Monday, February 27, 2012

Chapter and verse: Pope uses Bible reflection to address 'his' priests

Speaking 38 minutes without a prepared text, Pope Benedict XVI gave priests of the Diocese of Rome a look not only at how he approaches Scripture, but also at his priorities and personality.

Addressing the Rome priests as "my clergy," the pope led them Feb. 23 in a reflection on faith, truth, hope and humility.

Sitting behind a table and talking without a text -- throwing in explanations of Greek words, Scriptural references and trends in modern theology -- the pope used Ephesians 4:1-16 as a framework for reflecting on the problems facing the church and on the way priests should respond to them.

Until last year, the pope's annual Lenten meeting with the Rome priests was an opportunity for them to ask him questions. But in 2011, he chose to move to the format of "lectio divina" -- reading a Scripture passage together and then going through it almost line by line to draw lessons and inspiration.

The question-and-answer format was used frequently by Blessed John Paul II in meetings with priests and seminarians, giving him a chance to hear their problems and concerns. At the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Benedict kept up the tradition; but especially after the 2008 Synod of Bishops on the Bible, the pope began using the "lectio divina" format more often to let the Bible guide discussions with clerical groups.

The pope's talk to Rome priests and his off-the-cuff "lectio divina" sessions Feb. 15 with Rome seminarians and in September with seminarians in Germany included references to the Hebrew, Greek or Latin versions of the biblical passage, as well as the commentaries of ancient church fathers, especially St. Augustine.

Usually, aides prepare at least the initial draft of papal speeches and homilies, so the fact that the pope addressed the priests and seminarians without reading from a text gave them a greater sense of the way he thinks and approaches Scripture and the challenges facing the church.

The pope did not ignore the difficulties of being a priest today, but said he and his fellow priests must strive to live as St. Paul admonished the Ephesians, "with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love."

The pope used the pronoun "we" throughout his speech, saying the way he and the priests live their lives will determine their ability to help others believe in Jesus and follow God's will.

"The great suffering of the church today in Europe and the West is the lack of priestly vocations. But the Lord always is calling, what is lacking is listening," the pope said. "We have listened to his voice," he told the priests, "and we must always be attentive to the Lord calling others, helping them listen and accept the call."

The church's pastors must imitate St. Paul's style in teaching and encouraging people, using "the loving invitation of a father or mother," and not "a moralistic admonition," Pope Benedict said.

Priests, bishops and even the pope also must be humble, which does not mean being a doormat, but accepting the fact that while "we are small" in the grand scheme of things -- "I am just one thought of God," he said -- God entrusts each person with a special gift for the good of the entire community.

"The little humiliations we endure day by day are salubrious," he said, because they help one maintain a balance between knowing he us unique and knowing he is just one of the billions of unique creatures God formed and called.

"To accept this, to learn this and accept my position in the church" means to recognize "my little service as something great in the eyes of God," he said.

"The absence of humility destroys unity," the pope said, because it feeds pride, competition, a search for power and the denial of the gifts of others.

Another major problem in the church today highlighted by the pope was "religious illiteracy," a lack of knowledge about what the church teaches and why.

"With this illiteracy we cannot grow, unity cannot increase. So we ourselves must recover this content as a richness for unity -- not as a package of dogmas and commandments, but as a unique reality that reveals itself through its depth and beauty," he said.

"We will renew the church only if we renew people's knowledge of the faith," he said, which is the chief reason why he said he proclaimed the Year of Faith and why it is important for Catholics to know the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The Letter to the Ephesians calls Christians to a mature faith, which many people today believe means being "emancipated" from the church and its teachings, the pope said. But without a firm anchor to the faith and knowledge of what it teaches, they are tossed by "the waves of the world, by the opinions of the world (and) by the dictatorship of the media."