Benedict XVI on new departures and the presence of God

“In every era, there have been persons who have dared this departure (from where they are) and to whom is revealed in a particularly clear manner the presence of God.”
Pope Benedict XVI,  To the German Katholikentag in Manheim, May 14, 2012.

The Holy Father wrote a brief letter to the Archbishop of Freiburg and all those attending the famous German Katholikentag conference in Mannheim. The German church has a long tradition of high-level conferences to discuss one or other aspect of Catholic doctrine or life within the context of the German nation. The pope first greets the Archbishop and bishops attending the conference, as well as non-Catholic representatives, the public officials, and other guests. The opening of the “Day” will be at the Marktplatz in the heart of Mannheim, a place which the pope undoubtedly knows.

The theme of this conference is “Dare to Make a New Departure.” What is of interest in this message is the way Benedict circles around the idea of a “new” departure in the light of Christian doctrine. Often “new” approaches hint a rejection of what God has revealed to us, as if we can concoct something better, more “new.” Right from the beginning it strikes me that this “new” beginning of which Benedict speaks does not find its roots in some revolutionary idea purporting to find nothing in the past worth knowing about or keeping.

First, Benedict asks: “What, in reality, do you wish to say by these words?”—that is, the theme, “Dare to Make a New Departure.” He goes on: “To depart signifies to put oneself in motion, to place one’s self on the way.”  Often this word also means a “decision to change and renew.”  No one can depart unless he is ready to leave aside the “old” and to confront the “new.” The new is not always better than the now or the past. Often it is worse.

But what does this departure mean for the “community” of the Church? Paul calls it the “mystical Body of Christ,” of which we are members. Benedict adds that we cannot “manipulate” the Church, whose Head is Christ. We are called to orient ourselves ever newly to the Head, the Author of our faith. “Renewal makes sense only if it approaches a new departure from that which is truly new in Christ who is ‘the way, the truth and the life.’” Hence any departure concerns every believer in a personal and interior manner.

Beginning with baptism, we are new in Christ, the Lord who has “liberated our humanity from sin” and has guided us to a new relation with God. Everyone should personally occupy himself with faith. Our ability to seek God is itself given to us by God; thus it ought always to be a personal departure. We are not “alone” or isolated from others. We believe with and in the community of the Church. The “departure” of every baptized person is, at the same time, a departure in the Church and with her.

In every generation, people have dared to depart to somewhere. When they do so, often they have a sense that their going forth is “incited” by God. The testimony of the saints and many good Christians tells us that we also may find a need for a new departure. Scripture and the sacred writings tell us that, in every age, what they had in their time and place was not “enough.” It has not only been a feeling of the incoherence of human things that has caused people to change their direction. The impulse can also come from God. True “departures” begin in obedience and in fidelity to the word of God. We can respond to the grace that is from Him when we overcome our fears to move on. We are not alone.

As an example of what he means, the Holy Father cites a letter of the famous Jesuit, Fr. Alfred Delp, who was from Mannheim. In a reflection written a few weeks before his death, Delp wrote “There are certain persons under the divine gaze. They hunger and thirst for that which is definitive” Such people move because they have heard an interior word. Without this inner sense of being called, they never would have moved. The true “newness” is that to which God calls us, not to that which we think up for ourselves.

Mannheim, Benedict recalls, is a city of great variety. A great “multiplicity” of ideas and conceptions, of projects of life and religion are found there. The adventure of departing in such an environment recognizes both the opportunity and danger to create a space in which we live together. In fact, only if we have a humanity in which love rules can we expect a lasting joy and peace. Not every departure is grounded in this ultimately divine source.

The Church has the competence to indicate, in a clear manner, the message of the Gospel. The contribution of all the baptized to the new evangelization cannot be renounced.  Our own country also has need of a new departure in apostolic missionary endeavor. We need the courage to orient ourselves to Christ. We wish to respond to the departure of God Himself to us men in His Incarnation. It is in this context that we can really offer a new future. We need to rediscover the faith of the Church in its beauty and freshness. We need to see its profundity and to announce it in a new time, one that has origins in the divine eternity, that is the only newness to which it is ever worth departing.

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).