The publication of Benedict XVI’s foreword to the German Edition of the latest book written by Cardinal Robert Sarah generated a turmoil that, in some ways, recalls what the climate was like during his pontificate.

In the foreword, Benedict lauded Pope Francis’s choice to appoint Cardinal Sarah as Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship. This sentence by itself ignited a controversy without any reason.

Benedict’s words were read as a political statement against Pope Francis. Cardinal Sarah is in fact considered by many as being isolated within the Congregation he leads, given that the membership of the Congregation was recently reshaped and the new members are considered as being on the other side.

This way of interpreting Benedict’s words is a sign of times. No gestures are considered in good faith, and everything is read merely through an ideological and political lens. However, the facts should be allowed to stand on their own. Only in this way, can matters be pondered with clarity.

By dealing solely with the facts, I mean reading Benedict’s foreword with no ideological prejudice.

The Pope Emeritus writes a very personal text, based on his reflections during his youth. He reminds us that Jesus lived nights alone “on the mountain to pray”, and that “his speech, his word, comes from his remaining in silence, because only there could it flourish”.

Benedict concedes that “to interpret Jesus’ words, a historical competence is needed, to understand the time and the language of that time.” He adds, however, that this competence “is not enough to catch the Lord’s message in all its depth.” And he finally observes that commentaries on the Gospels – which are “always longer” – often leave one disappointed because in the end there is the feeling that something essential is lacking in that surplus of words.”

This rationale is at the basis of the whole of Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI’s theological reflection. Not by chance, his latest academic work was the “Jesus of Nazareth” trilogy, based on the way Jesus is related in the Gospels. Moreover, Benedict dedicated one of his messages for the World Day for Social Communications to silence. Lastly, Benedict also imposed the rhythm of silence to the noisy World Youth Days, setting a period of Eucharistic adoration at the end of the Vigil to be concluded with a silent blessing: the Pope disappeared, Jesus entered.

Benedict’s reflection, with his praise of Cardinal Sarah, must be situated in this context. He praises the Cardinal because his spirituality can bring an added value to liturgy. Liturgy is also one of the core topics close to Benedict’s heart.

In the end, there was nothing political, nothing ideological. However, the debate surrounding the foreword is a sign of the times, and it tells us something about the recent history of the Church.

The arguments raised seem to belong to the period following the Second Vatican Council, when theological debates were determined by political, rather than spiritual, categories. In the end, despite the strong missionary wind supported by Pope Francis, we are living in an ever more secularized Church. Or – to some extent – we are experiencing a Church whose missionary strength is read through the lens of secularization.

That this is a kind of ongoing discussion can be noted by many details. Here are some examples.

Last Sunday, Pope Francis announced a consistory for the creation of five new Cardinals. They are: Louis Marie Ling Mangkhanekhoun, Apostolic Vicar of Paskè, Laos; Gregorio Rosa Chavez, Auxiliary Bishop of San Salvador, El Salvador; Anders Arborelius, Bishop of Stockholm, Sweden; Jean Zerbo, Archbishop of Bamako, Mali; Juan José Omella, Archbishop of Barcelona, Spain.

So, the five new Cardinals come from Laos, San Salvador, Sweden, Mali, Spain, With the exception of Spain, none of these countries ever had a Cardinal until now.

Is a geopolitical reading enough to interpret this new consistory? Certainly, this reading might make some sense. Laos is one of the fewest countries that has no diplomatic ties with the Holy See, though there are signs of a thaw. A Cardinal resident there, in the end, is a way to carry on the dialogue at the highest level. The red hat for Mali rewards a countries stricken by civil war and Islamic radicalism, and a bishop on the frontline to work for reconciliation. Sweden is the country where the Protestant Reformation was more violent than anywhere else: it is just a few years since being Catholic is not equal to losing one’s civil rights. El Salvador is Archbishop Oscar Romero’s homeland. Archbishop Romero was recently beatified, and the new Cardinal was very close to him. The new Cardinal of Barcelona is very well known by Pope Francis, though the Spanish Bishops Conference did not choose him to be part of its top ranks.

This is one reading. It is also true that Pope Francis cannot be looking only at these issues. He wants shepherds with the smell of the sheep, according to a vision he carried on with the creation of new Cardinals – and after this consistory there will be 49 Cardinals created by Pope Francis.

However, the same notions of “existential periphery” or “throw away culture,” applied to interpret Pope Francis’s appointments, are sociological notions, rather than spiritual notions.

The profile of new bishops is the real reform of Pope Francis, because he does not seem to really care about Curia reorganization. But how is this profile shaped? What really is Pope Francis’s Church?

Last week the Italian Bishops’ Conference gathered for its general assembly and appointed the new president, after 10 years of Cardinal Bagnasco’s term. Pope Francis asked the bishops to choose Bagnasco’s successor themselves. But the bishops preferred instead to adjust their statutes in order to vote a set of three candidates to be presented to the Pope. The Pope could thus eventually pick the new president out of those three, but he also could make the appointment outside of the set.

Everyone knew that Pope Francis’s gaze was fixed on Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, Archbishop of Perugia, who got the red hat at the very beginning of Pope Francis’s pontificate. This is the reason the majority of Italian bishops voted for him, making the appointment easy for the Pope.

Whatever the Pope’s reasons are for the choice, a political-ideological reason for the pick was also advanced. Cardinal Bassetti was located in the line of discontinuity. Cardinal Bagnasco’s line was considered, especially by the secular press, as only slightly inclined toward dialogue, but constructed instead on non-negotiable values – whether those concerned with human life or social values.

Questions that came up during Cardinal Bassetti’s press conference as president dealt with the bishops’ position on an eventual third family day in Rome that is going to be scheduled in October; the bishops’ position on non-negotiable values; and euthanasia, as there is a bill on it that is currently under discussion in the Italian Parliament. Even Amoris Laetitia was the object of one of the questions during the presser, as journalists wanted to know what the bishops’ line was going to be under the new president.

The new President of the Italian Bishops’ Conference never gave a direct answer. He never exposed his position, nor in general did he make explicit the Church’s position. He talked about pastoral choices, choices of the heart, spirituality. As far as Amoris Laetitia was concerned, he closed the discussion saying that the document is a masterpiece and that it is Pope’s Magisterium. How this Magisterium should be applied, however, was not made explicit.

Such vague responses are enough to shed light on a Church allegedly dialoguing with the world – the opposite of the Church in contrast with the world as previously depicted. In the end, the truth is that when pastors and teachers speak out clearly, they are censored or attacked. When they do not do so, they receive Hosannas. This is a very serious problem.

It is important to remember that the Church is not merciful only from yesterday For example, migration issues are very fashionable today, especially since the Pope raised it to one of the top issues of his agenda and decided to direct personally the migration section within the new Dicastery for Integral Human Development. However, the first World Day for Migrants was celebrated in 1915. That is to say: the Church has been focusing on the issue for a very long time.

Other examples can be provided. In the end, there seems to be a sort of need on the part of this pontificate to mark a discontinuity and to close the accounts with an uncomfortable past. But how this past could be viewed as uncomfortable is difficult to assess.

The fact is that we are back to a discussion that bears many of the terms of the secularized world, while spiritual issues are set aside.

So, the creation of Cardinals is discussed in the terms of a major global representation in the College of Cardinals, while it is barely remembered that the College was first of all a collegial way of governing. This same latter detail is forgotten in discussions where collegiality is emphasized while it is accepted at the same time that, although every decision is made from the bottom up, decisions can be changed by making a clean slate of the composition and memberships of dicasteries. When a major role for laypeople within the Roman Curia is pushed, history is forgotten. In fact, even laypeople were part – and important part – of the Pontifical Family. When Pontifical Ceremonies are considered out of date, no one remembers that the same Ceremonies were designed to underscore that people are not just going to visit a man, a global leader, a moral force, but rather a Pope, the Vicar of Christ on earth.

With time, the Church has lost much of the richness of its own language, and choices made by Churchmen are influenced by this lack of a spiritual – or even just Catholic – vocabulary. This is a crucial issue, to be faced in the future. In the meantime, Curia reform merely aims at gaining greater functionality, while the production of content seems to be set aside.

It is then expected that the new Secretary of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development will be soon appointed. He should be a French priest, from the diocese of Lyon, whose appointment will certainly help to give depth to a dicastery that was previously considered the cultural outpost of papal diplomacy.

The appointment, however, also derives from this new functionalist perspective, as evidenced in the fact that it was decided following a series of job interviews conducted in accord with a set of ideal profiles prepared for the new dicastery.

Given these details, there is a strong suspicion that a company-like mentality – or, in Pope Francis’s words, a merciful NGO mentality – has taken the lead in the Vatican. This suspicion increases while the topics concerning Curia reform continue to be discussed, and while, at the same time, Pope Francis’s public speeches seem to go in a different direction.

If this is the mentality, it is natural that even situations like Benedict XVI’s foreword to Cardinal Sarah’s book, are charged with political meanings. They prop up the narrative. It should be interesting to see how much this narrative, this geopolitical idea, is the same as Pope Francis’s.

The Pope often makes surprising decisions. But even the search for surprises connotes a sort of inferiority complex toward the secular – as if it were necessary to employ secular language in order to get closer to the world – as if the Church had something to be forgiven, or should do something in order to be accepted.

In this context, Benedict XVI’s hope for a liturgy based on hearing and a theology that is born out of silence resonates now more than ever. Cardinal Bagnasco’s cry that we are witnessing the building of a “world order without God” echoes everywhere.

And Cardinal Sarah laments in turn. As he said at the presentation of the German edition of his book: “Sometimes, I have the impression that secularization got into our Church and consists precisely in reducing faith to a human measure.”

In the end, “instead of opening man to God’s initiative, which is unexpected, disruptive, liberating, it is thought today that man can believe better if we propose a faith that is not grounded on Christ’s revelation and on the Church’s tradition, but on the needs of modern man, on his possibilities and mentality.”


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