Life can sometimes make our Christian faith feel like a burden, as Jenny Ang says. But through Pope Benedict's writings, she has found that it is faith is what makes life filled with joy in the first place.
We are called by God to lead a life worthy of being a Christian but along the way, we often find ourselves falling again and again.
It is no doubt a deep comfort to feel God’s love and forgiveness when we confess our waywardness and strive to change, but this constant struggle can take its toil. The heart of the matter is: faith can sometimes feel like a burden strapped on our back along this arduous journey of life. How then is one able to find joy in our faith?
On that question, this brings me to a book length interview titled, Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium, given by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) to Peter Seewald, a secular German journalist. The book was first published in 1996.
The Pope answers that, “I would put it the other way around: faith gives joy. When God is not there, the world becomes desolate, and everything becomes boring, and everything is completely unsatisfactory. It’s easy to see today how a world empty of God is also increasingly consuming itself, how it has become a wholly joyless world. The great joy comes from the fact that there is this great love, and that is the essential message of faith.”
He goes on to explain, “To that extent it can be said that the basic element of Christianity is joy. Joy not in the sense of cheap fun, which can conceal desperation in the background…. Rather, it is joy in the proper sense. A joy that exists together with a difficult life and also makes this life liveable.”
He reminds us that, “The history of Jesus Christ begins, according to the Gospel, with the angel saying to Mary, “Rejoice!” On the night of nativity the angels say again: We proclaim to you a great joy. And Jesus says, “I proclaim to you the good news.” So the heart of the matter is always expressed in these terms: I proclaim to you a great joy, God is here, you are beloved, and this stands firm forever.”
The Pope’s answer to this question of joy is very moving. It opens up a window for us to look at God with pure joy, instead of seeing him as a heavy yoke.
In the book, the Pope squarely faces a barrage of other incisive questions that took him through his own personal biography, the problems of the Catholic Church and the Church in the new millennium including Christian unity.
He addresses questions on moral controversies such as contraception, abortion and euthanasia unflinchingly in truth.
He also discusses the “canon of criticisms” such as celibacy, women’s ordination and the remarriage of divorced persons and points out that there is a fixation in the Church on these issues. They are “serious problems” but “there is too little attention to the fact that 80 percent of the people of this world are non-Christians who are waiting for the gospel, or for whom, at any rate, the gospel is also intended, and we shouldn’t be constantly agonizing over our own questions but should be pondering how we as Christians can express today in this world what we believe and thereby say something to these people.”
In addition, to the call from liberals that the Church should change and move with the times on these issues, the Pope recalls the view of another theologian, Johann Baptist Metz, who says that it was a good thing that the experiment was made in Lutheran Christianity for “it shows that being a Christian today does not stand or fall on these questions. That the resolution of these matters doesn’t make the gospel more attractive or being a Christian any easier. It does not even achieve the agreement that will better hold the Church together.” He believes that “we should finally be clear on this point, that the Church is not suffering on account of these questions.”
To the question whether the approach of society wanting to examine the Church, the history of the Church and the doctrine of the Church in terms of a certain plausibility, the Pope illuminates that it is not wrong when one tries to find a certain reasonability in the faith since it can be understood and could be made evident to people. However, “if one conceives the term plausibility so narrowly that one accept only those things about Christianity that suit our way of living at a certain time, then, of course, we make Christianity too cheap and at that very moment are no longer worth anything.”
It is also apparent from the book that truth is the central concept of the Pope’s thought and the quest for truth is a constant of his life. He says that “it became clear to me how important it is that we don’t lose the concept of truth, in spite of the menaces and perils it doubtless carries with it. It has to remain the central category. As a demand on us that doesn’t give us rights but requires, on the contrary, our humility and our obedience and can lead us to the common path.”
In this sense, we can understand why when the Pope says, “The words of the Bible and of the Church Fathers rang in my ears, those sharp condemnations of shepherds who are like mute dogs; in order to avoid conflicts, they let the poison spread. Peace is not the first civic duty, and a bishop whose only concern is not to have problems and to gloss over as many conflicts as possible is an image I find repulsive.”
Throughout the book, I find the Pope’s answers to be pastoral, insightful, learned, forthright and above all, coming from a heart of deep faith grounded in truth. In my view, he sees the crises facing the Church as primarily stemming from a crisis of faith. His clarion call to return to our true faith by living it convincingly and to pass on that faith is particularly poignant.
What ultimately comes through in the book is the Pope’s unwavering conviction that Jesus is Lord and in God’s promise that he will never abandon his Church, come what may. This is reason enough to rejoice.
Contributor: Jenny Ang