Shortly before the Holy Father’s arrival in the United States last week, I felt obliged to comment on a post by Peter Steinfels appearing in The New York Times’ blog. Steinfels mentioned that he stands by his review of the 1985 book The Ratzinger Report, in which he characterized the comments on the state of the Church by the man who would become Pope Benedict XVI as being, among other things, “deletarious” and “intellectually deplorable.”
Granted, Steinfels did admit a greater appreciation for “Ratzinger the theologian,” but his review of The Ratzinger Report failed to grasp the significance of this published interview for those of us who were youth or young adults when it came out in the mid-1980s. For me it truly was a guiding light amidst much ecclesial confusion and turmoil.
One of my favorite quotes from The Ratzinger Report appears on pp. 129-30:
“The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb. Better witness is borne to the Lord by the splendor of holiness and art . . . than by the clever excuses which apologetics has come up with to justify the dark sides which, sadly, are so frequent in the Church’s human history.”
I bring this up in the context of the Pope’s address to youth and seminarians last Saturday at St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York, an address that began with the need for ”apologia”: “Proclaim the Lord Jesus Christ . . . and always have your answer ready for people who ask the reason for the hope that is within you” (1 Pet. 3:15).
Not suprisingly in light of the above quote from The Ratzinger Report, Pope Benedict repeatedly stressed the witness of the saints, most notably six holy men and women with New York connections: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, St. John Neumann, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, Venerable Pierre Toussaint, and Padre Felix Varela. The Holy Father stressed:
“Take courage! Fix your gaze on our saints. The diversity of their experience of God’s presence prompts us to discover anew the breadth and depth of Christianity. Let your imaginations soar freely along the limitless expanse of the horizons of Christian discipleship. Sometimes we are looked upon as people who speak only of prohibitions. Nothing could be further from the truth! Authentic Christian discipleship is marked by a sense of wonder. We stand before the God we know and love as a friend, the vastness of his creation, and the beauty of our Christian faith.”
The Pope then examined four crucial aspects of the faith, including personal prayer and silence, liturgical prayer, charity in action, and vocations. His reflections continually came back to the theme of imitating the hope of the saints.
For example, in calling us to prayer and silent contemplation, the Holy Father reminds us that the lesson of the saints is that prayer is “hope in action.” In the context of liturgical prayer, he reminds us that whenever we celebrate any of the sacraments, we encounter Jesus, who is working within us. Thus, “the Church’s liturgy is a ministry of hope for humanity. Your faithful participation is an active hope which helps to keep the world–saints and sinners alike–open to God; this is the truly human hope we offer everyone.”
The saints further teach us that “the life of faith and hope is also a life of charity.” Contemplating the love of Christ poured out for us on the Cross, we are motivated to “ensure that our works of mercy and justice become hope in action for others.”
Then the Holy Father concludes with a brief reflection on Christian discipleship, exhorting us to courageously seek and embrace our own uniquely personal vocations in Christ:
“What are you seeking? What is God whispering to you? The hope which never disappoints is Jesus Christ. The saints show us the selfless love of his way. As disciples of Christ, their extraordinary journeys unfolded within the community of hope, which is the Church. It is from within the Church that you too will find the courage and support to walk the way of the Lord. Nourished by personal prayer, prompted in silence, shaped by the Church’s liturgy you will discover the particular vocation God has for you. Embrace it with joy. You are Christ’s disciples today. Shine his light upon this great city and beyond. Show the world the reason for the hope that resonates within you. Tell others about the truth that sets you free.”