As the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord draws near, Pope Benedict XVI has taken the unusual step of writing an op-ed in a globally-read, mass circulation newspaper.
In an article in today’s Financial Times headlined: “A time for Christians to engage with the world - Christmas is a time of great joy and an occasion for deep reflection,” the Holy Father draws on the meaning of Christmas and contrasts the ways of the world and the state with the ways of God.
It is believed to be the first time that a pontiff has accepted an invitation to write an article for a secular mainstream newspaper.
The Pope recalls the humility, poverty and simplicity of the crib scene, and says the birth of Christ presents a challenge to reassess our priorities, values and way of life. The end of this year, he points out, "has meant economic hardship for many."
He reminds readers that Christians “fight poverty out of a recognition of the supreme dignity of every human being, created in God’s image and destined for eternal life” and that they work “for more equitable sharing of the earth’s resources out of a belief that – as stewards of God’s creation – we have a duty to care for the weakest and most vulnerable.”
Christians, he continues, “oppose greed and exploitation out of a conviction that generosity and selfless love, as taught and lived by Jesus of Nazareth, are the way that leads to fullness of life. The belief in the transcendent destiny of every human being gives urgency to the task of promoting peace and justice for all.”
He argues that these goals are shared by many, allowing fruitful cooperation with others.
But he also points out that throughout history, Christians have not always been able to comply with the demands made by Caesar – that is, those made by the state.
“From the emperor cult of ancient Rome to the totalitarian regimes of the past century, Caesar has tried to take the place of God,” he explains. “When Christians refuse to bow down before the false gods proposed today, it is not because of an antiquated worldview. Rather, it is because they are free from the constraints of ideology and inspired by such a noble vision of human destiny that they cannot collude with anything that undermines it.”
Nativity scenes, he adds, show that the birth of Christ marks the end of the old, pagan order when Caesar’s claims went virtually unchallenged. “Now there is a new king, who relies not on the force of arms, but on the power of love,” the Holy Father says, adding that he “brings hope to all those who, like himself, live on the margins of society” and are vulnerable.
“From the manger, Christ calls us to live as citizens of his heavenly kingdom, a kingdom that all people of goodwill can help to build here on earth,” he concludes.
Although newspapers and magazines have often published excerpts of the Pope’s writings, this is believed to be the first time that a pontiff has accepted a specific invitation to write an article in a mainstream newspaper. It may also be the first of others.
Greg Burke, the Vatican's senior media advisor, told the Register that if the Pope “has a chance to talk about Christ, he’s probably going to take the opportunity - it’s a way to reach an audience you’re not normally going to reach.”
In a statement, Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi said the FT’s invitation took “as a cue” the recent publication of the Pope's book on Jesus' infancy.
“Despite the unusual nature of the request, the Holy Father accepted willingly,” Fr. Lombardi said, and recalled that the Pope's willingness to respond to other unusual requests in the past. These included his ten minute reflection on “Thought for the Day” for BBC Radio 4 before Christmas in 2010, and his television interview for the programme "A sua imagine" produced by the RAI, the Italian state broadcasting company, to mark the occasion of Good Friday.
“These, too, have been opportunities to speak about Jesus Christ and to bring his message to a wide forum at salient moments during the Christian liturgical year,” Fr. Lombardi said.
Burke said the FT was “a good choice” as it is “well-read globally” but added there won’t “immediately be any more” articles like this.
“I would be all in favour of it, but I don’t think it’s going to be a very regular event,” he said. “It’s a little out of the ordinary but not totally. If the Pope can be tweeting which is really in the public domain, what’s the big deal about an op-ed where you have control over everything except the headline?”
Burke said the initiative coincides with the new evangelization. “A big part of the Pope’s job is getting the message out,” he explained, “and this is a way to do it.”
The full text of the article can be read here.