Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Britons who inspired Benedict XVI

In his final homily at World Youth Day last year, Pope Benedict XVI caught people by surprise when he quoted from "God's Grandeur", a poem by the English Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Cardinal John Henry Newman's influence on the Holy Father's work and thought is well known, and he is believed to have a particular affection for St Thomas More.

In the last year he has used St Bede, St Boniface and St Anselm, early saints linked to Britain, who were important for the Christianisation of Europe, in his weekly catechesis.

Word on the Via della Conciliazione is that the prospect of Newman's beatification was one of the main catalysts for prompting the Holy Father's visit to one of Europe's most secular countries in 2010.

Despite Britain's relative insignificance in terms of the size of its Catholic population, the influence of its saints and thinkers have made their mark on the present Pope.

The Australian academic and author of the book Ratzinger's Faith, Dr Tracey Rowland, has argued that the old cliché about the Second Vatican Council "that the Rhine flowed into the Tiber", should be re-written to include the Thames, the Isis and the Cherwell.

Pope Benedict's papacy has been marked by his emphasis on the re-evangelisation of Europe and by his fight against the dictatorship of relativism, a theme which he first addressed before the papal election.

At the time he said: "Letting oneself be 'tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine', seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognise anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires."

As an academic, Joseph Ratzinger has often written about the pessimism of British Enlightenment thought, from Locke to Hobbes, from the much earlier Francis Bacon to David Hume, which has limited the scope of reason to an empiricism which excludes God. In many ways, these thinkers of the Enlightenment paved the way for present day Europe's crisis of faith, for its wide-spread secularism and its materialist mindset.

At the end of his recent trip to the Czech Republic, Pope Benedict reminded his listeners that his journey to Europe's least Christian country was for all of Europe. He said that Europe needed to fall in love with Christ again.

Perhaps this is why the Pope's eyes have turned to the early saints of Britain's history, because he remembers that this tiny island was responsible for evangelising most of central Europe, a task that once again needs accomplishing.

In February, Pope Benedict spoke of St Bede's emphasis on "catholicity" which he defined as "faithfulness to tradition while remaining open to historical developments" as well as the quest "for unity in multiplicity" and "historical diversity".

He also wrote of Bede's focus on "apostolicity and Roman traditions". St Bede was a church historian and contributed to the Church's understanding of herself. Pope Benedict said that St Bede "made an effective contribution to building a Christian Europe in which the various peoples and cultures amalgamated with one another, thereby giving them a single physiognomy, inspired by the Christian faith".

Ss Boniface and Anselm also fit into this view of a Christian Europe. Boniface was the apostle of the Germans who evangelised the Pope's native Bavaria. In another of the Holy Father's weekly catecheses, he held up Boniface as an example of someone who kept the centrality of the Gospel in his heart. Pope Benedict offered St Boniface as a reminder "that Christianity, by encouraging the dissemination of culture, furthers human progress".

He said: "By comparing his ardent faith, this zeal for the Gospel, with our own often lukewarm and bureaucratised faith, we see what we must do and how to renew our faith, in order to give the precious pearl of the Gospel as a gift to our time."

St Anselm lived somewhat later than the other two and was a continental European who held the See of Canterbury, and the Holy Father mentioned him as an example of a man who fought against the temporal powers trying to exercise their might over spiritual matters.

If Bede, Boniface and Anselm are the bearers of Europe's Christian roots and St Thomas More, a saint of the Reformation stands for religious freedom, then the soon to be-beatified Venerable John Henry Newman offers the example of a man who comes out of the Anglo-Saxon intellectual tradition and who struggles with it - but finds a way of answering its pessimism with his Grammar of Assent.

Cardinal Newman appears again and again in Pope Benedict's writing, in his footnotes and in his speeches.

Newman's influence on the German Tübingen theological school was very strong, says Dr Rowland, and a young Ratzinger was taught "Newman's teaching on the development of doctrine, which he regards, along with Newman's doctrine on conscience, as Newman's decisive contribution to the renewal of theology".

Dr Rowland quotes an instance from Ratzinger's 1990 lecture for Newman's centenary: "[Newman's work on the development of doctrine] placed the key in our hand to build historical thought into theology, or much more, [Newman] taught us to think historically in theology and so to recognise the identity of faith in all developments."

She draws a parallel between St Thomas More's Christian humanism and his defence of the Papacy with what she describes as Newman's Christian humanism, which came with a love of beauty, a revival of patristic thought, scholarly thought about conscience. Dr Rowland also paints Pope Benedict as a new Christian humanist in the mould of More and Newman.

The influence of Britain's saints and thinkers on Pope Benedict's thought will make his visit in 2010 all the more momentous.

If, as seems to be the plan at the moment, he speaks in the hall where St Thomas More was tried, gives a lecture at the University where Newman taught and walks where Boniface, Anselm and Bede once lived, the papal visit will be full of poignant moments.

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