Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
April 25, 2005
Listen to the searching hearts
It is perhaps fitting that Catholics will get our new pope - Pope Benedict XVI - close to the May 2 feast of St. Athanasius. Athanasius, a fourth century bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, was one of the Church's greatest defenders of the faith and one of those most dedicated to telling the world about the nature of Jesus.
The Church in Athanasius' day, under Constantine, had just become the state religion. It faced an important choice - to water down the faith to appeal to the huge numbers who did not understand Christianity or to preach the Gospel as the Church understood it.
After Constantine's death, the Arian heresy gained wide popularity among bishops and the new emperor. Arius' teaching, simply put, was that Jesus was not God in the same way that the Father was God. The Word was created and was not "one in being with the Father."
Athanasius devoted his life to preaching against the heresy, to articulating the true nature of Jesus as the Son of God. His Arian opponents drove him into exile five times. The most dramatic exile began in 356 when legions of soldiers armed with swords and javelins broke into the church where he was leading a prayer vigil. The soldiers rampaged through the church, killing many people. They seized Athanasius and were eager to kill him, but he miraculously slipped away and escaped into the desert. He spent six years there.
It seemed to be the triumph of Arianism. Nowhere were there bishops who would uphold the Nicene Creed. But when those bishops tried to define who Jesus really was, disagreements and factionalism set in. At their moment of victory, the Arians disintegrated.
Then something interesting happened. Athanasius, the champion of orthodoxy, became the great healer. He urged his orthodox followers to loosen up and open the door to forgiveness. Athanasius came out of the desert and led the call at a Church council to forgive those wayward bishops who would sign the Nicene Creed. All but the most radical Arians did sign and harmony was restored to the Church.
Surely two qualities we need in the first pope elected in the 21st century are the ability to the faith speak clearly to an unbelieving Western world and to speak clearly and simply about Jesus.
In the interregnum between two popes we have heard many secular voices who would like the Church to conform to the world, rather than let the world be permeated by the Gospel. The Church has been told that it should shape up and obey the teachings of the Western cultural elite. Only then will it be popular. This, of course, is a sham.
But neither should we shut down dialogue between the Church and the world. Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini used much of his time as archbishop of Milan to reach out to those who could not accept the Church. He maintained that within each person lies "a believer and a non-believer," each trying to convince the other.
If we can accept that such an internal dialogue exists, our pastoral outreach, our evangelization, will involve listening as much as it involves articulating the teachings of the Church.
At a Mass in Rome on April 16, Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican's chief ecumenical officer, spoke briefly about the need for strong pastoral skills in a new pope. "Let's not search for someone who is too scared of doubt and secularity in the modern world," he said.
Athanasius was a great champion of orthodoxy. But he preached a God who was loving and close to his people. God became flesh so that flesh might become divine. When push came to shove, Athanasius cleared the path for the hearts of those who had strayed to be accepted into the orthodox way.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was often villified in Western Church circles for being too strong a defender of orthodoxy. But he is a humble and holy man, a man who does have the ability to listen. We know he is willing to take the unpopular stand. May God bless Pope Benedict with renewed courage and also with a heart that will hear the non-believer's hunger for truth.
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