Glancing over today’s headlines about Pope Benedict’s Holy Thursday homily, one can’t help but notice the fiery—even violent—language used to describe the Holy Father’s words. But was he really so scathing in his remarks?
Yes and no.
Benedict’s homily is about authentic renewal and the priest’s conforming himself to Christ—fittingly, because Holy Thursday marks Jesus’ institution of the priesthood at the Last Supper. Essential to the priest’s “configuration” to Christ is obedience, says Benedict. To illustrate his point, the Holy Father offers an example of what a lack of obedience looks like—specifically, a group of Austrian priests who have made a public “Call to Disobedience,” protesting of Church teaching on women’s ordination and priestly celibacy, among other things.
Benedict allows that it is possible these protesting priests “are motivated by concern for the Church, that they are convinced that the slow pace of institutions has to be overcome by drastic measures, in order to open up new paths and to bring the Church up to date.” But he rejects the notion that their blatant disobedience is the way to achieve these goals, asking, “Do we sense here anything of that configuration to Christ which is the precondition for all true renewal, or do we merely sense a desperate push to do something to change the Church in accordance with one’s own preferences and ideas?”
This explicit, high-profile critique of a specific group of people is unusual for Benedict, especially in the context of a homily—so headlines bringing this aspect of the Pope’s remarks to the fore are not completely unwarranted. But focusing entirely upon his criticisms (and characterizing him as “denouncing,” “assailing,” “ripping into,” etc.) misses the Pope’s larger point. He’s not just calling out a group of troublesome rabble-rousers; he’s talking about the very heart of the priesthood:
Two things, above all, are asked of us: there is a need for an interior bond, a configuration to Christ, and at the same time there has to be a transcending of ourselves, a renunciation of what is simply our own, of the much-vaunted self-fulfilment. We need, I need, not to claim my life as my own, but to place it at the disposal of another – of Christ. I should be asking not what I stand to gain, but what I can give for him and so for others.
“A priest never belongs to himself,” Benedict says later in his homily. Total consecration to Christ, and service to his Church, is the essence of the priesthood: “We preach not private theories and opinions, but the faith of the Church, whose servants we are.”
Obedience and conformity to Christ does not exclude authentic renewal, however:
Let us ask again: do not such reflections serve simply to defend inertia, the fossilization of traditions? No. Anyone who considers the history of the post-conciliar era can recognize the process of true renewal, which often took unexpected forms in living movements and made almost tangible the inexhaustible vitality of holy Church, the presence and effectiveness of the Holy Spirit. And if we look at the people from whom these fresh currents of life burst forth and continue to burst forth, then we see that this new fruitfulness requires being filled with the joy of faith, the radicalism of obedience, the dynamic of hope and the power of love.
Read Benedict’s Chrism Mass homily for yourself, here.
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