The Pope on the Plane

Pope Benedict’s remarks to the secular press while journeying to Portugal are interesting enough, as many bloggers and news sources this morning point out. I’d rather take the news a bit deeper and look between the lines.

Interesting line in Rachel Donadio’s report descirbing the Holy Father as “(A) traditionalist but also a strong voice within the church calling for purification.”

That’s “but.” Not “and.” In one journalist’s eyes, traditionalism and morality do not always coincide. The self-styled orthodox may have us believe that their selective brand of obedience is the root of virtue. But most non-conservatives realize this is untrue.

What’s more interesting to me is this quote from Benedict:

This we have always known, but today we see it in a really terrifying way, that the greatest persecution of the church does not come from the enemies outside but is born from the sin in the church. The church has a profound need to relearn penance, to accept purification, to learn on the one hand forgiveness but also the necessity of justice. And forgiveness does not substitute justice.

There’s a lot to unpack here. “Terrifying” is an interesting translation, if not a choice of words from the pope. Should we be afraid for the victims of sex abuse? As a parent, I know the thought crosses my mind now and then when my daughter is off to a friend’s home for a sleepover, or at school, or on the eleven-minute walk home. So the pope seems to get the worry of a parent, and the terrifying reality than many of us have children who have been gravely harmed by an abuser.

Four things Pope Benedict is preaching in that second sentence: penance, purification, forgiveness, and justice.

I get squirmy when I read or hear priests, bishops, or popes preaching through the cover-up crisis suggesting that all of us need to “relearn” penance–as if the Church has ever really mastered it.

Drawing on my experience as a parent, penance is best learned by example. In our family, the three of us are mostly calm, but we have occasional flashes of temper. My wife and I have always been able to reconcile, usually before going to bed. And we do tussle and make up in front of our daughter. Early on, we would apologize to the young miss if we had overblown something, or if we had made a mistake, or if we had misunderstood. Recalling my mother’s first apology to me at the age of twenty-nine, and how profoundly healing that was, I resolved I would not wait till my child was in adulthood to ask forgiveness. And the result? I don’t think the tantrums of teen age are any fewer or less unpredictable, but the young miss has a good sense of penance with her ready and sincere apologies the next morning, or later in the day.

The real school for two of these qualities–penance and forgiveness–are in the domestic Church. The Church could do far worse than to discern recommendations for these qualities to take deeper root in Catholic homes around the world.

Purification is a tough road. I speak from my own experiences with indulgences for emotions, for food, for playing games, and for wasting time that purification is a very demanding task. I’d like to see how it’s done. And I say that–I hope– less for wanting to see bishops and cardinals go to their knees, but for honestly wanting to know role models who do purification very well. Yes, there are Trappists and the desert saints. And I read them especially looking for any parallel with my own struggles. And I try to stay aware during Mass on one of the two reasons why I show up: sanctification.

Justice. For the Holy Father, that may be the most difficult of all. An outed Wisconsin abuser at the end of his life: it is compassionate and forgiving to spare him an ecclesiastical trial. But it also bails on penance, purification, and justice. Clearly, the emphases on the way to Portugal in 2010 are very different from what they were for Cardinal Ratzinger as CDF head in another century.

In some of these statements from Pope Benedict, I do see a man who has confronted some or all of his own flaws. As a middle-aged theologian, his reaction to the 1968 student riots was to judge the actions of others, and pull back from his earlier optimism. Another conversion, it seems, has happened for the man. It’s not likely he will go one-on-one with a warm-fuzzy journalist and “tell all.” He doesn’t have to. His words today are in contrast with his actions before his papacy. It seems as clear as day to me. As for the Church leaders I expect to see in the forefront of necessary reform, the count is one down, several hundred to go.

Did anyone else see anything differently? Or any other gems?

Image credit: Vincenzo Pint/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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