Speaking of Leo XIII in the bicentenary of his birth, his current Successor explained the duty of every Pope (and “of every Pastor of the Church”): to pass on wisdom to the faithful. And not in abstract truths but in a message that combines “faith and life, truth and practical reality”.
Indeed, it is not enough to repropose doctrines that to many may appear distant from existential problems; rather, it is necessary while doing so to pay constant attention to the historical context, staying faithful to tradition and “measuring up to the great open questions”.
As indeed that Pontiff was able to do. In spite of being “very elderly” he was “wise and far-sighted”, and steered a “rejuvenated” Church, which could face new challenges, into the new and turbulent century.
In the first place it was the religious dimension of Pope Pecci that Benedict XVI wished to stress – all too often glossed over but which, instead, “still continues to be the basis of everything for every Christian, including the Pope”.
However, Benedict XVI's overall reinterpretation of Leo XIII's Pontificate has some very interesting ideas: in what he said not only of Rerum Novarum but of the entire social Magisterium of his Predecessor, an “organic body” and the foundation of Catholic doctrine in this area.
It can be summed up in the expression, “Christian brotherhood”, to which it was not by chance that after his two theses, on Augustine and Bonaventure, the young Ratzinger dedicated his first important monographic publication ( Die christliche Brüderlichkeit ).
Christ's innovation was to lead to the abolition of slavery — already a fact for the Apostle Paul, and to which Pope Pecci dedicated his Encyclical Catholicae Ecclesiae — and to surmounting “other barriers that still exist today”, with recourse to the Gospel method of “seed” and “leaven”. These are represented in the different societies by the “beneficial and peaceful force for profound change”, established by Christians.
Even in difficult contexts such as the period following the revolutionary and then Napoleonic storms, which Benedict XVI significantly outlined with rapid, relevant strokes: the many and reiterated attempts to eradicate every expression of Christian culture, the harsh anticlericalism, the passionate demonstrations against the Pope.
On the day on which he recalled his Predecessor with the most eloquent words, the Pontiff chose to present his Message, hot off the press, for the Day in Madrid. The text which has so far been ignored or misinterpreted by the media – agencies, television and radio broadcasting stations and newspapers – offers many signs of that wisdom which Benedict XVI defined as especially characteristic of papal teaching and described as a combination of “faith and life, truth and practical reality”.
Thus, in a culture so “unsure about basic values”, the Pope once again presented as a solution the encounter with Jesus, sustained by the faith of the Church.
It is absurd “to think that people can truly live by removing God from the picture!”, Benedict XVI repeated in his Message, a passionate text full of personal testimonies: from his memory of the Day in Sydney to the distant time of a youth asphyxiated by the Nazi dictatorship and eager to rise above conventional “middle-class life” in the encounter with Christ. The Pope's Letter is, as it were, written with the inexorable passion of a lifetime. And with the wisdom of one who has truly encountered Jesus.
St. Peter’s Square
Feb. 22, 2020
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