In December 22 in Rome, Pope Benedict XVI delivered his annual Christmas address to the members of Roman Curia, his closest collaborators. Each year, he takes this occasion to reflect on the chief events of the past year.
The most important line in the address (reprinted below) is this: “The essence of the crisis of the Church in Europe – as I argued in Freiburg – is the crisis of faith.” (The Pope spoke in Freiburg during his visit to Germany in September.)
The Pope says this crisis is evident: “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 skepticism and unbelief are growing. What, then, are we to do?
The Pope’s central message, his prescription, for Europe and the world, is to return to the faith.
Benedict uses the term “faith fatigue” to refer to the present crisis of the faith. He says: “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.”
He then notes that on his trip to Africa in November, and also at World Youth Day in Madrid in August, there was considerable evidence of vibrant faith, of “joyful passion for faith.”
Concerning Africa: “None of the faith fatigue that is so prevalent here, none of the oft-encountered sense of having had enough of Christianity, was detectable there. Amid all the problems, sufferings and trials that Africa clearly experiences, one could still sense the people’s joy in being Christian, buoyed up by inner happiness at knowing Christ and belonging to his Church.”
Concerning World Youth Day: the young people attending were filled with a genuine love of doing good, a genuine love of Christ, and this gave him great hope, he said.
“And here something fundamental became clear to me,” Benedict continued. “These young people (thousands of youth volunteers in Madrid) had given a part of their lives in faith, not because it was asked of them, not in order to attain Heaven, nor in order to escape the danger of Hell. They did not do it in order to find fulfillment. They were not looking round for themselves.
“There came into my mind the image of Lot’s wife, who by looking round was turned into a pillar of salt. How often the life of Christians is determined by the fact that first and foremost they look out for themselves, they do good, so to speak, for themselves. And how great is the temptation of all people to be concerned primarily for themselves; to look round for themselves and in the process to become inwardly empty, to become ‘pillars of salt.’
“But here it was not a matter of seeking fulfilment or wanting to live one’s life for oneself,” Benedict continued. “These young people did good, even at a cost, even if it demanded sacrifice, simply because it is a wonderful thing to do good, to be there for others. All it needs is the courage to make the leap.”
The “leap” is sparked by an encounter with Christ, Benedict said. In essence, he is saying that meeting Christ, learning about Christ, spending time alone in prayer with Christ, sets hearts on fire.
“Prior to all of this (the work the young people committed themselves to carry out) is the encounter with Jesus Christ, inflaming us with love for God and for others, and freeing us from seeking our own ego. In the words of a prayer attributed to Saint Francis Xavier: ‘I do good, not that I may come to Heaven thereby and not because otherwise you could cast me into Hell. I do it because of you, my King and my Lord.’”
The Pope then reflected on two particular moments from the summer: the time of eucharistic adoration and the reception by thousands of the sacrament of confession during the week-long World Youth Day gathering in Spain. His remarks included a strikingly concise summary of the entire meaning of “theology,” that is, the science of God, or the knowledge of God.
God, he said, is in his essential nature a being to be adored, to be worshiped.
“Adoration is primarily an act of faith — the act of faith as such,” the Pope said. “God is not just some possible or impossible hypothesis concerning the origin of all things. He is present. And if he is present, then I bow down before him. Then my intellect and will and heart open up towards him and from him.”
And Benedict went on, referring to confession, in a reflection on sin, repentance, and forgiveness. Notably, the Pope uses the word “my” when he says “my soul is tarnished” by the pull toward sin present in all men, known as original sin. Benedict is emphasizing his own participation in the human condition, in fallen human nature.
“Openness to love is present in man, implanted in him by the Creator, together with the capacity to respond to God in faith,” Benedict said. “But also present, in consequence of man’s sinful history (Church teaching speaks of original sin) is the tendency that is opposed to love — the tendency towards selfishness, towards becoming closed in on oneself, in fact towards evil. Again and again my soul is tarnished by this downward gravitational pull that is present within me. Therefore we need the humility that constantly asks God for forgiveness, that seeks purification and awakens in us the counterforce, the positive force of the Creator, to draw us upwards.”
Toward the end of his address, the Pope spoke about the widespread joyfulness that he observed at World Youth Day, and reflected on the deep source of this joy. That source, he told the Curia, was faith: faith in God’s existence, faith in God’s love for us. And he cites the great German theologian, Joseph Pieper, whose works Benedict has recommended on numerous occasions.
“Certainly, there are many factors at work here,” the Pope said. “But in my view, the crucial one is this certainty, based on faith: I am wanted; I have a task; I am accepted, I am loved. Joseph Pieper, in his book on love, has shown that man can only accept himself if he is accepted by another. He needs the other’s presence, saying to him, with more than words: ‘It is good that you exist.’ Only from the You can the I come into itself. Only if it is accepted, can it accept itself.
“Those who are unloved cannot even love themselves,” Benedict continued. “This sense of being accepted comes in the first instance from other human beings.”
And then Benedict added a passage which shows his particular depth, something characteristic of his thought: he compared the partial and changeable love of human beings with the total and unchangeable love of God.
“But all human acceptance is fragile,” he said. “Ultimately we need a sense of being accepted unconditionally. Only if God accepts me, and I become convinced of this, do I know definitively: it is good that I exist. It is good to be a human being.
“If ever man’s sense of being accepted and loved by God is lost, then there is no longer any answer to the question whether to be a human being is good at all,” the Pope said. “Doubt concerning human existence becomes more and more insurmountable. Where doubt over God becomes prevalent, then doubt over humanity follows inevitably.
“We see today how widely this doubt is spreading,” the Pope continued. “We see it in the joylessness, in the inner sadness, that can be read on so many human faces today. Only faith gives me the conviction: it is good that I exist. It is good to be a human being, even in hard times. Faith makes one happy from deep within.”
The last line bears repeating: “Faith makes one happy from deep within.”
And so, in essence, the Pope’s address to the Curia is a call for the renewal of faith, particularly in the West, where it has seemingly grown cold, or “fatigued,” so that, through this renewal, human life can be more authentic, more joyful, more filled with love, more filled with meaning, not meaningless, not empty, not sad.
The Pope then quickly ended his talk. His last words were: “I wish all of you the joy that God wanted to bestow upon us through the incarnation of his Son. A blessed Christmas to you all!”