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VATICAN LETTER Aug-12-2005 (900 words) Backgrounder. With photo. xxxi

Pontificating with priests: Marx, vocations and papal infallibility

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Benedict XVI interrupted his summer vacation recently to give the longest talk of his pontificate, a two-hour tour de force covering such diverse topics as papal infallibility, Third World vocations and the errors of Karl Marx.

His discourse in late July to 140 priests and religious in northern Italy offered insights into a pontiff the church and the world are still getting to know.

For one thing, it's clear that the pope feels at ease with priests, religious and seminarians. After speaking for about a half-hour and joking that he had "gone on too long," he sat back and shared his thoughts in impromptu fashion for another 90 minutes.

Pope Benedict likes to talk, especially when he knows his audience is on the same wavelength and receptive to the nuances of his thinking. The second-longest talk in his young papacy came in a similar meeting with priests in Rome.

The pope's July encounter in the Aosta Valley drew media interest for his remarks about Catholics who have divorced and civilly remarried without first receiving an annulment. While defending the church's rules against Communion for these Catholics, the pope recognized the complexity of the issue and suggested there could be creative pastoral solutions in the future.

The fact that, already in his short pontificate, both the Roman and northern Italian priests have voiced concern for divorced Catholics may carry weight with the new pope.

Equally interesting were the pope's "big picture" remarks about the relationships among the world, the church and the faith. Most church leaders would want to fine-tune a text before tackling such a vast and heady topic, but for the pope the discussion seemed to come as naturally as breathing.

His candid overview contained some darker tones, reflective of a vision that is more challenging than comforting. He said the world and its leaders today appear only too happy to do without Christian values, and the "so-called 'great' churches seem to be dying" -- more in Europe and Australia, less so in the United States.

"People seem to have no need of us, everything we do seems pointless," he said. Modern social life has drifted away from faith, and even families don't offer a faith milieu anymore, he said.

But the pope also noted that evangelizing has always been an uphill battle, even for many early Christians, whose "enthusiasm was extinguished" when the preaching of Jesus didn't change the world overnight.

The context for Christian action today, he said, is not pessimism but struggle. To a society that seems to reject moral values, Christians need to practice "an active patience in the sense of making people understand: 'You need this.'"

"Even if they do not convert straightaway, at least they draw closer to the circle of those in the church who possess this inner strength," he said.

The pope said that for all the problems the Catholic Church is facing, Protestant churches are worse off. He also explained why, in his view, religious sects are growing today even while traditional churches are losing members.

"The sects have the upper hand because they appear with a few simple certainties and say: 'This suffices,'" he said.

The Catholic Church rejects this minimalist approach and thinks it is also important to present an intellectual understanding that makes the "beauty and organic structure of the faith comprehensible," he said. Thus the importance of the recent catechisms published by the Vatican.

The pope said there were no easy fixes for the modern crisis of faith.

"I do not think there is any system for making a rapid change. We must go on, we must go through this tunnel ... patiently, in the certainty that Christ is the answer and that in the end his light will appear once more," he said.

Pope Benedict acknowledged that in many parts of the world the priest shortage is leaving pastors exhausted as they tend to four or five parishes. Again, he offered no easy answers but said one solution might be found in the increasing mobility of modern society.

"The young travel 50 kilometers or more to go to a discotheque; why can they also not travel 50 kilometers to go to a common church?" he asked.

And while welcoming the upsurge in Third World vocations, he said his recent conversations with Asian and African bishops underlined the need for caution. He said the joy at seeing seminaries overflowing carries with it "a certain sadness" because some candidates are coming with the hope of social advancement.

"By becoming priests, they become like tribal chiefs, they are naturally privileged, they have a different lifestyle," he said. Bishops must be very careful to weed out the status-seekers, he added.

Three days after his talk, the pope left the Italian resort area of Les Combes and returned to his summer villa outside Rome. His time in the mountains was not all rest and relaxation: He read books and wrote speeches for upcoming events. He was also said to be writing a book on faith and reason.

Like Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict uses vacation as a time to think, not as downtime. The late pope used to invite Polish philosophers to keep him company; Pope Benedict found his audience in local priests, describing them as fellow "sowers of the word" in a difficult terrain.


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