PEOPLE speculating on what Pope Benedict XVI will say in the United States this week would do well to look at what he said at the Vatican on Palm Sunday.
In a sermon that lasted less than 15 minutes, the Pope touched on several important themes of his pontificate – themes that are likely to form the core of his pastoral message in the United States.
Naturally, the Pope will tailor his US talks to specific audiences, including educators, priests and seminarians, young people and bishops.
But rather than a laundry list of specific problems and solutions, his listeners in Washington and New York are apt to hear carefully reasoned arguments about the foundational values of Christianity.
On Palm Sunday, the Pope posed a blunt question, one that caught people’s attention: “Is our faith pure and open enough?”
More questions quickly followed: Is the faith of today’s Christians pure enough to attract other spiritual seekers?
Do modern Christians recognise that “greed is idolatry”, and is this awareness reflected in their lifestyles? Are Christians willing to let their own lives be radically shaped by Christ?
The Pope’s words echoed a famous Good Friday meditation he wrote in 2005, a few weeks before his election, when he acknowledged the failings of Christians and characterised the Church as a boat “taking in water on every side”.
This call to self-examination in light of the Gospel is high on the Pope’s pastoral agenda.
It’s not about “Catholic identity” imposed from the outside, and it’s not about following rules; it’s about provoking people to reflect on what it means to follow Christ.
That led to the second point in his Palm Sunday sermon: that Jesus must be correctly understood by Christians today.
“He does not come as a destroyer. He does not come with the sword of a revolutionary. He comes with the gift of healing,” the Pope said.
“He dedicates himself to those who because of their frailty are pushed to extreme situations in their own lives and to the margins of society.”
The appeal to meet the real Jesus is often the centre of Pope Benedict’s major homilies.
He wrote a book last year because he was convinced that the identity of Jesus, human and divine, was falling out of focus.
Even for Christians, he wrote, “intimate friendship with Jesus, on which everything depends, is in danger of clutching at thin air”.
The Pope’s sermon continued to another of his hallmark themes: that Jesus reveals God as one who loves, and “his power as the power of love”. It follows that healing and serving others always will be part of the proper worship of God, he said.
“God Is Love” was the title of the Pope’s first encyclical.
No doubt many Americans have heard the phrase, but perhaps far fewer understand what it means. The answer is not complex, and the Pope will no doubt enunciate it during his visit: that Christianity’s central mission is to help people accept God’s love and share it in their daily lives.
A final theme of the Palm Sunday sermon, perhaps the most urgent in the Pope’s view, is the tendency for modern men and women to push God out of the picture, “as if God were our competitor”.
The Pope sees this as the ultimate form of pride, one that poses real dangers in an era of scientific and technological progress.
“Isn’t this precisely the logic of the modern age, of our age? Let us declare that God is dead, then we ourselves will be God,” he wrote in his book, “Jesus of Nazareth”.
The exclusion of God from personal and social life, the Pope has argued, inevitably leads to the idea that “we ourselves are our only measure”.
The resulting problems, he said, already can be seen, and include widespread alienation and unhappiness, diminished respect for human life and environmental irresponsibility.
This is the bread and butter of Pope Benedict’s teaching ministry. He relies heavily and creatively on Scripture, convinced that New Testament parables and Old Testament lessons can speak to the modern human condition.
He explores the relationship between truth and freedom in terms that are designed to be provocative, because he believes the faith should prod and challenge people.
As he once said, the Church should be teaching people that it’s not enough to be and think “more or less like everyone else”.
And he always draws these prescriptions back to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
As he said during his last foreign trip, to Austria in September, Christianity is “more than and different from a moral code, from a series of requirements and laws.
“It is the gift of friendship that lasts through life and death.”
The Pope’s US audiences will no doubt hear a similar exploration of the roots of the faith.