What does the pope want?

The pope is coming to America--not to Boston, one of the cradles of American Catholicism--but to New York and Washington, D.C. The sites he has chosen to visit are where the terrorists challenged us, and he is going to Ground Zero. These cities busy themselves with finance and government, not the pope’s customary topics. However, until we hear his message to American Catholics, we can only surmise from his writings what he hopes to achieve and what message he brings.

Perhaps this visit is less about us and more about him. How does he view us? What kind of Catholics are we? Are we faithful, sacramental Catholics or are we “feel good,” experimental and casual Catholics? What does the pope expect of a pluralist nation where only one-fifth of the population is Catholic?

Given Boston is an intellectual center, our academics would have offered a stimulating exchange for the Holy Father. In turn, our scholars of church and state could have benefited from the pope’s message of faith and reason. Thus, it is with regret that we cannot welcome His Holiness to our home port.

Pope Benedict XVI does not travel much, except to his beloved Bavaria. He only recently became accustomed to the large rallies for youth or elders. The papal Masses are evangelical and something like rock concerts. They are many times larger than the usual St. Peter’s gatherings. Often the music is far afield from the pope’s classical favorites.

It is said that travel broadens the mind. Recently in our wanderings we have come across some writings on what the pope wants us to know. We borrow, again, from writer and correspondent, John L. Allen, Jr. He has written widely on our pope and will no doubt offer analysis and commentary at the time of the papal visit. He has prepared a small booklet on “10 Things Pope Benedict Wants You to Know.”

First and foremost, God is love. In his encyclical “Deus Caritas Est,” the Holy Father strips away to the heart of the Christian message. The pope believes we often confuse human love, the love of feelings, with other more enduring kinds of love. Feelings are only the beginning of love. He reminds us that love as we know it, is a reflection of God’s passionate love for us. Yet, it is eros which calls us out of ourselves toward something higher. Eros transforms us through “a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing” into another level of the complete gift of oneself to another. In order for this path to lead us, however, we exercise reason about ways to put love into action. A Vatican writer noted that with “Deus Caritas Est,” Joseph Ratzinger, once maligned as the “Grand Inquisitor,” revealed himself to be “the great lover.”

Second, Jesus is Lord. Our scholar pope has written widely. In his work, “Jesus of Nazareth,” the pope wants us to understand that the gospels are reliable witnesses to Jesus’ life. We are all too aware of the many reinterpretations of Jesus spread by those wished to make Jesus more relevant. Some modern writers attempt to marry a desired social outcome with their views of Jesus. Some project a social revolutionary or religious moralist of their own making onto the historical Jesus. Further, the pope cautions us that social progress via government efforts has left God out of the equation. Mere material structures do not profit a people. The pope sees the aid given with the pride of presumed wisdom by Western governments has reduced charity’s true meaning to material things. What is at stake is the primacy of God over earthly, man-made solutions.

Third, truth and freedom are two sides of the same coin. In April 2006 before he became our pope, Cardinal Ratzinger delivered a homily defining the chief challenge facing the Catholic Church as “the dictatorship of relativism.” He reminds us that objective truths -- those independent of time and culture -- have been replaced by an acceptance of relativism. “The small ship of thought of many Christians has often been agitated by these waves--tossed from one extreme to the other; from Marxism to liberalism, from collectivism to radical individualism, from atheism to a vague religious mysticism...” Meanwhile relativism, allowing oneself to be carried away by any wind of doctrine, easily becomes the conventional wisdom. Under these sails, the dictatorship of relativism recognizes nothing as definitive and that leaves the self and personal desires as the measure of truth.

Fourth, the importance of faith and reason united. Shortly after being elected pope, Benedict gave a lecture at the University of Regensburg. That lecture became “the shot heard ‘round the world.” Quoting from a dialogue between a 14th century emperor and a Persian scholar in which the emperor criticized Muhammad, the pope set off a firestorm. His talk was titled “Faith, Reason and the University.” His core message is that faith and reason need each other; that faith lacking reason becomes fundamentalism, extremism and sometimes leads to violence. What a sad irony that fanatics so misunderstood his carefully reasoned remarks.

Fifth, the Eucharist is the center of Christian life. In a true revolutionary sense, Pope Benedict believes the Eucharist is the only thing that can change the world. He argues that faith expressed in the Eucharist comes with a mission. On a personal level, it impels us to live in accord with what we profess during the Mass. On a social level, it means we must build a world in which self-giving love is the cornerstone of society.

Next month we will take up more things the pope wants you to know.

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited “Why I Am Still a Catholic” [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill, Mass.

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