By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Opening the Synod of Bishops on the Bible this morning, Pope Benedict XVI urged the bishops gathered in Rome for the next three weeks to think big -- asking them to ponder how the Bible can fuel renewal "from the family to schools, culture, work, free time and other sectors of society and our lives.”
The clear hint was that the pope does not want this synod to be primarily an inward-directed affair, concerned with the role of the Bible in internal church affairs, but rather one with a much broader horizon.
The pope also struck two key themes of his papacy: a just world is impossible without God, and the need for a renewal of Christianity’s missionary energies.
Pope Benedict XVI celebrated the opening Mass of the synod this morning at the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, the first time the opening liturgy has been staged outside St. Peter’s Basilica. Benedict has designated 2008 as a “Pauline Year” in honor of St. Paul, the great missionary of early Christianity.
In his remarks to the congregation at St. Paul’s, which included 52 cardinals, 45 archbishops, and 108 bishops, Benedict warned against “the coldness and rebellion of incoherent Christians.”
“Nations which once were rich in faith and vocations are now losing their identity,” the pope said, “under the deleterious and destructive influence of a certain modern culture.”
In that context, Benedict returned to a familiar theme: the false promises of a world without God.
“When humanity eliminates God from its horizon, declaring God ‘dead,’ does that really make people happier?” Benedict asked. “Does humanity become truly freer? When people proclaim themselves the absolute proprietors of themselves and the lone owners of creation, can they truly construct a society in which justice, freedom and peace reign?”
“Doesn’t the opposite actually happen, as the daily news amply demonstrates?” Benedict said, answering his own rhetorical question. “Doesn’t the rule of power, of egotistical interests, of injustice and exploitation, of violence in all of its expressions, simply spread even more?”
A world without God, Benedict warned, ends with people “more alone, and a divided and confused society.”
Despite the dire tone of those alarms, Benedict also offered a note of hope, saying that “if in some regions the faith is weakening to the point of extinction, there will always be other peoples ready to welcome it.”
As pope, Benedict has repeatedly insisted that tension between proclaiming the gospel and working for social justice, which is often experienced at the Catholic grassroots, is a false choice. Ultimately, he has argued, Christ is the only basis for lasting justice and peace, so that preaching the gospel is a form of building a better world.
“Only the Word of God can change human hearts at the deepest level,” the pope said this morning.
In that connection, Benedict focused on the link between the Bible and the missionary impulse in Christianity. He distinguished three groups that should be the object of missionary efforts:
•tThose who have never heard the gospel;
•tThose who have weakened in the faith, and preserve only a superficial contact with the Word of God;
•tThose who have become distant from the faith and therefore require a “new evangelization.”
Emphasizing the importance of the Bible, Benedict quoted a famous adage of St. Jerome: “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”
More broadly, Benedict urged that the synod develop new strategies to draw on the Bible to evangelize broad sectors of culture.
In remarks during his Angelus address, Benedict stressed the importance of the Synod of Bishops itself. He said it’s designed to do four things:
•t“Favor a close union and collaboration between the pope and the bishops of the world”;
•t“Furnish direct and exact information regarding the circumstances and the problems of the church”;
•t“Favor agreement on doctrine and pastoral action”;
•t“Deal with themes of great importance today.”