The True Impoverishment of Man: On Benedict XVI and Bishops | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | March 17, 2011 | Ignatius InsightThe True Impoverishment of Man: On Benedict XVI and Bishops | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | March 17, 2011 | Ignatius Insight

"This is the labor for the harvest in the field of God, in the field of human history: to bring to men and women the light of truth, to set them free from the lack of truth, which is the true sorrow, the true impoverishment of man."
Pope Benedict XVI, "In God's Field", February 5, 2011 (Episcopal Ordination Mass in St. Peter's)


On the occasion of five curial officials being raised to the arch-episcopacy, Pope Benedict XVI's sermon was about the need of truth and the centrality of making it known through the Church. He spoke of the Lord sending laborers into the harvest and, drawing from Isaiah, of the Lord's anointing to bring good tidings to the afflicted and to sooth the brokenhearted. The Pope reminded the bishops to stand as living witnesses, as it says in the first letter of John, to those who saw and touched the Lord. From the beginning, the Church has seen itself as sent to all the nations, however difficult it often is to be received in many of them. The office of Peter exists to assure the unity of witness to what is handed down.

The field of God is spread throughout human history to all the nations. We need to be set free from "a lack of truth." This lack is rightly called a "sorrow" and an "impoverishment." Contrasted to this sorrow are the "glad tidings," which, as the Pope carefully says, are not just words but include "an event." What is this event? Here Benedict echoes the core of his book, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week. The unique event is this: "God himself has come among us." This coming is the central truth that the followers of Christ are called upon to make known among the nations.

The Pope is aware of those who reject this truth. "Large parts of the modern world, large numbers of our contemporaries, turn their backs on God and consider faith something of the past." But when we look at what they implicitly want to put in the place of faith, we still find that "a yearning that justice, love and peace will be established at last, that poverty and suffering will be surmounted and that human beings will find joy." So the rejection of faith does not necessarily mean that what the faith promises is rejected or that the fulfillment of this yearning is simply some this-worldly political kingdom.

"The longing for all these things is present in the contemporary world, the longing for what is great and what is good. It is yearning for the Redeemer, for God himself, even when he is denied." Such is the great paradox. Even the denial of God is associated with a divinely established longing in our souls. The modern world is filled with all sorts of schemes to achieve these things. But it is careful not to consider or admit the truth of the Christian understanding of our longing. It is precisely a yearning for "a Redeemer," as the Pope puts it, not just for a sort of perfect order that exists somewhere down the eons in the future beyond any of us.

Moreover, our yearning cannot be met only by ourselves. It is one of the tenets of humanism that we want to rid ourselves of God in order that only man remains to decide what he is. The fact is that man is something more than himself. "The Lord makes us realize that it cannot be merely we ourselves who send laborers into the harvest; that it is not a question of management or of our own organizational ability." It often seems that even Church bureaucracy gets in the way of what we are about. As the Pope noted in Deus Caritas Est, all bureaucracies need personal contact with actual people. However useful, organizations can be cold, as their members often rarely meet actual people.

To expand his thoughts on these topics, Benedict took up the four points mentioned by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles. He indicates "what the fundamental elements of Christian life are in the communion of the Church of Jesus Christ." The four points are found in the following passage from Acts (2:42): "They devoted themselves to the Apostles' teaching, to the breaking of bread and to prayers." These four elements are what bishops are about—perseverance, truth, Eucharist, and prayer.

The first element is the "devoting of themselves." It is surprising that this devoting or preserving is separated out as "of the essence of being a Christian." But the Pope is talking to bishops. They are not only selected to serve but they themselves must will to devote themselves. The Christian wills to be a Christian. And he also wills that others know accurately what this faith is about. This requires something more than fulfilling a bureaucratic office. The Pope tells the bishops that they are not to be wishy-washy. "The Pastor is not to be a marsh reed that bends in the wind, a servant of the spirit of the times." He is rather to be like a tree with deep roots, to be a place where there is "stability and growth." It is often easier to be servants of "the spirit of the times" rather than proper readers of the "signs of the times." The latter is of God, the former is not.


Bishops, "as priests of Jesus Christ," are to be "laborers in the harvest of the world's history with the duty of healing by opening the doors to the world to the lordship of God." Such a mission is to participate "in the gift of the Holy Spirit, given to him as the Messiah, as the Son anointed by God." All these things fit together. "The fundamental elements of Christian life are in the communion of the Church of Jesus Christ." The truths hold us together. The Pope recalls Blessed John Henry Newman's journeys: "the journey of obedience to the truth, to God; the journey of true continuity which in this very way brings progress." Our communion is not just with the people of our time or place. If we read the canon of the Mass carefully we see we are present before all times and places in our worship.

The book of Acts tells us to "devote ourselves to the Apostles' teaching." Often, it seems, we do not speak clearly what we hold. What we hold to be true "is not a vague spirituality, an undefinable sensation of transcendence. God has acted and he himself has spoken." Catholicism strives for clarity, not obscurity or vagueness. Our understanding of mystery is not that it is unintelligible but that it is more intelligible than our minds have power to grasp.

We set down creeds so that we can understand accurately what we hold. The Pope adds of God that "He has really done something and he really said something." In faith we entrust ourselves to God Yet, this commitment is not an abstraction. "God to whom we entrust ourselves has a face and has given us his Word. We may count on the permanence of His Word." Historical and philosophical studies in the Church are precisely directed to the reality of this "he (God) really done something and he really said something."

"The ancient Church summed up the essential core of the Apostles' teaching in the so-called Regula fidei, which is fundamentally identical to the Profession of Faith." This is the rule that is still valid. We are not rigid, but we are accurate. Any slight error can undermine the whole order. This Creed is what pastors proclaim.

In addition to teaching and holding what Christ was and taught, we (Christians) form a communion with one another. We are not alone. In what does this communion consist? "God made himself close to us." Our initiative was not what made this possible. It was God's. "This is the essence of the Apostolic Succession: to preserve communion with those who have encountered the Lord in a visible and tangible way and thus to keep Heaven open, the presence of God in our midst." It is though our contact with this succession that we touch God.

The third element in this teaching or guidance is "the breaking of bread," the sacrifice on the Cross, prefigured at the Last Supper whose form we use. "The blessed Eucharist is the center of the Church and must be the center of our being as Christian and of our priestly life." The risen Lord comes to us through the Eucharist, and this Eucharist opens us to others. The Eucharist forms the community. The community does not concoct the Eucharist. This un-bloody sacrifice handed down to us is the true way that man can worship God, a way taught to us by God, not by man. Still, we can attend to things about this worship: "Let us be careful that faith is always expressed in love and justice for one another and our social conduct are inspired by faith; that faith is lived in love."

The final element is prayer. Prayer is "never something private of my individual 'ego' that does not concern others. Praying is essentially and also always praying in the 'we' of God's children." We say "we" in our prayer, but "I" in our creeds. Unless we affirm the truths in our minds and hearts, we cannot be together in a unity that addresses the same God. Prayer is "raising my life toward God's height." Each of us longs for the Lord. Finally, Benedict tells the bishops: "You are called to undertake tasks that concern the universal Church." We are servants of the truth that has been handed down to us. We are not gods who make up our own world as if what we think we want is better than what we are offered in Creation and Redemption.

Biography of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
Jesus of Nazareth (Part 2) available March 10, 2011
Other Recent Books by Pope Benedict XVI
All books by or about Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
Excerpts from books by Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
Articles about Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays (CUA, 2008). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Modern Age, is available from St. Augustine's Press. Read more of his essays on his website.

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