Last week we examined how Pope Benedict, in his visit to Great Britain, got the “whole country to sit up and think,” to use the appreciative words of Prime Minister David Cameron. He reminded the British of the deep Christian roots of their country and the Christian inspiration underlying so many of their past national glories. At the same time, he politely but prophetically sought to awaken them to the dangers posed by an aggressive secularism and practical atheism that seek to evict not just Christianity but religious faith in general from the public square. Even a cursory glance at British websites since the papal visit shows that many are still sitting up and thinking about the concerns Pope Benedict raised.
As much as Benedict got non-Catholic political and cultural leaders, journalists and ordinary citizens to rise and ponder, however, he had an even more provocative message for British Catholics and Church leaders. With fraternal tenderness but also paternal firmness, he basically implied that many Catholics in Britain have been conducting themselves before the aggressive secularist cultural, political and educational onslaught as imprudently and wimpishly as Neville Chamberlain behaved in seeking a policy of appeasement in 1938.
“No one who looks realistically at our world today,” he said at a Saturday night prayer vigil in London’s Hyde Park, “could think that Christians can afford to go on with business as usual, ignoring the profound crisis of faith that has overtaken our society, or simply trusting that the patrimony of values handed down by the Christian centuries will continue to inspire and shape the future of our society.” It’s not a time for disciples timidly to lock themselves in an upper room hoping for the external situation to ameliorate and for people to discover or rediscover the truth on their own. It’s not a time to raise a white flag and capitulate to the desires of the secularists to marginalize the faithful to the point of cultural and political irrelevance, especially with respect to the secularists’ radical agenda for marriage, sex and the abortion. But it’s also not a time for the Church to revert to the paradigms of cultural and political interaction that perhaps worked in more placid eras but are ill-suited to the present.
In his talk to British bishops to conclude his pilgrimage, Pope Benedict emphasized that it was no longer possible for them to go on with “business as usual.” The British episcopate — and following its lead, a large proportion of British clergy and faithful— has a reputation inside and outside the British Isles for being exceedingly conflict-adverse, inoffensive to the point of being inert. This tendency has taken much of the salt out of British Catholicism, precisely at a time in which more salt is needed to prevent social decomposition. Pope Benedict told the bishops, “In the course of my visit it has become clear to me how deep a thirst there is among the British people for the Good News of Jesus Christ.” That might seem like an obvious point, but it isn’t, because prior to Benedict’s visit there were many articles, from Catholics and non-Catholics both, describing how British society as a whole has lost a hunger and thirst for the Gospel. Pope Benedict reminded his brother bishops, “You have been chosen by God to offer them the living water of the Gospel, encouraging them to place their hopes, not in the vain enticements of this world, but in the firm assurances of the next.” This “living water,” he said, may not always taste good to those addicted to the spirits of the age, but bishops are called to serve it, rather than a flavored substitute, with confidence and prodigality. Benedict specifically charged his brothers to “be sure to present in its fullness the life-giving message of the Gospel, including those elements that call into question the widespread assumptions of today’s culture.” In the business-as-usual of recent times, such controversial teachings were often neglected in favor of causes popular culture finds more palatable or praiseworthy.
In his counsel to the bishops, Pope Benedict was essentially elaborating on a profound point he made to journalists aboard the flight from Rome to Glasgow. To the straightforward question of what the Church could do in the context of a secular culture to be “more credible and attractive to all,” Pope Benedict replied in a manner that caught the press corps, and many others, off-guard: “One might say that a church that seeks above all to be attractive would already be on the wrong path. The Church does not work for itself. It does not work to increase its numbers so as to have more power. The Church is at the service of Another. … to make the Gospel of Jesus Christ accessible. … In this sense, the Church does not seek to be attractive, but rather to make herself transparent for Jesus Christ.” Christ lives in the Church and the Church’s mission is to make herself transparent so that all can see him. Some may reject him and his teachings, like he was rejected during his lifetime; those who seek the light, however, will be attracted to him through the Church, where they will encounter him and be saved by him.
That’s why the Church’s pastoral plan in Britain and elsewhere must be to help those in the Church become truly transparent for Christ, to let the radiance of his holiness shine through. This should be “business as usual” for the Church in every age, but sometimes the call to holiness stays at the level of spiritual platitudes rather takes over daily life. Benedict commented at the prayer vigil, in the context of how the Church should respond to the present crisis of faith in society: “We know that in times of crisis and upheaval God has raised up great saints and prophets for the renewal of the Church and Christian society.” That’s the way the British Church and British society — and every Church or society — will be renewed.
He tried to jumpstart that renewal himself in his meeting with English Catholic high school and university students. “I hope that among those of you listening to me today there are some of the future saints of the twenty-first century,” he underlined at the beginning of his address. “What God wants most of all for each one of you is that you should become holy.” He then showed them how to become saints by receiving and reciprocating God’s gift of love and friendship.”
He continued that renewal of the British Church as a whole when he lifted one of their own, Cardinal John Henry Newman, to the altars. “The drama of Newman’s life,” he said before beatifying him, “invites us to examine our lives, to see them against the vast horizon of God’s plan… Newman teaches us that if we have accepted the truth of Christ and committed our lives to him, there can be no separation between what we believe and the way we live our lives. Our every thought, word and action must be directed to the glory of God and the spread of his Kingdom.” Living the truth, “by the witness of lives lived in integrity, fidelity and holiness,” is the greatest way to transmit the truth, Benedict emphasized.
In support of that point, Benedict recalled the scores of British martyrs, who are the perennial antithesis of “business as usual.” “Not far from here, at Tyburn,” the Pope said, “great numbers of our brothers and sisters died for the faith. The witness of their fidelity to the end was ever more powerful than the inspired words that so many of them spoke before surrendering everything to the Lord.” He said their example should embolden all Catholics to confront the challenges of proclaiming the Gospel today. “In our own time, the price to be paid for fidelity to the Gospel is no longer being hanged, drawn and quartered but it often involves being dismissed out of hand, ridiculed or parodied. And yet the Church cannot withdraw from the task of proclaiming Christ and his Gospel as saving truth, the source of our ultimate happiness as individuals and as the foundation of a just and humane society.”
That is the Church’s unusual business and habitual mission in every age.