He is a pope of surprises. He always seems to be the Benedict we thought we knew, but didn’t. He was the surprisingly endearing father at World Youth Day and the equally endearing grandfather at his recent encounter with young first communicants in Rome. He was a defanged, compassionate German Shepherd at his private heart-to-hearts with dissident theologian Hans Küng and the head of the schismatic Lefebvrite movement, bishop Bernard Fellay.
A Transcendent Hope
And so, unsurprisingly, he manages to surprise us again with his message for the January 1st World Day of Peace. In barely 5 pages of clear, impassioned prose, Pope Benedict cuts a new figure: that of sage on the mountaintop.
His very name, he writes, was consciously chosen to echo that of Pope Benedict XV, the pope who wore himself down in an ultimately futile effort to halt the “useless slaughter” of World War I and establish a lasting peace in its wake. The name also echoes that of the great Saint Benedict whose monastic foundations “inspired a civilization of peace in the whole continent” of Europe.
Like both of his predecessors, Pope Benedict speaks from a mountaintop far above the shabbiness of political debate. Benedict is different. Our comfortable, one-size-fits-all labels of “liberal” and “conservative” wash right off him. He is neither peacenik nor hawk, neither in Darfur nor Iraq.
His goal is not simply to end a conflict here or there. In fact, what he seeks is not a goal at all. It is hope: “hope for a more serene world, a world in which more and more individuals and communities are committed to the paths of justice and peace.”
We need this message because we need a visionary. We need a prophet to condemn ballooning military expenditure and the flourishing international arms trade and weigh them on the balance against the young lives they snuff out daily in petty conflicts worldwide. We need a prophet to remind us that politically-driven efforts to “maximize historical and cultural differences” between peoples and, if you will, civilizations, is a lie about our common destiny as members of our human family: goodbye realpolitik. We need a “conservative” stalwart who supports the troops “engaged in the delicate work of resolving conflicts and restoring the necessary conditions for peace” and condemns terrorism vigorously. We need a “liberal” crusader against nuclear stockpiling, reminding us that “tactical considerations” and political posturing blind us to the common sense that it is a mind-bogglingly senseless and self-destructive endeavor. We need a visionary with this transcendent slogan: “Peace cannot be reduced to the simple absence of armed conflict.”
Lies and Seductions
Benedict is that visionary, and his vision is a gravely urgent challenge to humanity. It seems to me that this message sees further than the comparable documents of even John Paul II. In this document, thought through carefully in his own unmistakably penetrating style, Benedict sees in the here and now both the ominous echo of the past and the winds blowing us toward an uncertain future. He puts his finger squarely on the root of the problem: seduction.
It is no different today than in the biblical story of the Garden of Eden, he writes. Lies are seducing the human heart. He himself endured the Nazi years in Germany, when “aberrant ideological and political systems willfully twisted the truth and brought about the exploitation and murder of an appalling number of men and women, wiping out entire families and communities.”
And yet, the lies of our own time are “the framework for menacing scenarios of death in many parts of the world.” We are lied to by the false logic of terrorism. We lie to ourselves when the logic of fighting terrorism disregards human rights in order to stamp it out. We lie if we say that war justifies any action. We lie if we believe that nuclear arms guarantee peace, and that concentrating them in the hands of a “virtuous few” is somehow different in the long run. Christians lie if they make religious differences the seed of conflict, implicitly denying that God is Love, and anyone lies when he denies God to others. “History has amply demonstrated that declaring war on God in order to eradicate him from human hearts only leads a fearful and impoverished humanity toward decisions which are ultimately futile.”
The Truth of Peace
But what is all this deceit fundamentally about? It is about what the Second Vatican Council, in its document Gaudium et Spes, published forty years ago this month, called “the truth of peace.”
It is a truth about who we are and what human society is. And Benedict XVI is a prophet of that truth, a moral witness of the stature of John Paul II. He dreams of a world “which ultimately enables the truth about man to be fully respected and realized,” and perhaps from his mountaintop he speaks especially to the United States.
The key lesson for us is the word that never appears once in the document: “power.” So often we seem to treat power as though it were an end in itself. What is power good for? For doing good. Power means responsibility, and not just for Spiderman. No coincidence, then, that “responsibility” is a recurring theme in Pope Benedict’s message.
Our nation, more than any other, and as much as any can be said to do so, holds the reins of the future and the possibility of peace. We are living the American Moment. And yet, it is no more than that: a moment. Centuries from now, history will judge us matter-of-factly, in passing. We need this vision from the mountaintop to put ourselves in perspective and learn to make the decisions that humanity and history can expect us to make. In our moment, we can be seduced by the siren songs of the lies proffered daily to us, or we can build humanity’s future on “the truth about God and man.”
Then — even as Benedict knelt in silent prayer during Christmas Midnight Mass, as soldiers gathered for Christmas services in tents in the Iraqi desert, even as Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity languished practically empty, even as Christians in the Far East suffered silently the annual Christmas atrocities at the hands of religious fanatics — and only then, did the words of the angels not seem hollowly and ironically to mock us: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom He favors!”
- © Copyright 2005 Catholic Exchange
Br. Shane Johnson, of the Legionaries of Christ, studies for the priesthood in Rome.