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The Pope as Pastor

In the span of a week Benedict xvi has met the seminarians and clergy of Rome. He wanted to meditate at length with them on Scripture, choosing the ancient method of lectio divina. Significantly, it was towards the beginning of Lent, the Season that most deeply marks the liturgical year and Christian life, and just before he devoted several days to Spiritual Exercises – the usual practice – together with his closest collaborators who daily serve the Holy See and the Roman Pontiff.

This piece of news went almost unnoticed amidst the din of the media to which we have grown accustomed. On the contrary it deserves attention. The decision of the Pope, Bishop of Rome, to spend time with his priests and to dedicate his reflection to them clearly sheds light on his personality and his way of governing the Church. Moreover, Benedict xvi himself outlined this at the Mass inaugurating his Pontificate: “My real programme of governance is not to do my own will, not to pursue my own ideas, but to listen, together with the whole Church, to the word and the will of the Lord, to be guided by him, so that he himself will lead the Church at this hour of our history”.

His Homilies especially clearly show the care – consonant with a long and strict discipline of study and reflection – that the Pope devotes to examining and meditating on the word of God, to explain it in depth and without betraying the text. He is well aware – in accordance with the uninterrupted Christian tradition, confirmed by the latest Synodal Assembly – that this word is contained in the Bible but, even before that, in Christ, the divine Logos, the Creator of whom all the Scriptures speak and who, in turn, speaks to those who desire to listen to him, as did the traveller on the way to Emmaus.

This episode, recounted in chapter 24 of Luke's Gospel and thought to be the origin of the monastic practice of meditative reading of the Bible, is at the root of the actualization of the word of God which Benedict xvi gently carries out with perseverance. Thus, just as Jesus interpreted for the two disciples along the way “in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself”, the Pope explained to the seminarians the significance of abiding in Christ and of a Christian way of being that precedes action and is brought about by the presence of the Spirit, according to St Thomas' definition. Likewise the Bishop of Rome reminded his priests, in accordance with the patristic and medieval tradition, that Jesus is the true subject of the Psalms; to emphasize that the priest must be immersed in the passion of this world in order truly to transform it.

In our day, the Successors of Peter have been Pastors in various ways: hence we may recall, for example, Pius x, who personally explained the catechism to children and young people gathered in the Courtyard of San Damaso; Pius xi, who initiated the practice of meeting with countless faithful and pilgrims to the point of giving continuous, long-drawn-out Audiences in the Apostolic Palace that lasted until late in the evening; and Paul vi, who made an extraordinarily successful use of the General Audiences. Then there is the figure of John Paul ii, still dear to a great many people thanks to his global presence until the very end.

Today their Successor is frequently portrayed – and more often than not, unkindly – as “the theologian Pope” in order to stress his most intellectual dimension (and at the same time to insinuate that he is distant from the faithful).

Certainly Benedict xvi is a theologian, and one of the most important in our time. Yet it is equally certain that he is a theologian in the sense of a Pastor who speaks of God with reasonableness and with hope, so that people today may return and look to God.

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St. Peter’s Square

Sept. 18, 2019

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