Witnessing the power of the Pope, on this vibrant group of young Catholics, Bobby Mixa took the opportunity to reflect a bit deeper on the office of the papacy:
Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Madrid on Thursday. He was greeted politely as a head of state by the King and Queen of Spain and by representatives of the Spanish government. The crowds of pilgrims greeted him as successor of St. Peter, and their enthusiasm was electrifying. His presence was like that of a pebble possessed of an uncharateristic density that dropped in the water causes ripples the size of enormous waves, each wave larger than the last. It was impossible not to be overcome.
For many in the media, the pope is a kind of celebrity, and the acclamation he receives is evidence of some kind of personality cult. This seems strange to me as what passes for a celebrity is the complete antithesis of Pope Benedict. The Holy Father is an elderly, soft spoken university professor who bears his office with quiet dignity. Not many of those coming out of the world of entertainment and sports (or politics) these days. The pope is not a celebrity, but he is famous. But his fame is of a rather curious nature- he is not famous because he is an elderly, soft spoken university professor, but because of the office that he bears. He is, as I mentioned earlier, the successor of St. Peter- an office that only one person in the world occupies, which means that in all the world he is unique and no one can be famous in the way that he is famous. The fame accorded to the man who is the successor of St. Peter is made all the more curious inasmuch as it accords him very little of what modern culture uses to make people famous- "star" power, good looks, youth, athleticism, the command of nations, wealth. The pope has none of these, at least in very little in proportion to what celebrities are credited with. The other curious factor about the Holy Father's fame is that it really isn't self-referential. The pope isn't about himself. His life and his office are not about Joseph Ratzinger. His message is not "be like me", but "be like Christ." This makes him and the papacy an even more curious phenomenon in a culture utterly enamored with self promotion as the privileged means to self fulfillment.
The curious phenomenon of the pope's odd kind of fame got me thinking about Rene Girard. Girard has this theory that our desires are acquired through imitation. In other words we often arrive at what we believe that we want by imitating what others desire. This can have negative consequences, especially when the desires of a group coverge upon something that we can't all have-- thus, much of the resentment of the modern consumer and celebrity culture. People are told to desire what they cannot acquire, and those who have what is wanted cling jealously to the prerogatives of ownership. But what if there was something worth desiring that was infinite in its capacity to give? What is there was something that was infinite in its capacity to satisfy and it was available to all? The materialist would immediately object, for all worldly goods will have their limits. But what if this world is participating in a greater good, a good that gave rise to this world, and to which all worldly goods will return? The Holy Father presents to the world not only this "what if" of an infinite good, he knows that this infinite good can be personally known. The infinite good is Christ, who desires to give himself to all, and can do so without diminishing the return on his gift of self.
The pope directs attention to Christ and in doing so re-orders our desires, placing worldly desires in proper relationship to the one who satisfies the deepest desires of the human soul.
A pope at his best will himself be a kind of icon of how the desires of the human soul are to be ordered by and towards Christ. Many individual popes, like many individual Christians fail in this respect. Therefore if this was all that a pope was supposed to do and be, his claims would be ambiguous at best. But the pope is more than this, he is, the successor of St. Peter, which means he is someone who is related by his office to Peter who knew Christ personally, and not only knew of Christ- but he knew Christ to the depths of his identity and mission. It is this unusual particularity (not his fame) about the Holy Father that electrifies the crowds that have gathered from around the world in Madrid to be with him. If there is a lesson evident in this it is that Christianity is not ultimately a faith in abstractions or ideas but a faith in historical particularities. Christ's revelation happens in history and is carried forward in history. Christians do not worship the idea of Christ, but his person, and attest that this person is as knowable now as he was knowable some two thousand years ago. The papacy attests to this historical particularity and knowability of Christ. Peter knew the Lord and he introduced the Lord to the man who succeeded him, and each successor of St. Peter has in turn done so for centuries. And there is nothing of a "private" relationship here, Peter had as his mission to introduce the Christ he knew to the world. This mission is precisely what Peter's successor Benedict is doing in Madrid.
Many will be privileged to pray with the pope in Madrid, a few will actually meet him, and in both circumstances what will happen in that encounter is that the Holy Father will gently direct attention to the Lord and inquire of us- This is Christ; have you had the privilege of making his aquaintance? It is in this introduction that Pope Benedict will fulfill his mission and also fulfill the purpose of World Youth Day.
Thank you for following our experiences in Madrid throughout World Youth Day, 2011! Please continue to pray for Pope Benedict XVI and all of the WYD participants.