of Benedict XVI the evocation of joy recurs. It is almost the fundamental tone of a message that is both rigorous and determined.

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