Pope Benedict XVI has sometimes been quoted as resigning himself to a “smaller, purer Church,” one in which a catechized remnant retreat to a sort of ecclesial bomb shelter to await the Second Coming while the rest of the world goes, so to speak, to hell in a handbasket.
If that’s the case, then two recent Vatican initiatives will cause some scratching of heads.
One is the “Courtyard of the Gentiles” program launched by the Pontifical Council for Culture, an effort to bring believers and nonbelievers together in dialogue and cooperation. (The name refers to the area of the Temple in Jerusalem where nonbelievers could ask religious questions of experts.) The inaugural session, held in Paris in front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, drew thousands of young people, Catholic, agnostic and atheist (see story, Page 6). Future events are planned, including in Chicago next year.
In a video message to participants, the pope took a popular phrase from his predecessor’s playbook: “Do not be afraid!”
“Those of you who are nonbelievers challenge believers in a particular way to live in a way consistent with the faith they profess and by your rejection of any distortion of religion which would make it unworthy of man. Those of you who are believers long to tell your friends that the treasure dwelling within you is meant to be shared, it raises questions, it calls for reflection. The question of God is not a menace to society, it does not threaten a truly human life!
“Our first step, the first thing we can do together,” he said, “is to respect, help and love each and every human being, because he or she is a creature of God and in some way the road that leads to God. As you carry on the experience of this evening, work to break down the barriers of fear of others, of strangers, of those who are different; this fear is often born of mutual ignorance, scepticism or indifference.”
If reaching out to godless pagans wasn’t scandalous enough, what proved more controversial was reaching out to believers from other religious traditions. So much so that the Vatican felt compelled to release a statement this month, defending the pope’s plan to hold at the end of October a 25th anniversary repeat of Pope John Paul II’s “historic” gathering with religious leaders in Assisi, Italy.
“Every human being is ultimately a pilgrim in search of truth and goodness,” the statement said. “Believers too are constantly journeying toward God: hence the possibility, indeed the necessity, of speaking and entering into dialogue with everyone, believers and unbelievers alike, without sacrificing one’s own identity or indulging in forms of syncretism [the blending of religious beliefs and practices]. To the extent that the pilgrimage of truth is authentically lived, it opens the path to dialogue with the other, it excludes no one and it commits everyone to be a builder of fraternity and peace.”
For Catholics, the initiatives are a reminder that our faith is not a treasure to be protected under a bushel basket, but turned outwards and shared so it can transform not only us but the world.
As the pope notes, to share our Catholic identity, we need to have it in the first place. That means a lived faith, curious and hungry for truth no matter where found, nurtured by study, prayer, the sacraments and regular self-examination.
Yes, the world, and even the Church, can be a dangerous place, marked with evil, fanatical secularism and religious extremism. But it is the mark of our faith and the command of the Lord that we “Be not afraid!”