By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Obedience to God implies obedience to the church, Benedict XVI insisted tonight in a vespers service with priests and members of religious communities in the Basilica of Mariazell, Austria’s most famous Marian sanctuary. The pope also issued a strong defense of celibacy for Catholic priests.
Showing a bit of fatigue amid consistently inclement weather over the last two days, the pope’s voice was at times raspy.
Earlier in the day, Benedict XVI signaled that his universal interests haven’t faded despite being on a virtual homecoming. He laid hands on a replica of the statue of the Madonna of Mariazell that will be presented to the Bishop of Shanghai in China by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna. According to Vatican spokesperson Fr. Federico Lombardi, the pope expressed satisfaction that the Catholic Church in China was remembered as part of his Austrian pilgrimage.
The estimated 13 million Catholics in China face a series of restrictions on their religious freedom, and the Chinese government has recently announced plans to ordain new bishops without Vatican approval.
During the vespers service, the pope styled his remarks as reflections upon the three “evangelical counsels” of poverty, chastity and obedience.
“Jesus is concretely present to us only in his Body, the Church,” the pope said, paraphrasing the early 20th century theologian Romano Guardini. “As a result, obedience to God’s will, obedience to Jesus Christ, must be, really and practically, humble obedience to the church.”
Benedict argued that this obedience does not restrict human liberty, but allows people “to discover their deepest identity and interior freedom.” It’s an especially important bit of testimony, he said, in a world that craves “self-realization” and “self-determination.”
Benedict said that the promise of poverty taken by men and women consecrated to God’s service implies a special closeness to the poor of the world.
“For all Christians, but especially for priests and religious, both as individuals and in community, the issue of poverty and the poor must be the object of a constant and serious examination of conscience,” he said.
In a departure from his prepared text, the pope added that this is a special challenge for priests and religious because, by the standards of the truly poor, they live a relatively comfortable life.
Turning to chastity, Benedict offered a strong defense of priestly celibacy as a way of putting oneself “completely and unreservedly at the service of God’s Kingdom.” Celibacy does not mean being “aloof from interpersonal relationships,” the pope said, but rather the capacity to “open up a space” for God’s presence in a me-first world.
“Dear priests and religious, you have an important contribution to make: amid so much greed, possessiveness, consumerism and the cult of the individual, we strive to show selfless love for men and women,” he said.
Benedict suggested that the world would be significantly impoverished without the contributions of priests and religious.
“What might have happened if the history of Christianity lacked such outstanding figures and examples?” he asked rhetorically. “What would our world be like, if there were no priests, if there were no men and women in religious congregations and in communities of consecrated life – people whose lives testify to the hope of a fulfillment beyond every human desire, and an experience of the love of God which transcends all human love?”
“Today too, the world needs our witness,” he said.
Benedict told the priests and religious that their vocation is to be “on the side of those who are crushed by misfortune and can no longer break free of their burdens.”
“You stand against all forms of injustice, hidden or apparent, and against a growing contempt for man,” he said. “You testify to a ‘meaning’ rooted in God’s creative love, and opposed to every kind of meaningless and despair … You are the advocates of all those who seek God.”