GERMANY: There is a special peace and beauty in Bavaria these days. At daybreak long queues of young and old pass through the chessboard of green and golden fields and meadows near Regensburg. They come to celebrate Mass with Benedict XVI, “unser Papst”, as they say here, our Pope. He comes from Bavaria. Many know him or his brother and remember meetings with an always easy-to-approach, albeit shy, Joseph Ratzinger.
It is in these mild late summer days in his idyllic Heimat that Pope Benedict has chosen to make another step toward unfolding his global Benedict Project (as it has been dubbed by pundits): to open up mankind to God. And to explain God to mankind.
The new Pope has set himself a double task: on the one hand to reach the minds of rational people sceptical of religious faith, and on the other to win the hearts of religious people from other cultures who are sceptical of the God-mocking-Westerners.
It’s not an easy job. And in his guest lecture at his old university, Regensburg, he challenged Western laicists: “A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.”
By saying this openly, Benedict put the finger in the wound of agnostic thinking. But he does not stop there. The Pope’s aim is “broadening our concept of reason”. He concludes:
“This attempt, painted with broad strokes, at a critique of modern reason from within has nothing to do with putting the clock back to the time before the Enlightenment and rejecting the insights of the modern age. The positive aspects of modernity are to be acknowledged unreservedly: we are all grateful for the marvellous possibilities that it has opened up for mankind and for the progress in humanity that has been granted to us. The scientific ethos, moreover, is the will to be obedient to the truth, and, as such, it embodies an attitude which reflects one of the basic tenets of Christianity.
The intention here is not one of retrenchment or negative criticism, but of broadening our concept of reason and its application. While we rejoice in the new possibilities open to humanity, we also see the dangers arising from these possibilities and we must ask ourselves how we can overcome them. We will succeed in doing so only if reason and faith come together in a new way, if we overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable, and if we once more disclose its vast horizons.”
Overcoming the clash of civilisations
There it is: a concept to overcome the clash of civilisations, developed in a precise 40-minute analysis. To probe the contemporary between the West and Islam, Benedict cites a dialogue between the Greek emperor Manuel II Palaeologus and a Persian thinker. The Emperor was writing in the year 1392 while his capital Byzantium (nowadays the capital of Turkey, Istanbul) was surrounded by Muslim troops.
In the seventh conversation-controversy, edited by Professor Khoury, [says Benedict] the emperor touches on the theme of the jihad (holy war)… he turns to his interlocutor somewhat brusquely with the central question on the relationship between religion and violence in general, in these words: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached”. The emperor goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable.
Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. “God is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats… To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death…”
The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion,” says Benedict “is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature.”
So while indirectly asking the Muslim world about its concept of God, the Pope accepts the notion that God cannot be excluded from a world which shows bountiful signs of order and design. And Benedict agrees that “the world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions.” The Pope ends his speech: “We invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures.”
True joy as empirical proof
During his whole journey the Pope developed his ideas in a subdued and gentle style. The Pope’s interlocutors and listeners always felt respected. Bavaria’s Protestant Bishop Friedrich even agreed that he could have signed everything the Pope had said in his Munich homily: it had such a sound Biblical basis. According to a poll published just before the Pope’s arrival not only more than 50 per cent of Catholics now have a more favourable opinion of Benedict than before his election, but also 20 per cent of Protestants and 12 per cent of agnostics.
As if to underline that there are truths other than a narrow-minded version of reason, Benedict dedicated his last semi-public appearance to music. He dedicated the new organ of Bavaria’s oldest Church, Our Lady of the Oratory, in Regensburg. It was an appropriate climax of the many occasions when beautifully singing choirs introduced and accompanied the liturgy: “He who sings, prays twice.” The old adage of St Augustine proved true: whoever sings or whoever plays Bach so beautifully, mirrors the truth. It was, as it were, empirical verification. You just had to see the joy and peace on the faces broadcast on German television.
So the Project Benedict continues to unfold: In his first great homily in Rome he strengthened his flock: “Who believes is never alone!” This became the motto of his Bavarian homecoming. During World Youth Day in Cologne last year he explained the central theme of the God-present-in-the-Eucharist to his youth, the future of the Catholic Church. In his first encyclical as universal pastor he affirmed the meaning of love. And now he has outlined a program in which both Western intellectuals and men of good will from other religions can cooperate — if they wish.
What an ambitious project!
Two last minute updates.
First: the Pope’s heartfelt compassionate plea for vocations to the Catholic priesthood. In his last address on German soil he put aside his manuscript and begged 3,000 priests and deacons who were packed into his old Cathedral in Freising near Munich: “God needs men. He needs those who say: “Yes, I am willing to be your harvester. I am willing to help that this harvest may reap in the hearts of the people… Nevertheless, we must always keep in mind the words of our Biblical text: it is the ‘Lord of the harvest’ who ‘sends’ labourers into His harvest. Jesus did not give His disciples the task of calling other volunteers or organising promotional campaigns aimed at gathering new members; He told them to pray to God.”
Second: A small detail of the marriage of the Pope’s parents come to light during his trip. His parents found each other through the personal ads in a newspaper: “Staunchly Catholic man, policeman, looks for a Catholic girl for marriage”. Maria was 34 when they married. Her last child Joseph arrived when she was 43.
Hartwig Bouillon has worked as news editor and foreign correspondent in German and Asian radio stations. At present he is in charge of media relations for Opus Dei in Germany.