The Pope, Unscripted

Consider the case of perhaps the most intelligent man in the world, a quiet theologian who, a little over five years ago, expected at this point in his life to be playing the piano with his brother in a serene retirement. What would it sound like if this man took upon himself, in his office, the horrible sins committed by some in the hierarchy he now supervises over the course of the two or three previous decades? And if he felt as well the weight of both the 2000-year history of his office as the safeguard of what we know of truth, plus the burden his successors will carry?

Would it sound like a guest on Oprah, splashing all the lurid details and pronouncing the saving grace of therapy? Would it sound like the standard politician or sports figure or businessman who has been caught in the standard transgressions giving the standard apology before moving on to the next standard step in his or her pursuits?

Apparently, it would begin like this: “Dear brothers and sisters, I couldn’t find the time to prepare a true homily.” Thus began Pope Benedict XVI, speaking without notes on April 15 during Mass with the Pontifical Biblical Commission. That introduction made clear that what followed were his own thoughts, no doubt carefully considered but not carefully scripted and reviewed. Unusually, the Vatican later confirmed that the homily should be seen with reference to the sexual-abuse scandal.

Benedict proposed for shared meditation – shared both with his listeners in the Pauline Chapel and, presumably, with all who would later see his homily – the words from the Liturgy’s first reading for Thursday of the second week of Easter, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29) These words are those of the pope’s predecessor, St. Peter, standing in front of the “supreme religious institution, which normally one must obey,” the Sanhedrin, “Obedience to God gives him the freedom to oppose the institution.” Benedict noted the close similarity between Peter’s words and those of Socrates in responding to his death sentence from the Athenian tribunal.

Benedict’s point here is the obedience to God that gives us authentic freedom. He contrasts that freedom with the “subtle forms of dictatorship” that the modern world promotes through demands for conformity with the notion of the entirely autonomous individual, who owes no obedience because there is no God. “If God does not exist . . . what remains as the supreme imperative is only the consensus of the majority. As a result, the consensus of the majority becomes the last word, which we must obey. And this consensus – we know this from the history of the last century – can also be a ‘consensus in evil.’”

Our supreme calling, in Jerusalem or Athens or Rome, in any age, is to seek God. We follow this call by obeying God rather than succumbing to the temptation to follow the easy path of conformity with human opinion, or with human institutions that represent or enforce that ephemeral opinion.

Benedict goes on to tell us that St. Peter describes Christ as “leader and savior” at the right hand of God. “Leader” here is from the Greek archegos, “a dynamic vision, the one who shows the way, [who] is a movement upward. Being in communion with Christ means being on a journey, ascending with Christ.” And he exhorts us to remember that “the destination of this journey is eternal life at the right hand of the Father,” not the life of this world.

In his most direct reference to the current woes, Benedict calls for penance. “I must say that we Christians, even in recent times, have often avoided the word penance, it has seemed too harsh to us. Now, under the attacks of the world that speak to us of our sins, we see that being able to do penance is grace. And we see that is necessary to do penance, that is, to recognize what is wrong in our life, open ourselves to forgiveness, prepare ourselves for forgiveness, allow ourselves to be transformed. The suffering of penance, of purification, of transformation, this suffering is grace, because it is renewal, it is the work of divine mercy.”

This was certainly not the Pope’s first public discussion of the abuse crisis. His recent letter to Irish Catholics dealt directly with the disaster there, and his visit to the United States in 2008 paid considerable attention to the crisis here. He is known for having instituted new procedures to deal with the problem while at the Vatican. Shortly after this homily, he left for Malta where he met once again with abuse victims.

But this homily seems more personal, more tied to the recent attacks on him directly. If so, his response was not what the public relations experts would have counseled. Instead, he reminded us of the great truths: the call to seek God and truth and to resist the movements of the world in the opposite direction; hope in the final purpose of eternal life in Christ; and the call to penance. His thoughts will be remembered far longer than the standard celebrity’s effort to surmount lapses and get back into the world’s games as quickly as possible.

Joseph Wood is an itinerant philosopher and easily accessible hermit affiliated with Cana Academy, Walsh University, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Notre Dame Australia, none of which bears any responsibility for his errors or missteps.