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Rarely does a pope get cut off during his weekly audience, but Pope Benedict got half a sentence into his Wednesday teaching, “As you already know…” before the applauses cut him off. He went off script to thank the crowds before explaining, in more or less the same terms as he did to the stunned cardinals on Monday, the reasons for his monumental decision.
Yogi Berra famously said of John Paul II, “That man really knows how to pope!” After the initial words, Pope Benedict got back to pope-ing. It is Ash Wednesday, and we all need to be taught every year what this season is all about.
Pope Benedict commented on the Gospel of this upcoming Sunday, the temptations of Jesus. With his characteristic insight, he got down to the “nut” as he said, of all three temptations: “It is trying to instrumentalize God, to use him for our interests, for our own glory and success.” It was Blessed John Paul II who, in the very same audience hall, during his cycle of teachings now called “The Theology of the Body” first taught us that the opposite of loving is using. All sin goes against God’s love. Thus all temptation, at its core, makes us want to use God, not love Him.
But this entails making God a means, not an end, and making ourselves the end of all we do. “This, essentially, means putting ourselves in God’s place, removing Him from our existence and making Him seem superfluous.” Yup. If we already have a god, ourselves, our practice of religion is something extra and non-essential, and so I can miss Mass or skimp on the commandments if it doesn’t suit my schedule or my self-assigned priorities.
So the Holy Father poses the most important question we can ever answer. (He basically gives us the cheat sheet for the final.) “Each person should ask himself then: What place does God have in my life? Is He the Lord, or am I?”
Conversion means constantly turning back to that question, and the continual struggle to live out the consequences of God being the Lord. Since so many of us check our faith at the door, society as a whole acts as if God didn’t exist. This, called by some “practical atheism,” lurks behind the ills that his Holiness mentions from marital infidelity to the selective elimination of embryos.
But God’s constant invitation of grace is powerful, and our history is rich in people who have faced that question squarely and turned their lives around. One would expect to get the usual suspects at this point, and Pope Benedict does mention St. Paul and St. Augustine, but the rest of his list is surprising.
He mentions Pavel Florenskij, who after a totally agnostic education becomes a Russian Orthodox monk. He cites a young Jewish-born Dutch woman, Etty Hillesum, who died in Auschwitz and found God amidst “the great tragedy of the 20th century, the Shoah.” And he speaks of the conversion of Dorothy Day, who had fallen into the temptation that all problems can be solved with human efforts, in her case Marxist politics.
Years ago, an agnostic German journalist, Peter Seewald, ventured to interview the “Rottweiler of Orthodoxy,” as Cardinal Ratzinger was then known. He asked him how many ways to God there are, and he fully expected him to answer “One and only one: the Catholic Church.”
The answer surprised him: “As many ways as there are people.”
As we begin a Lent which will see the end of Pope Benedict’s pontificate, he again reminds us that there are many paths to God, because there are as many human histories as human beings. But all of those paths are called to conversion, and are thus also called to convergence. And the turn in the road depends on the lived response to one fundamental question: Is God the Lord of my life, or am I?