On December 22, Pope Benedict and the leaders of the Curia (Vatican administration) exchanged official Christmas greetings. His first Christmas as pope, Benedict added a new custom to this ceremony, a kind of “Year in Review” speech. Rocco Palmo reproduces this year’s official English text at Whispers in the Loggia.
Benedict talked about, well, a lot. He offered observations on his travels, including extended observations on World Youth Day. He alluded briefly to the meeting of world religious leaders at Assisi. He reflected on an “ethical crisis” behind the struggling European economy. He talked about church reform:
…what is reform of the Church? How does it take place? What are its paths and its goals? Not only faithful believers but also outside observers are noticing with concern that regular churchgoers are growing older all the time and that their number is constantly diminishing; that recruitment of priests is stagnating; that scepticism and unbelief are growing. What, then, are we to do? There are endless debates over what must be done in order to reverse the trend. There is no doubt that a variety of things need to be done. But action alone fails to resolve the matter. The essence of the crisis of the Church in Europe is the crisis of faith. If we find no answer to this, if faith does not take on new life, deep conviction and real strength from the encounter with Jesus Christ, then all other reforms will remain ineffective.
This is all very true. Ecclesiastical dysfunctions do not descend from a cloud or rise up from a cave. People create them. To create something better, people have to be better. People must cultivate better inner resources, which they draw from God. Benedict’s characteristic emphasis on personal conversion has always been, to a certain point, legitimate.
But I sense a message behind the pope’s message. I sense the faith of which he speaks is to some extent prepackaged. It looks a certain way. It always loops back to certain givens, like assenting to the full slate of official teachings, that prove and grade our faith. It is a closed universe.
The problem with faith in God is that it has to be, in the final sense, just that: faith in God. It cannot be faith in anything else, whether church or bible, tradition or magisterium. We must beware of imputing quasi-divine attributes to lesser entities, investing in oracles rather than the original source.
Oracles make tempting idols, since they are always in some sense controllable and understandable. God, by contrast, is always in some sense wild. God is never obligated to do things in any approved fashion, and always free to reveal more today than we knew yesterday. God is always roaming the frontiers of whatever expectations we have and whatever reassuring routines we follow.
We celebrate this now, during the Christmas octave. The God of Israel had accrued certain expectations. “Who is like to you among the gods, O LORD?” asks Exodus 15:11. “Who is like to you, magnificent in holiness?” A magnificent God was not supposed to pop out of an unmarried peasant teenager’s uterus in a manure-lined stable. Nor was such a God supposed to get crucified thirty-three years later, or pour out the Spirit on the Gentiles.
Christmas is about God’s right to overturn everything, to do new things when at last the time has come. If the time came once, it will surely come again. It will surely come again in the Catholic Church.
And I daresay that time will manifest—is already manifesting—in ways Pope Benedict does not expect and prefers not to allow. He, and all of us, will need to have faith.