WYD: Benedict the theologian offers seminar on Spirit


As pope, Benedict XVI is many things: A universal pastor, a media superstar, a voice of conscience in world affairs, and the leader of the 1.1-billion strong Catholic Church. As Joseph Ratzinger, however, this particular pope is also a world-class theologian, with decades of classroom experience in rendering complex ideas accessible to young minds.

That side of the pope’s personality stood out in especially clear fashion tonight, as Benedict XVI delivered what amounted to a theological exposition on the Holy Spirit – sometimes, as the pope put it, the “neglected person of the Blessed Trinity” – to a throng of young pilgrims estimated at 235,000 gathered for a vigil at Sydney’s Randwick Racecourse.

World Youth Day will wrap up with the concluding Mass, also at Randwick Racecourse, to be celebrated by the pope Sunday morning local time (7:00 pm ET on Saturday in the United States.)

Tonight, Benedict argued that the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, is the key to healing a “divided and fragmented world.”

The official motto of the Sydney World Youth Day is “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses,” a line from the Acts of the Apostles.

Benedict prefaced his exposition by observing that the human desire for unity is universal.

“From the forlorn child in a Darfur camp, or a troubled teenager, or an anxious parent in any suburb, or perhaps even now from the depth of your own heart, there emerges the same human cry for recognition, for belonging, for unity,” the pope said.

Benedict acknowledged that the Church’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit is “not easy to understand,” and added that as a young theologian he too had struggled to grasp the Spirit’s nature and role. With time, he said, he came to rely upon Saint Augustine’s presentation of the Holy Spirit as communion, abiding love, and giving and gift.

As communion, Benedict said, the Holy Spirit promotes a unity that cuts deeper than “the sum total of the groups through which we sometimes attempt to ‘define’ ourselves.” Through the Holy Spirit, he said, people are led to recognize their common need for God and the universality of human dignity, which flows into service to others.

As abiding love, the pope said, the Holy Spirit evokes “love which dispels uncertainty; love which overcomes the fear of betrayal; love which carries eternity within; the true love which draws us into a unity that abides.”

“Ideas or voices which lack love – even if they seem sophisticated or knowledgeable – cannot be ‘of the Spirit,’” the pope said.

As giving and gift, the Spirit leads humanity to see in God the only source of life and meaning that truly endures.

“In view of this ceaseless gift, we come to see the limitations of all that perishes, the folly of the consumerist mindset,” Benedict said. “We begin to understand why the quest for novelty leaves us unsatisfied and wanting.”

Benedict called upon the young pilgrims to allow these three aspects of the Holy Spirit – communion, love, and gift – to transform their lives, which in turn, he suggested, will lead to a new and better world.

“To be truly alive is to be transformed from within, open to the energy of God’s love,” the pope said. “In accepting the power of the Holy Spirit you too can transform your families, communities and nations.”

In this context, Benedict included a special plea to the youth gathered at Randwick Racecourse not to abandon the church.

Indirectly, the pope acknowledged that many people today find spirituality fascinating but are alienated by religious institutions and thus cast around for alternatives. Yet the Spirit’s role as a builder of communion, the pope argued, includes in a special way the unity of the church.

“In the face of imperfections and disappointments – both individual and institutional – we are sometimes tempted to construct artificially a ‘perfect’ community,” Benedict said. “That temptation is not new. The history of the church includes many examples of attempts to bypass or override human weaknesses or failures in order to create a perfect unity, a spiritual utopia.”

The pope warned that these tendencies are found even inside Catholicism.

“Some today portray their local community as somehow separate from the so-called institutional church, by speaking of the former as flexible and open to the Spirit and the latter as rigid and devoid of the Spirit,” the pope said.

Yet these efforts to bypass the institutional church, the pope argued, contradict the unity to which the Spirit points.

“To separate the Holy Spirit from Christ present in the church’s institutional structure would compromise the unity of the Christian community, which is precisely the Spirit’s gift,” Benedict said.

To spurn the unity of the church, Benedict argued, is to jeopardize what is most distinctive about Catholicism as a vast family of faith that cuts across space and through time.

“It is precisely the comprehensiveness, the vast vision, of our faith – solid yet open, consistent yet dynamic, true yet constantly growing in insight – that we can offer our world,” he said.

Based on all this, the pope issued a blunt challenge to his youthful audience to “resist any temptation to walk away.”

In passing, Benedict once again turned to a frequent motif in his thought: the perils of relativism, meaning the idea that all claims to truth are more or less equally valid.

“By its nature, relativism fails to see the whole picture,” the pope said. “It ignores the very principles which enable us to live and flourish in unity, order and harmony.”

While the young audience Saturday night seemed enthusiastic about the pope’s message, there were reminders around the edges of the controversies that sometimes surround him, especially on hot-button moral questions.

According to Australian media, one World Youth Day participant was arrested by police following a scuffle with protestors who surrounded the “pilgrim walk” leading to Randwick Racecourse.

Roughly 1,000 people lined the route to object to the church’s positions on homosexuality and birth control. The protest was in some ways deliberately provocative; chanting “pope go homo, gay is great” and “pope is wrong, put a condom on”, some protesters threw condoms at the pilgrims.

At one point a physical altercation broke out, and an Australian pilgrim was taken into custody after he reportedly punched a protestor in the neck. The pilgrim was not charged, media reports indicated, and was later released.

Meanwhile, Australian advocates for victims of sexual abuse called Benedict’s apology for the sex abuse crisis earlier today “meaningless,” in part because it was not delivered directly to the victims themselves.

“Victims, I’m sure, would feel very disheartened by this, and I’m sure that as the weeks go by they won’t feel that there was ever a real apology ever given,” said Chris McIsaac of the advocacy group “Broken Rites.”

Speaking at a Mass to dedicate an altar at Sydney’s St Mary's Cathedral, the pope said he was “deeply sorry” for sexual abuse committed by priests and other Catholic figures in Australia.

“Victims should receive compassion and care, and those responsible for these evils must be brought to justice,” he told an audience of Australian bishops, seminarians, and novices.

Before arriving at Randwick Racecourse for the vigil, Benedict XVI made an unscheduled stop to visit retired Cardinal Edward Bede Clancy, 84, a former Archbishop of Sydney, who is now living in a retirement home run by the Little Sisters of the Poor.

While there, the pope also greeted 92-year-old Rosemarie Goldie, an Australian and former under-secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. Goldie was the first woman to hold such a high office in the Vatican, an experience she recounted in her 1998 book From a Roman Window.

Benedict also greeted two retired bishops and several priests living at the home, in a visit that lasted roughly 20 minutes.

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