Thursday, September 20, 2012

Dying for One's Convictions

Twenty Fifth Ordinary Sunday Year B

On the 16th of April this year, Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, celebrated his 85th birthday and the seventh anniversary of his pontificate. Having weathered and survived the storm in the aftermath of his Regensburg address which angered millions of Muslims, a worldwide media onslaught on the Church’s ‘war crimes’ in the area of clergy child sexual abuse, ongoing criticisms of his defence of the Church’s moral teachings concerning life issues and marriage, continued opposition from within the Church on his views and initiatives in liturgy, the damaging Vatican-leaks that portrayed the Church as a badly-run and corrupt ridden organisation, and despite rumours that he may retire soon due to old age and health, the Pope still remains strong and resilient, although unable to conceal signs of physical frailty.

To his critics, the Pope is regarded as a capricious dictator, a Grand Inquisitor who clamps down on theological freedom, the German Rottweiler who heads a backward-looking, misogynistic organisation that continues to stunt social progress by her stands against homosexual relationships and the use of condoms to thwart the spread of AIDS, while self-righteously trying to cover up its own mistakes, including the crimes of paedophiliac clerical offenders. All these accusations and criticisms may come as a surprise to many of us. How could this man, the spiritual and temporal leader of a billion Catholics throughout the world earn such hate and derision? How could a religious man who stands for peace, a source of inspiration for millions, also court controversy? How do we explain this ambivalence?

I recently attended a talk by a friend of mine who ended his session with some anecdotal wisdom from the Pope. My friend described the Pope as someone who is both deeply loved and also widely hated, by both those within and outside the Church. And the reason for this is because he is a man of convictions. “One will go unnoticed if one didn’t have convictions or failed to reveal them.” According to a German thinker, Heinrich Heine, “People in those old times had convictions; we moderns have only opinions. And it needs more than a mere opinion to erect a Gothic cathedral.” No greatness can come from mere opinions. It takes strong convictions backed with the willingness to die for your beliefs to bring about serious change. In other words, you need to be dead serious before you are taken seriously.

What does it mean to have convictions? When you are a person of conviction, you believe that what you know is the truth and you are grounded in that truth. You stand by the truth whether it appears to the rest of the world as foolish or archaic, and regardless if it is not politically correct or not part of some fad.  You believe that the truth is True and that it is not determined by a popular vote, or by its convenience. Today, relativism teaches that there is no absolute truth, only personal subjective versions. But the Truth cannot be bent or moulded to fit personal situations or the times. The Truth is timeless. When you are truly grounded in the Truth, you believe from your core and you are prepared to defend it. At times you may be criticised as hopelessly out of date and out of touch. Yet you are prepared to forgo popularity in order to defend the Truth. The Pope has made his final stance in defence of the Truth.

In other words, to be a man of convictions means, to borrow biblical-theological language, to become a “sign of contradiction,” the rise and fall of many. To be a man of convictions is to embrace the contradiction posed by the cross, once seen as an instrument of torture and death, and now the instrument of our salvation. To be a man of convictions means to embrace the destiny of Christ and to live the challenge of the gospel paradox, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” Christians continue to make this same sign present through the centuries as they unite themselves with Christ.

If one were able to see beyond the ad-hominem ‘below the belt’ attacks and vilifications against the Pope, one would then realise that much of these criticisms reveal something far more insidious on the part of the hate-mongers and critics rather than about the object of their calumny and revulsion. The attacks on the Pope are for the most part attacks on the Catholic Church and the Truth which it has sworn to defend because the Pope is the visible icon of the Church. The reason for the Pope’s unpopularity with many of his critics is not because he lacks moral character or because he stubbornly refuses to move with the times. On the contrary, the Pope, and for that matter, Holy Mother Church, are criticised because they refuse to bend to the demands of public pressure to compromise the Truth in favour of a watered-down, appeasing Christianity. In other words, the Pope is a source of controversy, not because of his sins but because of the sinfulness of his critics. The enemies of the Pope and of the Church seem to be singing the same tune we had just heard in the first reading: “Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us; he sets himself against our doings, reproaches us for transgressions of the law and charges us with violations of our training.”

 Pope Benedict’s person and message are one. By his very presence he offers the world deluded by sin a path out of the bunker and into the light of truth. Pope Benedict makes written and spoken contributions on almost a daily basis about matters as diverse as the condition of modernity, the meaning of eternity, the conundrum of reason, and the quality of beauty, and yet many are only enabled to hear what he says when this threatens their reinforced positions. It is not the Pope who is stubborn and blind. It is the reverse.

Today, the Pope continues to be model of inspiration for all of us. Through his perseverance and fidelity to the Truth of the gospel, he has become the man of derision, the subject of ridicule and hate, the embodiment of the scandal and contradiction of the cross.  Often, wrongly accused of being a hardliner traditionalist and conservative, Peter Seewald, the famous German journalist and papal biographer who interviewed our Holy Father, described, the man as “ahead of his time.” Seewald tells us that the Pope is actually trying to steer the Church along the “Catholic centre,” not an Anglican kind of via media which is willing to compromise truth in favour of expediency, but a balanced course that leans neither to the extremisms of the left or the right. “With Ratzinger, everything is about the centre, but not in the sense of being average,” he continued. “It’s a positive middle line which, on closer inspection, is not the easiest of exercises, but the hardest,” he said. “Everyone can fall into either extremes, lurching to the left or to the right, but to take a straight path along a balanced centre — that is the school of a master.”

Today, the Master of masters, Jesus himself, outlines the path by which we must all take. Christians cannot be ambivalent when it comes to the cross. They must choose. They cannot be but persons of convictions. Their lives must ultimately lead to the contradiction of the cross. Conflict is inevitable for those who stand for Truth against the forces that lie. They will receive derision, hatred, condemnation from those who are blinded to the Truth but they will also be a source of inspiration to those who are prepared to see and listen to the voice of reason. To this world their announcement of the Truth of Gospel must be courageous, clear, consistent, constant and quite often a sign of contradiction. Christians are not deluded by some romanticised attachment to the past, neither are they stubbornly stuck to a position which is out of touch with the world. Christians are rooted in reality, the reality of cross. This is the lot of Christians, we can do no other, we can be no other. St Mary Benedicta of the Cross, or better known by her pre-baptismal Jewish name ‘Edith Stein,’ once taught on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross: “More than ever the cross is a sign of contradiction. The followers of the Antichrist show it far more dishonour than did the Persians who stole it. They desecrate the images of the Cross, and they make every effort to tear the cross out of the hearts of Christians. All too often they have succeeded even with those who, like us, once vowed to bear Christ's cross after him. Therefore, the Saviour today looks at us, solemnly probing us, and asks each one of us: Will you remain faithful to the Crucified? Consider carefully! The world is in flames, the battle between Christ and the Antichrist has broken into the open. If you decide for Christ, it could cost you your life.”

Sometimes, the fear and pain of conflict and persecution becomes unbearable and we are tempted once again to choose the false peace of compromise over Christ. But our hope comes in knowing that where things seem impossible for men, all things are possible for God. Love is stronger than hate. Truth is stronger than lies. During the homily delivered on his birthday this year, our 85 year old Pontiff said these words: “I find myself on the last stretch of my journey in life, and I don’t know what is awaiting me. I know, however, that the light of God exists, that he is risen, that his light is stronger than any darkness and that God’s goodness is stronger than any evil in this world, and this helps me go forward with certainty.”

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