Monday, February 11, 2008

From Fasting to "Exercise," Women to Deacons: The Pope Speaks... A Lot

B16 isn't usually a figure easily given to double-speak.

Strangely enough, though, the same Pope who last week advised that "Lent should be a time of fasting from words and images" let loose a torrent of the former before heading off into the seclusion of his annual Lenten Retreat.

On Mardi Gras, Papa Ratzi received the traditional audience of the Roman clergy -- an encounter which, this time, included the diocese's permanent deacons.

Holding another Q&A as has been his custom, a deacon asked for a bit of encouragement... and got it in spades:
I should say that when I was archbishop of Munich, I didn't find perhaps more than three or four deacons, and I very much favored this ministry because it seemed to me to belong to the richness of the sacramental ministry in the Church. At the same time, it can equally be the link between the lay world, the professional world, and the world of the priestly ministry -- given that many deacons continue carrying out their professions and maintain their positions -- important or those of a simple life -- while on Saturday and Sunday they work in the Church. In this way, you give witness in the world of today, as well as in the working world, of the presence of faith, of the sacramental ministry and the diaconal dimension of the sacrament of Orders. This seems very important to me: the visibility of the diaconal dimension.

Naturally as well, every priest continues being a deacon, and should always think of this dimension, because the Lord himself made himself our minister, our deacon. We can think of the gesture of the washing of the feet, with which he explicitly shows that the master, the Lord, acts as a deacon and wants those who follow him to be deacons, that they fulfill this role for humanity, to the point that they also help to wash the dirtied feet of the men entrusted to us. This dimension seems very important to me.

On this occasion, I bring to mind -- though it is perhaps not immediately inherent to the theme -- a simple experience that Paul VI noted. Each day of the Council, the Gospel was enthroned. And the Pontiff told those in charge of the ceremony that he would like one time to be the one who enthrones the Gospel. They told him no, this is the job of the deacons, not of the Pope. He wrote in his diary: But I am also a deacon, I continue being a deacon, and I would like to also exercise this ministry of the diaconate placing the word of God on its throne. Thus, this concerns all of us. Priests continue being deacons, and the deacons make explicit in the Church and in the world this diaconal dimension of our ministry. This liturgical enthroning of the word of God each day during the Council was always for us a gesture of great importance: It told us who was the true Lord of that assembly; it told us that the word of God was on the throne and that we exercise our ministry to listen and to interpret, to offer to the others this word. It is broadly significant for all that we do: enthroning in the world the word of God, the living word, Christ. May it really be him who governs our personal life and our life in the parishes....

[T]he sector of charity was in Rome the original sector, because those called presbyters and deacons were centers of Christian charity. This was from the beginning in the city of Rome a fundamental area. In my encyclical "Deus Caritas Est," I showed that not just preaching and the liturgy are essential for the Church and for the ministry of the Church, but rather equally important is the service of caritas -- in its multiple dimensions -- for the poor, the needy. Thus, I hope that all the time, in the whole diocese, even if in distinct situations, this continues being a fundamental dimension, and also a priority for the commitment of the deacons, even if not the only one, as is also shown in the early Church, where the seven deacons were chosen precisely to permit the apostles to dedicate themselves to prayer, liturgy and preaching. Also afterward, Stephen found himself in the situation of having to preach to the Greeks, to the Jews who spoke Greek, and thus the field of preaching was amplified. He is conditioned, we could say, by the cultural situation, where he has a voice to make present in that sector the word of God. In that way, he makes more possible the universality of the Christian testimony, opening the doors to St. Paul who witnessed his stoning, and later, in a certain sense, was his successor in the universalization of the word of God.
Since his election, Benedict has held several free-form Q&As with -- among others -- the clergy of his vacation dioceses, Rome's seminarians and clergy and the Urb's First Communicants. All the sessions to date have recently been published in book form.

* * *
On Saturday, two notable audiences got papal greetings.

First, a symposium on women -- held to mark the 20th anniversary of John Paul II's letter on the "feminine genius" -- ended with an address from the throne:
In "Mulieris Dignitatem," John Paul II wanted to delve into the fundamental anthropological truths of men and women, the equality in dignity and their unity, the rooted and profound difference between the masculine and the feminine and their vocation to reciprocity and complementarity, collaboration and communion (cf. "Mulieris Dignitatem," No. 6). This dual-unity of man and woman is based on the foundation of the dignity of every person, created in the image and likeness of God, who "created them male and female" (Genesis 1:27), as much avoiding an indistinct uniformity and flattened-out and impoverished equality as an abysmal and conflictive difference (cf. "Letter to Women," No. 8). This dual-unity carries with it, inscribed in bodies and souls, the relation with the other, love for the other, interpersonal communion that shows that "the creation of man is also marked by a certain likeness to the divine communion" ("Mulieris Dignitatem," No. 7). When, therefore, men or women pretend to be autonomous or totally self-sufficient, they risk being closed up in a self-realization that considers the overcoming of every natural, social or religious bond as a conquest of freedom, but which in fact reduces them to an oppressive solitude. To foster and support the true promotion of women and men one cannot fail to take this reality into account.

Certainly a renewed anthropological research is necessary that, on the basis of the great Christian tradition, incorporates the new advances of science and the datum of contemporary cultural sensibilities, contributing in this way to the deepened understanding not only of feminine identity but also masculine identity, which is frequently the object of partial and ideological reflections.

In the face of cultural and political currents that attempt to eliminate, or at least to obfuscate and confuse, the sexual differences written into human nature, considering them to be cultural constructions, it is necessary to recall the design of God that created the human being male and female, with a unity and at the same time an original and complementary difference. Human nature and the cultural dimension are integrated in an ample and complex process that constitutes the formation of the identity of each, where both dimensions -- the feminine and the masculine -- correspond to and complete each other.

Opening the work of the 5th General Conference of the Latin American and Caribbean Episcopate last May in Brazil, I recalled how there still persists a macho mentality that ignores the novelty of Christianity, which recognizes and proclaims the equal dignity and responsibility of women with respect to men. There are certain places and cultures where women are discriminated against and undervalued just for the fact that they are women, where recourse is even had to religious arguments and family, social and cultural pressures to support the disparity between the sexes, where there is consumption of acts of violence against women, making them into objects of abuse and exploitation in advertising and in the consumer and entertainment industries. In the face of such grave and persistent phenomena the commitment of Christians appears all the more urgent, so that they become everywhere the promoters of a culture that recognizes the dignity that belongs to women in law and in reality.

God entrusts to women and to men, according to the characteristics that are proper to each, a specific vocation in the mission of the Church and in the world. I think here of the family, community of love, open to life, fundamental cell of society. In it, woman and man, thanks to the gift of maternity and paternity, together play an irreplaceable role in regard to life. From the moment of their conception, children have a right to count on a father and a mother who care for them and accompany them in their growth. The state, for its part, must sustain with adequate social policies all that which promotes the stability of matrimony, the dignity and the responsibility of the husband and wife, their rights and irreplaceable duty to educate their children. Moreover, it is necessary that it be made possible for the woman to cooperate in the building-up of society, appreciating her typical "feminine genius."
...and before beginning his own retreat, Italy's national promoters of the spiritual exercises were urged to keep on:
Benedict XVI told members of the Italian federation that "while multiple spiritual initiatives grow and providentially spread, above all among youth, it appears however that the number of participants in authentic courses of spiritual exercises is decreasing, and it appears that this is verified as well among priests and among members of institutes of consecrated life."

He affirmed that spiritual exercises are "a strong experience of God, sustained by listening to his word, understood and welcomed in one's personal life under the action of the Holy Spirit, which in a climate of silence, prayer and by means of a spiritual guide, offer the capacity of discernment in order to purify the heart, convert one's life, follow Christ, and fulfill one's own mission in the Church and in the world."

For this reason, the Bishop of Rome said he hoped that "together with other laudable forms of spiritual retreat, that there is not a diminishing in participation in spiritual exercises, characterized by that climate of complete and profound silence that favors the personal and community encounter with God and the contemplation of the face of Christ."

The Pope contended that "in an age in which there is an ever stronger influence of secularization, and, on the other hand, in which there is experienced a widespread need to encounter God, the possibility of offering spaces of intense listening to his Word in silence and prayer should not falter."
Papa Ratzi's spiritual exercises run through Sunday. First major talk after their close: the 21 February private audience to the Jesuits gathered in General Congregation.

And lastly, fasting from words might be one thing, but those of you who've shirked the sweets this Lent will have to delay your first licks of Rome's latest saccharine craze....


PHOTOS: Getty Images(1); AP(2); Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi(3)