It's exhausting to hear, night after night and day after day, of the countless stories of war, and death, violence, and poverty that circle our globe like a dark cloud. Yet, still, we persist in our efforts to "make the world a better place." Don't we? The human spirit still longs for communion, even when so many things reach in to tear it apart. We yearn for harmony even when so much discord fills our ears. We seek love, even when faced with so much hatred and indifference.
So what are we doing wrong? When will we get it right? When will peace become a reality? Will there ever really be "united nations"? In the eyes of our Holy Father, Benedict XVI, the answer is... never. All of our work is in vain.
"Will it ever be possible to obtain this brotherhood by human effort alone? As society becomes ever more globalized, it makes us neighbors but does not make us brothers. Reason, by itself, is capable of grasping the equality between men and of giving stability to their civic coexistence, but it cannot establish fraternity. This originates in a transcendent vocation from God the Father, who loved us first..." (Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 11)It's really a simple truth, and logic would lead us to it if we could just step outside of ourselves and away from the din of the modern world for a time. Have we forgotten that we are not the Creator, but the creature in this vast and beautiful universe? Have we forgotten our ultimate destiny, of which the restlessness within us is always a reminder? Man is not "a lost atom in a random universe: he is God's creature, whom God chose to endow with an immortal soul and whom he has always loved." (CV 29)
Pope Benedict XVI's letter Caritas in Veritate has its feet on the ground and its heart in the heavens. It speaks to the men and women of our time, gripped by an economic crisis, split apart by the digital divide of rich and poor, and smothered under the blanket of consumerism with a message that is practical and powerful; Look up.
Only through an encounter with God are we able to see in the other something more than just another creature, to recognize the divine image in the other, thus truly coming to discover him or her and to mature in a love that “becomes concern and care for the other.”
- CV 11
Our consumer culture is bent on clipping our wings and drawing the curtain over our more transcendent desires. But in so doing, it has created a vacuum, and we are suffocating. Men and women have a desire for the Infinite stamped within them; we are searching for the More we are made for our whole life long. We often try to plug finite shapes into that Infinite hole in our hearts, but it never satisfies. The false idols of our ancestors are no different for us in this 21st century. The cult of the Golden Calf in its thirst for wealth, sex, and power has many if not more devotees today. Worse still, we seek to create our own laws to justify our greed. From the heights of our court system come absurdities like the following:
"At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." - Planned Parenthood of Southeastern PA v. Casey (1992)
In the end, is our dignity defined by ourselves? Should we design our own way of envisioning the world and each other? Must we reach out and grasp at it for it to be realized? Sounds stunningly familiar.... "You shall be like gods..." said the Serpent who was once an Angel. Bishop Fulton Sheen used to call this old errors with new labels. As we advance as a people, many things have stayed sadly the same. One of the them is our stubbornness and pride. But finding the Truth remains our highest call. Benedict, our German Shepherd, is doing his best to lead this confused flock into those greener pastures where true liberty spills its life-giving waters.
Throughout CV, the Holy Father quotes from his predecessor Pope Paul VI: “There is no true humanism but that which is open to the Absolute, and is conscious of a vocation which gives human life its true meaning” (Populorum Progressio). According to Benedict XVI, this act of "looking up" to the Absolute is exactly what ennobles man and gives him his truest identity. Man cannot be reduced to mere biological material or to a faceless "cog in the machine" of human progress and development. Rather, men and women stand at the crossroads between the material and the spiritual realms. Looking up we see that we alone are the voice of all creation, and we alone can "speak" on the natural world's behalf. This is the general invitation in CV; for man to humbly accept his place in the universe as creature, but to rise up and recognize at the same time that man is the pinnacle of creation! The Pope states in CV18: "...the humility of those who accept a vocation is transformed into true autonomy, because it sets them free." This freedom on our part plants our feet squarely on the ground where man encounters man; in the family, at church, in the marketplace, and the meeting spaces of the world. In the face to face encounter of every day life, love must be lived in truth, and that truth is ultimately this: God is our Father and we are His Children, and the human family is called to come home to Him, drawing in love our brothers and sisters along the way. "The Christian vocation to this development therefore applies to both the natural plane and the supernatural plane; which is why, “when God is eclipsed, our ability to recognize the natural order, purpose and the ‘good' begins to wane.” (CV 18)
Pope Benedict's words are refreshingly simple, and as clear as the Gospel message to "love one another." His invitation to "look up" is a challenge to view the world and each other once again as a pure gift, not something to be grasped and used and then cast aside.
Charity in truth places man before the astonishing experience of gift. Gratuitousness is present in our lives in many different forms, which often go unrecognized because of a purely consumerist and utilitarian view of life. The human being is made for gift, which expresses and makes present his transcendent dimension. Sometimes modern man is wrongly convinced that he is the sole author of himself, his life and society. This is a presumption that follows from being selfishly closed in upon himself... (CV 34)Pope Paul VI noted in his work that “the world is in trouble because of the lack of thinking” (Populorum Progressio 85). Thinking, pondering, and making space within us for that deep and loving gaze at reality is essential if we are to discern our purpose and place in the world. Benedict's encyclical invites us into this wonderful and forgotten art of contemplation. As the holy season of Lent dawns upon us again, perhaps we should allow ourselves this time for peaceful reflection on those deeper questions of our existence, our purpose, and our call to authentic human development. With the help of the Holy Spirit, perhaps we will see things, all things, in a new light. Maybe our darkness is simply the edge of night, and the sun will soon rise over the human family. I believe with the help of Pope Benedict's words, things are definitely looking up.
First published in The Publican