Posted by Webster
I wish more people would read Pope Benedict’s interviews, talks, writings. Even the most skeptical or cynical reader, giving “my pope” a chance, would be brought up short by his thoughtfulness, his balance, his erudition, his gosh-darn common sense.
Case in point. In the interviews that became God and the World (Ignatius Press, 2002), German journalist Peter Seewald asked then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger:
In the course of two thousand years of Christian history, the Church has divided time and again. In the meantime, there are around three hundred distinguishable Protestant, Orthodox, or other churches. There are way over a thousand Baptist groups in the United States. Over against these there is still the Roman Catholic Church with the pope at her head, which claims to be the only true Church. She remains at any rate, and despite every crisis, indeed the most universal, historically significant, and successful Church in the world, with more members today than at any time in her history.
This question asked by a skeptical young journalist, no Catholic at the time he asked it, might seem to be what Frank would call a “fat pitch.” Did Ratzinger, in his answer, knock Protestantism out of the park in a grand slam of triumphalism? No, the cardinal laid down a thoughtful bunt single—then stole second, third, and home:
I think that in the spirit of Vatican II we ought not to see that as a triumph for our prowess as Catholics and ought not to make much of the institutional and numerical strength we continue to enjoy. If we were to reckon that as our achievement and as our right, then we would step outside the role of a people belonging to God and set ourselves up as an association in our own right. And that can very quickly go wrong. A Church may have great institutional power in a country, but as soon as faith is no longer there to back it up, the institution will break down.
Perhaps you know the mediaeval story of a Jew who traveled to the papal court and who became a Catholic. On his return, someone who knew the papal court well asked him: “Do you realize what sort of things are going on there?” “Yes,” he said, “of course, quite scandalous things, I saw it all.” “And you still became a Catholic,” remarked the other man. “That’s completely perverse!” Then the Jew said, “It is because of all that that I have become a Catholic. For if the Church continues to exist in spite of it all, then truly there must be someone upholding her.” And there is another story, to the effect that Napoleon once declared that he would destroy the Church. Whereupon one of the cardinals replied, “Not even we have managed that!”
I believe that we see something important in these paradoxical tales. There have in fact always been plenty of human monstrosities in the Catholic Church. That she still holds together, even if she groans and creaks, that she is still in existence, that she produces great martyrs and great believers, people who put their whole lives at her service, as missionaries, as nurses, as teachers, that really does show that there is someone there upholding her.
We cannot, then, reckon the Church’s success as our own reward, but we may still say, with Vatican II—even if the Lord has given a great deal of life to other churches and communities—that the Church herself, as an active agent, has survived and is present in this agent. And that can only be explained by the fact that He grants what men cannot achieve.
Like this quotation, everything today seems to remind me of the Church’s miraculous resilience for 2,000 years. Still breathing heavily over his Island of the World, I am now reading Michael O’Brien’s Father Elijah, which begins with a barely fictional contemporary Church under attack from all the “smart” elements in our culture. But I can look back 1,000 years and read the same story, in the life of the saint we honor today, December 29, Thomas Becket, who was hacked down on the very stones of Canterbury Cathedral when he ran afoul of Henry II. Four centuries and six Henrys later, another Thomas, named More, was similarly martyred for his defense of the Faith.
And still today we have the Catholic Church, with more members worldwide than ever.
In the reading from one of his letters for today, Becket reminds us that in order for the Word to continue spreading, for the Church to endure works are necessary. We have to help the Church and ourselves: “The whole company of saints bears witness to the unfailing truth that without real effort no one wins the crown.” My pope tempers this, and all triumphalism, by reminding us that works alone are not enough, that “He grants what men cannot achieve.”