Photo: Marian Archives
By David Came (Mar 16, 2009)
Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi characterized as an "unusual document worthy of great attention" Pope Benedict XVI's letter regarding the Society of St. Pius X that was released on March 12.
In fact, a careful reading of the letter shows how the Holy Father — caught in a firestorm of criticism over lifting the excommunication of some bishops — is emphasizing mercy, reconciliation, and trust in Jesus. He is undaunted in his commitment to mercy, a theme that I explore in the new book, Pope Benedict's Divine Mercy Mandate.
Let me explain.
Controversy Seeks to Undermine Papal Message of Mercy
The document in question is addressed to his fellow bishops and titled "Letter of His Holiness Benedict XVI to Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Remission of the Excommunication of the Four Bishops Consecrated by Archbishop Lefebvre." It comes several weeks after Lefebvrite Bishop Richard Williamson sparked a controversy on Swedish television by saying that he didn't believe 6 million Jews were executed in gas chambers during World War II. Bishop Williamson's comments aired at about the same time that he and three other bishops of the Society of St. Pius X had their 20-year excommunication lifted.
Although the Vatican — including the Pope — had no prior knowledge of the Williamson interview, the media were quick to link the interview with Benedict's lifting of the excommunication of the bishops, thus creating a firestorm of criticism that threatened to harm the Catholic Church's painstaking efforts since the Second Vatican Council at reconciliation between Jews and Christians.
In his letter, Pope Benedict says that the controversy not only threatened the Church's relations with Judaism but also undermined what was intended to be a "discreet gesture of mercy" toward the four Lefebvrite bishops:
An unforeseen mishap for me was the fact that the Williamson case came on top of the remission of the excommunication. The discreet gesture of mercy towards four Bishops ordained validly but not legitimately suddenly appeared as something completely different: as the repudiation of reconciliation between Christians and Jews, and thus as the reversal of what the Council had laid down in this regard to guide the Church's path. A gesture of reconciliation with an ecclesial group engaged in a process of separation thus turned into its very antithesis: an apparent step backwards with regard to all the steps of reconciliation between Christians and Jews taken since the Council — steps which my own work as a theologian had sought from the beginning to take part in and support. That this overlapping of two opposed processes took place and momentarily upset peace between Christians and Jews, as well as peace within the Church, is something which I can only deeply deplore.
The Pope goes on to say how "saddened" he was "that even Catholics who, after all, might have had a better knowledge of the situation, thought they had to attack me with open hostility."
'Acts of Reconciliation' Toward Those in Spiritual Peril
He later argues, even implores, the reader to sympathize with his overarching goal of bearing "witness to love" and making "acts of reconciliation" toward those in spiritual peril such as the Lefebvrite bishops and their society:
Whoever proclaims that God is Love "to the end" has to bear witness to love: in loving devotion to the suffering, in the rejection of hatred and enmity — this is the social dimension of the Christian faith, of which I spoke in the Encyclical Deus Caritas Est.
So if the arduous task of working for faith, hope, and love in the world is presently (and, in various ways, always) the Church's real priority, then part of this is also made up of acts of reconciliation, small and not so small. That the quiet gesture of extending a hand gave rise to a huge uproar, and thus became exactly the opposite of a gesture of reconciliation, is a fact which we must accept. But I ask now: Was it, and is it, truly wrong in this case to meet half-way the brother who "has something against you" (cf. Mt 5:23ff.) and to seek reconciliation?
As he has pursued reconciliation and met with such "a huge uproar," we might wonder what sustained the Holy Father in bearing witness to God's love and mercy?
Trust in Jesus Is Key
It was none other than his commitment to love and his trust in the Lord Jesus Christ — inspired by Our Lady. Listen to these stirring words along these lines that he writes toward the end of his letter, addressing his fellow bishops:
Dear Brothers, during the days when I first had the idea of writing this letter, by chance, during a visit to the Roman Seminary, I had to interpret and comment on Galatians 5:13-15. I was surprised at the directness with which that passage speaks to us about the present moment: "Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' But if you bite and devour one another, take heed that you are not consumed by one another." I am always tempted to see these words as another of the rhetorical excesses which we occasionally find in Saint Paul. To some extent that may also be the case. But sad to say, this "biting and devouring" also exists in the Church today, as expression of a poorly understood freedom. Should we be surprised that we, too, are no better than the Galatians? That at the very least we are threatened by the same temptations? That we must always learn anew the proper use of freedom? And that we must always learn anew the supreme priority, which is love? The day I spoke about this at the Major Seminary, the feast of Our Lady of Trust was being celebrated in Rome. And so it is: Mary teaches us trust. She leads us to her Son, in whom all of us can put our trust. He will be our guide — even in turbulent times.
This call by our Holy Father to trust in the Lord Jesus "even in turbulent times" is like a clarion call to us today in facing various challenges in the Church and in our world. I'm thinking in particular of the prolonged and severe global recession that is causing great turmoil for so many, especially the poor. The bottom line becomes: Will we place our trust in our own resources or in the Lord?
We see, then, how Benedict XVI is continuing to lead us as our Mercy Pope, calling us to make gestures of mercy and acts of reconciliation, as we place our trust in the Lord, who alone can deliver us from our trials and tribulations. "Jesus, I trust in You!"
David Came is executive editor of Marian Helper magazine, which is the flagship publication of the Association of Marian Helpers headquartered in Stockbridge, Mass. Pope Benedict's Divine Mercy Mandate is his first book.