Last year, Pope Benedict XVI got high marks for some for his willingness to engage Muslims in dialogue. He did so honestly and charitably, pointing in his Regensburg speech to potential landmines, and pointing in his remarks in Turkey to potential goldmines.
A year later, the Holy Father has taken on a task every bit as daunting as Islamic dialogue. He has taken on the beliefs and attitudes of the secularized West.
Recent high-profile events in Italy and Austria show that the Holy Father has embraced lessons that other public leaders either will not or cannot understand.
It’s easiest to see the difference by considering the Pope’s approach to young people.
There have been sporadic attempts on the part of public leaders to engage young people. They have been mostly unsuccessful. One thinks of Bill Clinton playing the saxophone on a then-popular variety show, or of Bob Dole answering questions on MTV.
The difference between the Holy Father’s approach and these politicians’ is stark.
When politicians address young people, they seem uncomfortable and anxious. They search for things to say that they think the young people will want to hear. The Holy Father, on the other hand, seems eminently comfortable with young people — and willing to say challenging things.
That’s probably because for a politician, young people are a voting block, one of many — and less predictable than most. To the Pope, they are souls as valuable as any others — and more open-minded than most.
Politicians see young people as a source of power for them — the Pope sees them as a flock that has been entrusted to him.
At a Sept. 1 Mass for 500,000 young people in Loreto, Italy, Pope Benedict gave young people a simple message, but a difficult one. Reject helping yourself to what society has to offer you; instead be someone who can offer society what only God can give.
“The message is this: Do not follow the way of pride but the way of humility,” said the Holy Father. “Go against the current: Don’t listen to the persuasive and self-seeking voices that today promote lifestyles marked by arrogance and violence, by self-importance and success at any cost, by ‘appearing’ and ‘having’ to the detriment of ‘being.’”
That’s a tough sell in the West, dominated as it is by a hedonistic entertainment media. But Pope Benedict brought the same message to adults in Austria that he delivered to young people in Loreto.
He asked adults to go against the current as well in an area where we are most hesitant to yield — the use of our time. He zeroed in on the Lord’s Day.
“Sunday has been transformed in our Western societies into the weekend, into leisure time,” he said at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna Sept. 9.
“Leisure time is certainly something good and necessary, especially amid the mad rush of the modern world,” he said. “Yet if leisure time lacks an inner focus, an overall sense of direction, then ultimately it becomes wasted time that neither strengthens nor builds us up.”
To honor the Sabbath is the Third Commandment — but Pope Benedict was more interested in singing the praises of worshiping on Sunday than decrying the sinfulness of skipping it.
Going to Sunday Mass is not just a rule to follow; it’s an “inner necessity,” he said.
The Holy Father’s homily repeated the plea of the early Christian martyrs who died for honoring Sunday: “Without Sunday we cannot live.” “Does this attitude of the Christians of that time apply also to us who are Christians today?” the Pope asked.
“Free time requires a focus — the encounter with him who is our origin and goal,” he said. “We too need access to the Risen One, who sustains us through and beyond death. We need this encounter which brings us together, which gives us space for freedom, which lets us see beyond the bustle of everyday life to God’s creative love, from which we come and toward which we are traveling.”
It is from this source that Pope Benedict hopes Christians in the West will draw the strength they need to address the defining moral issue of our day: the “dictatorship of relativism.”
In his Sept. 8 homily at the shrine of Mariazell, Pope Benedict XVI defended truth.
“If truth does not exist for man, then neither can he ultimately distinguish between good and evil.
“We need truth,” said the Holy Father.
“Yet admittedly, in the light of our history we are fearful that faith in the truth might entail intolerance,” he said. “If we are gripped by this fear, which is historically well-grounded, then it is time to look toward Jesus as we see him in the shrine at Mariazell. We see him here in two images: as the child in his mother’s arms, and above the high altar of the basilica as the Crucified.”
The humility of Christ — who was the way, the truth and the life — is the key to embracing the truth while avoiding intolerance.
Christ is also the explanation for 500,000 young people flocking to a shrine in Loreto to hear Pope Benedict, and for tens of thousands greeting the Pope in the rain — a passion no politician could elicit.
Far more of us want to hear the challenging truths of the Gospel than the empty promises of the world.
And we are eager to hear from a man like Benedict who asks to give everything to Christ. Far more eager than we are to hear from anyone who just wants a piece of us for himself.