Thank You, Holy Father

Like much of the world, when I learned that Pope Benedict XVI had decided to abdicate the Throne of St. Peter and retire to a life of prayer, I was initially both shocked and saddened.  Almost immediately however, so much of the commentariat was focused on conspiracy theories as to why he was stepping down, or who the new Pope would be, that it was too easy to get sucked into speculations which will ultimately prove futile in assessing his Papacy, or of prognosticating the future of the Church.  As I pointed out in an interview I gave yesterday, the Pope has visibly grown more frail over the past year or so – he is after all in his mid-80’s – and those who are trying to second-guess what the Conclave will do are more likely than not going to be wrong.  So rather than pay attention to what the so-called mainstream media reports about the Holy Father’s decision, or respond to what dissenting “experts” argue the Church must do next in order to satisfy their own personal political agendas, allow me to thank Pope Benedict for what I see as some of the great accomplishments of his pontificate.

One of the great legacies which this Pope will leave for future English-speaking Catholics in particular, has to do with one of the most fundamental aspects of what it means to practice one’s faith, and that is in repairing some of the translation problems with both the mass itself and in the lectionary.  Whenever you translate from one language to another, it is never going to be absolutely perfect, particularly when you are shifting from Latin to English.  The work to bring the mass in English as close as possible to that of the text in Latin is something which all of us will benefit from for the foreseeable future.

In a related move, I see this Pope’s encouragement of a wider use of the traditional Latin mass as a part of his effort to bring more people of good will within the fold.  While efforts to reconcile with those who split with the Church over the use of the Latin mass are ongoing, and no doubt that work will continue under the next Pontiff, this Pope has clearly shown that he not only appreciates the beauty of tradition, but wants to encourage Catholics to re-discover their own rich history.  Even in his choice of vestments, Benedict has often made a point of bringing back things which had been abandoned in the upheavals that occurred in the 1960’s and ’70’s, not to go backwards, but to emphasize continuity with and connection to the past.

Similarly, the establishment of the Anglican Ordinariate to reach out to those members of the Anglican church who felt themselves drawn to Rome but still loved their own traditions, is something which in and of itself is of tremendous historical significance.  I remember well the day that this news was announced, when several friends and I gathered at an English-style pub here in downtown Washington to celebrate what we enthusiastically referred to as “Anglo Catholic Reunification Day”, and to raise pints not only to Pope Benedict, but to welcome those Britons, both clerics and laity, who would soon be joining us on this side of the Tiber.  Now of course, our own Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, has been put in charge by Pope Benedict of overseeing the establishment of the U.S. version of the Ordinariate, and we have already seen a number of Episcopal communities coming into communion with Rome, something which people like St. John Fisher, St. Thomas More, and Blessed John Henry Newman are no doubt very pleased to see happening with their American cousins.

Additionally, while things are still moving slowly, we have seen that this Pope has reached out to the Eastern Churches, continuing the work of his predecessors, in  attempts to reunite the two “lungs” of the Universal Church.  One cannot undo one thousand years of the Great Schism at a stroke, obviously.  However I have always felt that this Pope, in taking the actions described above with respect to those who wish to celebrate the traditional mass, and to repair the split with those Anglicans willing to work with him, has been laying a foundation for ongoing, future dialogue with the Orthodox.  The joy in Christendom if the Catholic and Orthodox churches were finally to be reconciled is something which I can only pray and hope that I live to see in my lifetime, and if it happens clearly we will have to point to this Pope as one of those who moved that reconciliation forward.

There are many other areas of endeavor which one could examine in assessing the work of Pope Benedict XVI.  We saw his continued outreach to the youth of the Church, drawing even larger crowds than his predecessor; his embrace and encouragement of the use of new media as a tool for re-evangelizing the world; his writings, sermons, and speeches; his historic visit to England and address in Westminster Hall; etc.  I would also mention two items of personal importance to me: his visit here to Washington, where I was fortunate enough to attend the Papal Mass at Nationals Stadium, and his visit to consecrate the iconic Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona, which he raised to the level of a minor basilica.  While his pontificate has lasted only eight years, one wonders whether any of us, if we live to such an old age ourselves, would be able to do so much.

While I am very sad indeed to see him go, I also greatly respect Pope Benedict XVI for taking what must have been the very tough decision to recognize that, in the particular circumstances in which he finds himself, it would be best for the good of the Church if he were to step down.  It cannot have been an easy conclusion to arrive at, knowing that there is so much more he could do, and yet physically he will not be able to do it.  So to step away from the world, and retire to a life of prayer and drawing closer to God, in preparation for the day when one finally meets Him face to face, is something that sets a tremendous example for all of us to ponder.

My hope is that His Holiness will be able to do so, for however long he remains with us in this present life, like the tremendous but humble scholar and teacher he unquestionably is: ordering his days of prayer on behalf of the Church and in the sacrifice of the Holy Mass, while having time to rest, surrounded by the books of the great spiritual writers, the classical music he loves, and hopefully a friendly cat.


Queen Elizabeth II: A Catholic Appreciation

This weekend world Anglophiles, such as yours truly, are enjoying the celebrations surrounding the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.  For those who wish to watch some of the events taking place this weekend in London, the BBC (including BBC America here in the U.S.) and the CBC are two of the best places to see live coverage of the numerous ceremonies.  I am particularly looking forward to seeing the Thames Pageant tomorrow morning before mass, in which over 1,000 vessels of all sorts will float down the Thames in London in honor of the Queen.

However as we discussed during the recording of the Catholic Weekend show today over at SQPN, one thing which is often overlooked with respect to the reign of the present Queen is the gracious effort she has made to reach out to Catholics.  She has done so in ways which some of her ancestors, such as Elizabeth I, would have found surprising, to say the least.  Anti-Catholicism has long been a problem in Britain, and it sill exists in some places. However in leading by example the Queen has shown what it means to be a true lady: someone who is welcoming, knows who she is, treats others with the respect they deserve and is deserving of respect in return.

The Queen is, of course, the head of the Church of England, which is something a bit hard for Americans to get their heads around, at times.  Imagine the President of the United States also being the head of your religion, and you get something of an idea.  The history of Catholicism in Britain since the split with Rome is one marked by a great deal of tragedy and centuries of legally-enshrined discrimination, which probably to the surprise of many of my readers still exists at the present time.

And yet despite this, it is worth pointing to the outreach that this Queen and the Popes have made to one another over the past several decades.  For example, she met with Pope Pius XII while she was still Princess Elizabeth; she also had a private visit with Blessed Pope John XXIII in 1962. In 1980 Elizabeth II made a state visit to meet with (now Blessed) Pope John Paul II, during the course of which she formally invited John Paul II to come on a pastoral visit to Britain.  Accordingly, Blessed John Paul II came to visit in 1982, an event which was considered an extraordinary success as well as an historic first, as the first sitting pope to visit the United Kingdom.

During the Church’s Jubilee year of 2000 the Queen came to visit Pope John Paul in the Vatican again, in commemoration of their first meeting twenty years earlier. By this time of course the Pope was already visibly suffering the long, painful decline in his health, but the Queen appeared as radiant and happy to see him as she had been twenty years earlier. At their meeting the Pope acknowledged the difficult past between the Vatican and Britain, but noted that “in recent years there has emerged between us a cordiality more in keeping with the harmony of earlier times and more genuinely expressive of our common spiritual roots.”  I daresay that part of that cordiality stemmed from the personality of the woman seated across from him as he gave his remarks.

When John Paul II died five years later, the Queen’s example was mirrored in the actions of her government and her son. Not only did the British Prime Minister attend the Pope’s funeral, which is something in and of itself, but many may not remember that Prince Charles actually postponed his wedding to Camilla Parker-Bowles so that he could attend the Pope’s funeral and represent the British Crown. The Queen herself issued a statement at his death offering her condolences, and noting the work that the Pope had done, trying to bring peace around the world. No doubt Henry VIII was spinning in his grave when he heard that.

Afterwards of course, came the historic state visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain in 2010, when he met with the Queen for the first time at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, and later made his exceptional address in Westminster Hall at the Houses of Parliament in London. When they met, in her welcoming speech the Queen acknowledged that the Pope would be beatifying Cardinal John Henry Newman, probably the most seminal figure in the rebirth of Catholicism in Britain, during his visit. “I know that reconciliation was a central theme in the life of Cardinal John Henry Newman,” she noted, “for whom you will be holding a Mass of Beatification on Sunday. A man who struggled with doubt and uncertainty, his contribution to the understanding of Christianity continues to influence many. I am pleased that your visit will also provide an opportunity to deepen the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the established Church of England and the Church of Scotland.”

As pointed out on the Catholic Weekend show this morning, symbolism matters. The fact that this elderly woman in her 80’s continues to hold the fascination of so many people around the world I think has less to do with glamour and glitz, and more with an appreciation that she, too, understands the power of symbolism. She does what her country needs her to do, and while we may think that work is easy, or extraordinarily well-paid, the sacrifices and personal losses she has had to bear as a result of not being able to relax, take it easy, and be just a normal granny like everyone else her age, are things I daresay none of us could reasonably be capable of fathoming.

In the case of the present monarch and her outreach to the Catholic Church, unimaginable to previous generations of Britons, I think she “gets” it. She appreciates that her visits to Rome, and the Pontiff’s visits to her realm; the warmth both sides have shown to each other during those visits in trying to make sure everything goes perfectly; and the interaction that the Queen has made with the Catholic hierarchy in the UK – going so far as to refer to the late Cardinal Hume as “MY cardinal” and attending Vespers at the Catholic cathedral in London – have gone a long way toward normalizing relations between her country and the Catholic Church, after so many years of unhappiness.

I for one will be raising my glass to Her Majesty this evening, to thank her for her efforts to reach out to Catholics in her country: your very good health, Ma’am.

Queen Elizabeth II meeting Blessed Pope John Paul II at The Vatican,
October 17, 1980

The Wrong End of the Telescope

Although the first newspaper I read every morning is The Daily Telegraph, which will come as no surprise to many, the reader may be surprised to learn that, yes, I do read reports and commentary from news outlets whose editorial views are generally not sympathetic to my own: by which I mean, of course, The Manchester Guardian.  So it was a pleasant surprise today to read this opinion piece in The Guardian from commentator Andrew Brown, a man who is neither Catholic nor Spanish, and to find him asking himself the same question I was asking myself last evening.  To wit: why is it that the media are so focused on those tiny numbers of people protesting the Pope and World Youth Day, and not on the stunning success thus far of the event itself, which has attracted gigantic numbers of pilgrims in a way not even the most messianic of American presidents can do?

As regular readers know, an anti-Catholic protest march was planned for Wednesday, and news reports indicate that it attracted roughly 5,000 protestors.  Keep in mind that these same media outlets estimate that somewhere between 1 to 2 million pilgrims are gathering in Madrid for the World Youth Day festivities, which culminate on Sunday. While many people will be headed to Madrid for the Sunday mass, there are already many, many pilgrims in the city.

On Thursday evening the Pope arrived at the Plaza de Cibeles, in central Madrid, to enormous crowds; numbers varied, but all media outlets agreed that the supporters, who braved evening temperatures of 95 F/35 C,  were in the hundreds of thousands.  The same evening, a group of anti-Catholic protestors gathered once again, in the Plaza del Sol, and estimates of the protestors this time ranged from 150-300 people.  News, yes, but hardly news of any great significance.  More people protest the opening of a new Wal-Mart on any given Tuesday.

The efforts by the left to protest the Pope have not had much success in Madrid, which as it happens is also true of the tiny protests mounted during the previous visits this Pope made to Santiago and to Barcelona last year. Not that the media would have you believe this, of course, because no one at the news desks of the major newspapers or television news channels seems to have sat down and thought, “Let’s look at the ratio of supporters to opponents, here, and see how we should be reporting this.” The people of Spain, and the young in particular, have now turned out in what can only be described as droves, on three separate occasions, in three different parts of the country, to see an elderly, soft-spoken German priest and theologian. These undeniable facts defy belief, at least in the mainstream media.

The headline of Mr. Brown’s piece pretty much says it all: “The pope draws 1.5 million young people to Madrid – but that’s not news?” He notes that the BBC and other news outlets have focused on those protesting the Papal visit, but not on the infinitely larger numbers of people there to support it – and particularly the fact that there are so many hundreds of thousands of young people who are celebrating their Christianity together. Mr. Brown’s thesis is that reporters simply do not “get” these young people: the pilgrims are so different, so unlike the reporters themselves, that they cannot relate to them. The reporters can, however, relate to what we might call the “condom crowd”, because the opinions of those types of people, who usually just scream louder than everyone else, make up what is fashionable to report on in the media these days.

Not being a Catholic or a Spaniard of course, Mr. Brown has a slightly different perspective from that of journalist Charo Zarzalejos, who comes from the Basque Country. Sra. Zarzalejos, in a brilliant commentary published today in many news outlets in Spain, points out that the miniscule protests, which have been characterized by, as she puts it, “coarse and vulgar” acts, surprised her, because “the protestors do not raise deeper, more serious arguments.” The protestors Madrid has seen have made, not cogent arguments about religion in general or Catholicism in particular, but “a pathetic attempt to ridicule a religion and a Church that moves thousands and millions of men and women on all continents.” She notes, as does Mr. Brown,  how strikingly unexpected it was to see the well-organized, well-behaved, and happy young people from Spain and the rest of the world, gathered together in Madrid for the celebrations.

It is in this failure to understand Catholicism, I believe, that the media is doing both Spain and the world a great disservice, by ignoring the enthusiasm of these young people, and instead focusing on those who mock them. What Spain needs now, in a very desperate way, is hope for the future, not the childish and vitriolic ravings of diseased minds unable to form cogent arguments or behave civilly.  As Sra. Zarzalejos points out, the “hundreds of thousands of young people who have met in Madrid are hopeful youths, and hope has no price nor does it fall by the taunts of others. Madrid is serving as a good example of this.”  I only wish the mainstream media would stop looking through the wrong end of the telescope, and recognize the same thing.

World Youth Day Pilgrims gathered in the Plaza de Cibeles, Madrid