Monday, July 21, 2008

Highlights from Australia, Part I

Over these next two days, I will provide what I think are the highlights from the Pope's discourses in Australia. It is somewhat daunting for some to read all of his addresses to all of the different groups. They are rather long, and time is short. So I have put together clips of what I think are the most beautiful and relevant of his talks, along with brief thoughts.

Just to throw in a personal bit, Benedict often mentions the World Youth Day cross and icon. He compares them to the Olympic torch carried throughout the world. I went to Austria on one particular trip with a group of youth asked by Cardinal Schonborn to lead a youth rally in Vienna. When we arrived we were given the World Youth Day cross, and on one particular day carried it all around the city, dedicating the city to Christ. One particular stop was on the very balcony where Hitler had stood after his conquest of Austria. We held the cross on that balcony in the center of Vienna and then carried it back downstairs. I carried it out the door and was met by a man who was very angry. He asked me how I could carry a symbol of tyranny at the very same spot where the greatest tyrant of the 20th century had stood. My only answer was that the cross has often been used as a symbol of tyranny, but that in and of itself it is never anything but a symbol of hope and freedom.

This theme marks Benedict's talks. Picking up from John Paul II, paragraph 24 of Gaudium et Spes is threaded through each of his addresses. While religion has been used for violence and evil, it in itself is the only hope for humanity, offering to it the fullest image of its own true possibility. As we will see in the highlights, this is true not only of humanity, but also of all creation. Only in Christ can humanity know its true image, and only in living this image can it be a proper steward of the natural environment. In these talks, Benedict is simultaneously at his Greenest and most Humanist.
Welcome Ceremony

Rightly, you are seeking to close the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians regarding life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity! This example of reconciliation offers hope to peoples all over the world who long to see their rights affirmed and their contribution to society acknowledged and promoted.

With many thousands of young people visiting Australia at this time, it is appropriate to reflect upon the kind of world we are handing on to future generations. In the words of your national anthem, this land "abounds in nature's gifts, of beauty rich and rare". The wonder of God's creation reminds us of the need to protect the environment and to exercise responsible stewardship of the goods of the earth. In this connection I note that Australia is making a serious commitment to address its responsibility to care for the natural environment.
In this opening address, the two themes are clear: respect for the dignity of each human person, no matter how "different" than I; and respect for creation. Throughout we will see a variation on this theme, expressed in the dichotomy between Enlightened Self-Interest, which drives the model of society envisioned by Adam Smith, and Self-Giving Generosity, which alone is possible through grace and the Christian leaven.
Welcome at Barangaroo

Yet the views afforded of our planet from the air were truly wondrous. The sparkle of the Mediterranean, the grandeur of the north African desert, the lushness of Asia’s forestation, the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, the horizon upon which the sun rose and set, and the majestic splendour of Australia’s natural beauty which I have been able to enjoy these last couple of days; these all evoke a profound sense of awe. It is as though one catches glimpses of the Genesis creation story - light and darkness, the sun and the moon, the waters, the earth, and living creatures; all of which are "good" in God’s eyes (cf. Gen 1:1 - 2:4). Immersed in such beauty, who could not echo the words of the Psalmist in praise of the Creator: "how majestic is your name in all the earth?" (Ps 8:1).

And there is more – something hardly perceivable from the sky – men and women, made in nothing less than God’s own image and likeness (cf. Gen 1:26). At the heart of the marvel of creation are you and I, the human family "crowned with glory and honour" (Ps 8:5). How astounding! With the Psalmist we whisper: "what is man that you are mindful of him?" (Ps 8:4). And drawn into silence, into a spirit of thanksgiving, into the power of holiness, we ponder.

What do we discover? Perhaps reluctantly we come to acknowledge that there are also scars which mark the surface of our earth: erosion, deforestation, the squandering of the world’s mineral and ocean resources in order to fuel an insatiable consumption. Some of you come from island nations whose very existence is threatened by rising water levels; others from nations suffering the effects of devastating drought. God’s wondrous creation is sometimes experienced as almost hostile to its stewards, even something dangerous. How can what is "good" appear so threatening?

So again, we ponder. And we discover that not only the natural but also the social environment – the habitat we fashion for ourselves – has its scars; wounds indicating that something is amiss. Here too, in our personal lives and in our communities, we can encounter a hostility, something dangerous; a poison which threatens to corrode what is good, reshape who we are, and distort the purpose for which we have been created. Examples abound, as you yourselves know. Among the more prevalent are alcohol and drug abuse, and the exaltation of violence and sexual degradation, often presented through television and the internet as entertainment. I ask myself, could anyone standing face to face with people who actually do suffer violence and sexual exploitation "explain" that these tragedies, portrayed in virtual form, are considered merely "entertainment"?

Do not be fooled by those who see you as just another consumer in a market of undifferentiated possibilities, where choice itself becomes the good, novelty usurps beauty, and subjective experience displaces truth.
Christ offers more! Indeed he offers everything! Only he who is the Truth can be the Way and hence also the Life. Thus the "way" which the Apostles brought to the ends of the earth is life in Christ.

When God is eclipsed, our ability to recognize the natural order, purpose, and the "good" begins to wane. What was ostensibly promoted as human ingenuity soon manifests itself as folly, greed and selfish exploitation. And so we have become more and more aware of our need for humility before the delicate complexity of God’s world.

But what of our social environment?.... How can it be that domestic violence torments so many mothers and children? How can it be that the most wondrous and sacred human space – the womb – has become a place of unutterable violence?

My dear friends, God’s creation is one and it is good. The concerns for non-violence, sustainable development, justice and peace, and care for our environment are of vital importance for humanity. They cannot, however, be understood apart from a profound reflection upon the innate dignity of every human life from conception to natural death: a dignity conferred by God himself and thus inviolable. Our world has grown weary of greed, exploitation and division, of the tedium of false idols and piecemeal responses, and the pain of false promises. Our hearts and minds are yearning for a vision of life where love endures, where gifts are shared, where unity is built, where freedom finds meaning in truth, and where identity is found in respectful communion. This is the work of the Holy Spirit! This is the hope held out by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
There is a clear connection between Abortion and Environmental Pollution. Both the Left and Right have it wrong. There is a new vision, the Christian vision. This welcoming address is perhaps the most beautiful and poetic of all, capturing Benedict's wholistic vision for a world that is greed free, directed not by enlightened self-interest, but by loving generosity, a generosity that includes in its scope the creation given to man by God for his safe keeping. Humility before the "complexity of God's world" marks the new way of seeing that Benedict calls us to. This opening talk sets the thematic and emotional tone to the following addresses.
Meeting with Ecumenical Representatives

To move forward, we must continually ask God to renew our minds with the Holy Spirit (cf. Rom 12:2), who speaks to us through the scriptures and guides us into all truth (cf. 2 Pet 1:20-21; Jn 16:13). We must guard against any temptation to view doctrine as divisive and hence an impediment to the seemingly more pressing and immediate task of improving the world in which we live. In fact, the history of the Church demonstrates that praxis is not only inseparable from, but actually flows out of didache or teaching.

For this reason, ecumenical dialogue advances not only through an exchange of ideas but by a sharing in mutually enriching gifts (cf. Ut Unum Sint, 28; 57). An "idea" aims at truth; a "gift" expresses love. Both are essential to dialogue. Opening ourselves to accept spiritual gifts from other Christians quickens our ability to perceive the light of truth which comes from the Holy Spirit.
A mutual sharing of gifts is required for all ecumenical dialogue. Again, the theme of gift-giving is highlighted. Self-donation is at the core of all relationships that involve the heart of human beings. Yet precisely for this reason grace is needed, since so frequently self-interest is confused for self-donation. The cross alone brings our eyes back into focus.
Meeting With Representatives of Other Religions

Religions have a special role in this regard, for they teach people that authentic service requires sacrifice and self-discipline, which in turn must be cultivated through self-denial, temperance and a moderate use of the world's goods. In this way, men and women are led to regard the environment as a marvel to be pondered and respected rather than a commodity for mere consumption. It is incumbent upon religious people to demonstrate that it is possible to find joy in living simply and modestly, generously sharing one's surplus with those suffering from want.

The world's religions draw constant attention to the wonder of human existence. Who can help but marvel at the power of the mind to grasp the secrets of nature through scientific discovery? Who is not stirred by the possibility of forming a vision for the future? Who is not impressed by the power of the human spirit to set goals and to develop ways of achieving them? Men and women are endowed with the ability not only to imagine how things might be better, but to invest their energies to make them better. We are conscious of our unique relationship to the natural realm. If, then, we believe that we are not subject to the laws of the material universe in the same way as the rest of creation, should we not make goodness, compassion, freedom, solidarity, and respect for every individual an essential part of our vision for a more humane future?

We could say that all religions aim to penetrate the profound meaning of human existence by linking it to an origin or principle outside itself. Religions offer an attempt to understand the cosmos as coming from and returning to this origin or principle.
Again, in his address to an interreligious group, it is fascinating what themes Benedict highlights. The environment is again mentioned, alongside the commodification of the human person. Following John Paul II, Benedict has brought in some Marxian critique in order to highlight the Christian emphasis on the value of each person for his or her own sake. Religions serve the purpose of pointing to the transcendent as a means of transforming the present world. Benedict points to that transformation as one toward a simpler lifestyle, solidarity, self-discipline, wonder. Religion must be the forerunner of simple lifestyles and the rejection of commodified culture. How hard that message is for Americans! In our fat culture we either will not see this willfully, or we flip the coin and idolize self-image. Religion of all kinds points the human person toward a lifestyle of self-donation, which of its very nature is a life of simplicity and solidarity.
Meeting with Disadvantaged Youth

False "gods", whatever name, shape or form we give them, are nearly always associated with the worship of three things: material possessions, possessive love, or power. Let me explain what I mean.

If we are greedy, if we refuse to share what we have with the hungry and the poor, then we make our possessions into a false god.

People often think they are being loving when actually they are being possessive or manipulative.

The power God has given us to shape the world around us is obviously something good. Used properly and responsibly, it enables us to transform people’s lives. Every community needs good leaders. Yet how tempting it can be to grasp at power for its own sake, to seek to dominate others or to exploit the natural environment for selfish purposes! This is to make power into a false god. Instead of bringing life, it brings death.

Loving is what we are programmed to do, what we were designed for by our Creator. Naturally, I am not talking about fleeting, shallow relationships, I am talking about real love, the very heart of Jesus’ moral teaching: "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength" and "You must love your neighbour as yourself" (cf. Mk 12:30-31). This, if you like, is the programme that is hard-wired into every human person, if only we had the wisdom and generosity to live by it, if only we were ready to sacrifice our own preferences so as to be of service to others, to give our lives for the good of others, and above all for Jesus, who loved us and gave his life for us. That is what human beings are called to do, that is what it means to be truly alive.
"How tempting it can be to grasp at power for its own sake, to seek to dominate others or to exploit the natural environment for selfish purposes! This is to make power into a false god.... Loving is what we are programmed to do, what we were designed for by our Creator."

What a beautiful summary of Benedict's message. More tomorrow.

Markel, SJ

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