Today, Word on Fire guest blogger Brandon Vogt reflects upon his experience as a Catholic entirely under the papacy of Benedict XVI.
Pope Benedict XVI is the only Pope I’ve known as a Catholic, which puts me in rare company. Some older Catholics living today have seen as many as seven pontiffs. A large number have witnessed a significant Church council and have experienced sweeping changes to the Church and the liturgy. But I’ve missed just about all of it. I was born way after Vatican II, have never worshipped in Latin, and count the current Pope as my lone Papa.
Before I became Catholic, I heard rumors and rumblings about Pope Benedict XVI (I was initially quite terrified to enter a Church led by “God’s Rottweiler.”) Because of these claims, I didn’t exactly focus too much on the pontiff. After all, my conversion came about because I was convinced of the Church, not of the man at her helm.
Yet once I entered the Church, many friends suggested I dig into his teachings for myself. I followed their advice, and was overwhelmed by what I found—an unmatched intellect, a passionate lover of Scripture, and a warrior battling against the ‘dictatorship of relativism.’ But of the many things I’ve learned from Benedict since then, three ideas have held particular weight: the centrality of encountering Christ, the proper interpretation of the Bible, and—though this one may be surprising—the gift and power of New Media.
First, anyone studying Benedict’s writings is bound to come across a recurring motif: that Christianity centers not on a philosophy, not on certain doctrines, not on morality, but on a personal relationship with Christ. The Pope has often reiterated that those other things certainly matter, but they aren’t central; they bloom out of an encounter with Jesus, but are not the “one thing needed” (Luke 10:42).
In a recent speech to Filipino prelates, Benedict explained that their great mission was to “propose a personal relationship with Christ as the key to complete fulfillment.” The same theme pops up again in the Introduction to his new book, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: “I have attempted to develop a way of observing and listening to the Jesus of the Gospels that can indeed lead to a personal encounter.”
Coming from an Evangelical background, which stressed the importance of “knowing Jesus in a personal way,” I see the Pope as a solid bridge toward Evangelicals. And I’m not alone in believing that. During a roundtable discussion of Benedict’s most recent book, an esteemed Protestant scholar revealed that he would gladly assign the book for his seminary class, claiming that if the book didn’t have Pope Benedict’s name on the cover, his students would probably be unaware they were reading a Catholic book.
That’s not to say that Benedict XVI softens Catholicism for ecumenical purposes. Instead it testifies that he rightly understands the centrality of an intimate connection to Christ, a “mere Christianity” that most Protestants are comfortable with.
The second thing I’ve learned from the Holy Father regards the proper interpretation of Scripture. In his recent exhortation on the Word of God, Verbum Domini, Benedict reiterated the proper place for Biblical interpretation: the Church. Just as I wouldn’t interpret The Lord of the Rings without consulting Tolkien’s intention, or discover the Constitution’s true meaning without heeding the Supreme Court, I can’t fully understand Scripture without the guidance of the Church.
Without proper interpretation, you get people claiming that Tolkien’s epic is really about race and class struggles, that the Constitution really supports abortion, and that the Bible really advocates infanticide and slavery. The Bible did, after all, develop within the Church’s own womb, and was passed down to us by her own hands. Benedict has shown me that since the same Spirit that inspired the Bible guides the Church today, we can look confidently to her leadings when interpreting the written Word.
Relatedly, the current Pope has long espoused a “hermeneutic of continuity” which encourages Catholics to interpret things like Councils and Scripture in light of the Church’s entire rich tradition, not just certain, preferred parts of it. For instance, modern Biblical scholarship has provided many new insights into Scripture. But just because this scholarship is more modern doesn’t mean it holds more truth. A proper Catholic interpretation—a “continuous” one—measures modern insights against the Church Fathers, the writings of the Saints, the many Church councils, and past papal and episcopal teachings.
I think that being born after the extremes of pre- and post-Vatican II has made this "hermeneutic of continuity" easier for me to grasp. My young, recently-converted eyes see everything before 2008 as Church history, with little qualification. I’m not ideologically attached to the pre-Vatican ‘old church’ or to the post-Vatican ‘new one’ (and that’s no credit to me, only to my age.) The Councils of Nicaea, Trent, and Vatican II all speak to me from Church past. And I reach Pope John Paul II in the same way as Pope John XXIII, Pope St. Gregory the Great, and Pope St. Peter: only through history and prayer.
Finally, in research for my forthcoming book on the relationship between the Church and New Media, I’ve read a good deal of what Benedict has to say about technology. To my surprise, I’ve discovered that this 84-year old pontiff understands New Media’s power better than many of his younger, and presumably more tech-savvy contemporaries.
Over the last six years, the Pope has used the annual World Communications Day to issue a short pastoral message regarding media use. A good portion of his words uniquely deal with the New Media we’re immersed in today—“a gift to humanity,” as Benedict describes them. Through these talks, he’s covered topics like the dangers of self-promotion, ministry in a digital world, and how to seek truth and authenticity in virtual life.
The Pope has been quick to point out the risks of New Media, as any prudent leader would. But he’s certainly no Luddite. Among all Church leaders he has been one of the most vocal in supporting New Media usage:
“Without fear we must set sail on the digital sea facing into the deep with the same passion that has governed the ship of the Church for two thousand years…(W)e want to qualify ourselves by living in the digital world with a believer’s heart, helping to give a soul to the Internet’s incessant flow of communication.”
As only a poet could, Pope Benedict has also helped me to imagine the possibilities of New Media. When discussing these tools, the Pope says, “new horizons are now open that were, until recently, unimaginable…they stir our wonder at the possibilities.”
My wonder has definitely been stirred. With my Facebook profile, I have more social reach than St. Paul, Genghis Khan, Constantine, or Napoleon. I have more evangelistic potential than St. Augustine, St. Francis Xavier, or Fulton Sheen. But the Pope has encouraged Catholics that instead of being afraid of this potential and tightening our grip onto old ways of communicating, we should embrace these tools with creativity and energy.
Though I’ve only known one Pope so far, I don’t think any other could have influenced me quite the same way as Benedict has. He’s taught me to focus my gaze solely on the person of Jesus. He’s shown me that to understand the Word of God I must view it through the Church’s tradition, in all of its richness, depth, and history. And under the captaincy of my Papa—the “social-media Pope” —I’m sailing with a 2,000 year old Church into the heart of the online world.