By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Pope Benedict XVI today delivered an eloquent, at turns almost poetic plea for a fresh look at core Christian claims, and the heart of his message boiled down to this: The church's claim to exclusive truth, often experienced by world-weary Europeans as a smokescreen for intolerance and power, is in reality an invitation to love.
Benedict spoke during an open-air Mass held amid steady rain in a square in front of the Basilica of Mariazell, one of the most popular Marian sanctuaries in Central Europe.
For Austrians who have spent the better part of the last decade protesting what many here see as the excessive negativity of the church, Benedict’s argument was that at heart Christianity is a “yes” rather than a “no” – a yes to God, to life, to the family, to social responsibility and justice.
Whether the pope’s appeal will be enough to heal deep scars in the Austrian church left by recent crises over sexual abuse and authority, or to offset the inroads of mounting secularization, is anyone’s guess. What seems clear, however, is that Benedict’s strategy for breaking the impasse is a return to the basics – an attempt to remind people of why the world embraced Christianity in the first place, before it evolved into a complex moral and juridical system.
“Christianity is more than and different from a moral code,” Benedict said, “from a series of requirements and laws. It is the gift a friendship that lasts through life and death.”
At times almost lyrical, Benedict said that at the heart of the Christian gospel are the outstretched arms of Jesus on the Cross – which become the outstretched arms of Christians at prayer, and of Christians embracing the whole world in love. Remember that, Benedict seemed to imply, and all the rest of it will somehow seem manageable.
“The earth will be deprived of a future only when the forces of the human heart and of reason illuminated by the heart are extinguished – when the face of God no longer shines upon the earth,” the pope said.
“Where God is, there is the future.”
Benedict told the crowd of roughly 30,000 gathered at this remote mountain site that belief in Jesus Christ as the lone savior of the world is not an act of arrogance, or disrespect for other religions.
“On the contrary, it means that we are gripped by him who has touched our hearts and lavished gifts upon us, so that we, in turn, can offer gifts to others,” the pope said.
That led Benedict into a reflection on the importance of truth for Western culture.
“Our faith is decisively opposed to the attitude of resignation that considers man incapable of truth,” he said, “as if this were more than he could cope with. The attitude of resignation with regard to truth lies at the heart of the crisis of the West, the crisis of Europe. If truth does not exist for man, than neither can he ultimately distinguish between good and evil. And then the great and wonderful discoveries of science become double-edged: they can open up significant possibilities for good, for the benefit of mankind, but also, as we see only too clearly, they can pose a terrible threat, involving the destruction of man and the world.”
Despite the high stakes the pope clearly perceives, he insisted that Christians must not seek to impose the truth coercively.
“Truth prevails not through external force, but it is humble and it yields itself to man only via the inner force of its veracity,” Benedict said. “Truth proves itself in love. It is never our property, never our product. … As Christians we trust this force of truth. We are its witnesses.”
Later, the pope struck a similar theme.
“God comes not with external force, but he comes with the powerlessness of his love,” he said.
The claim that Christianity is not a book of rules, the pope said, doesn’t mean the faith lacks moral content.
“It also contains within itself great moral strength, which is so urgently needed today on account of the challenges of our time,” Benedict said.
The pope then ticked off a version of the Ten Commandments, arguing that behind the well-known formula of “Thou Shalt Not” rests an underlying “yes” to a basic human or spiritual value.
“It is first and foremost a ‘yes’ to God, to a God who loves us and leads us, who carries us and et allows us our freedom,” Benedict said. “Indeed, it is her who makes our freedom real (the first three commandments.) It is a ‘yes’ to the family (fourth commandment), a ‘yes’ to life (fifth commandment), a ‘yes’ to responsible love (sixth commandment), a ‘yes’ to solidarity, to social responsibility and to justice (seventh commandment), a ‘yes’ to truth (eighth commandment and a ‘yes’ to respect for other people and for whaty is theirs (ninth and tenth commandments).”
“By the strength of our friendship with the living God, we live this manifold ‘yes’ and at the same time ewe carry it as a signpost into our world,” the pope said.
Reflecting on the child Jesus, the pope argued that Christian morality implies a special concern for children: “Children who live in poverty; who are exploited as soldiers; who have never been able to experience the love of parents; sick and suffering children, but also those who are joyful and healthy.”
In the context of widespread relativism and a lack of faith about the future, the pope argued, Christians today are called to be counter-cultural.
“Today as in the past, it is not enough to more or less like everyone else, and to think like everyone else,” he said. “Our lives have a deeper purpose.”
Mariazell, which this year celebrates its 850th anniversary, is nestled amid the Styrian mountains roughly two hours outside Vienna. It inspired composer Joseph Haydn’s Mass in C Major, the “Mariazellermesse.”