By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Pope Benedict XVI told a group of priests yesterday that he was once “more severe” in terms of administering baptism and confirmation to ill-prepared or lukewarm candidates, but today he’s inclined to be generous wherever there is even “a flicker of desire for communion in the faith.”
The pope also conceded that, over the centuries, Christianity’s commitment to environmental protection may not always have been sufficiently clear. He argued, however, that belief in God is essential to sound ecology, because ultimately a materialist philosophy places no limits on humanity’s exploitation of nature.
Benedict XVI spoke to a group of more than 400 priests of the diocese of Bolzano-Bressanone in northern Italy, where he is currently passing two weeks of vacation. The behind-closed-doors session with the priests, which has become an annual custom for the pope, took place in the Cathedral of the Assumption in Bressanone, and lasted approximately 90 minutes. The pope took six questions and provided impromptu answers.
The Vatican is expected to release a transcript of the session shortly. Yesterday, Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson, briefed reporters on the highlights of the exchange.
The six questions, according to Lombardi, were:
•tFr. Willy Fusaro, a 42-year-old priest diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1991, the year of his ordination, and today confined to a wheelchair, asked the pope about the Christian meaning of suffering in light of the example of Pope John Paul II;
•tSeminarian Michael Horrer, who recently returned from World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia, asked the pope about pastoral outreach to the young;
•tFranciscan Fr. Willibald Hopfgartner posed a question about the relationship between reason and faith;
•tFr. Karl Golser, a professor of moral theology and a former staffer in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who served briefly under then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, asked his former boss about Christianity and the environment;
•tFr. Franz Pixner asked the pope to comment on priestly life;
•tFr. Paolo Ruzzi asked Benedict for advice on how generous a priest should be in administering the sacraments of baptism and confirmation.
In response to Fusaro’s question on suffering, Lombardi said that Benedict divided the pontificate of John Paul II into two phases. The first came when an athletic, strong John Paul bestrode the world as a “giant of the faith,” while the second came with his slow physical decline and growing weakness. These years, Benedict said, were “not of lesser importance.”
“With this witness of his own passion, he carried the Cross of Christ with humility,” Benedict said. “With deep humility he accepted the destruction of his body, and thus showed us clearly the truth of the passion of Christ.”
When Golser posed his question on the environment, Lombardi said that Benedict laughingly replied, “You could answer that better than I can.” (Golser serves as director of the Institute for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation in Bressanone, and has published widely on environmental ethics.)
According to Lombardi, Benedict said that in the past the connection between the church’s teaching on redemption, and on care of creation, may not always have been underlined with enough force. Today, however, the pope said Christians are clearly called to ecological concern, especially by offering examples of “lifestyles” respectful of the environment.
In fact, Benedict argued, if God is denied and the world seen as mere “matter,” then it’s far easier for human beings to justify arbitrary and selfish exploitation of natural resources.
Finally, Lombardi called the pope’s response on sacramental discipline “very interesting.”
“When I was younger, I was more severe,” Lombardi quoted Benedict XVI as saying in response to the question about baptism and confirmation.
“With time, I came to understand the importance of taking the path of mercy, following the example of the Lord, who welcomed even a flicker of desire for communion in the faith,” the pope said.
Benedict quickly added, however, according to Lombardi, that this doesn’t mean the sacraments should be administered when faith is absent.