On Outspread Wings

Benedict in Bagnoreggio

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By Robert Moynihan

ROME, SEPT. 7, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Sometimes we think that physical problems, material problems, are the most important ones.

This is because they are so evident to us, right in front of our eyes. Rain is coming, we need a roof; winter is coming, we need to store food; a baby has a fever, we need medicine, anything, to break the fever.

But if we look through the Gospels, and if we consider our own lives, we begin to recognize that our most serious problems are spiritual ones.

And this is why we see Jesus going beyond physical healing, going beyond healing the blind and the deaf — something we read about in Sunday’s Gospel reading (Mark 7:34), when he spoke the Aramaic word “Ephphatha” (“Be opened”), and the deaf man’s ears were opened. (There are just three occasions where Mark records Jesus speaking in Aramaic; here; when Jesus says “Talitha cum” — Little girl, get up! — in Mark 5:41; and at the crucifixion (Mark 15:34), when Jesus cries out “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani!” — My God, My God, why have you forsaken me). 

This is why we see Jesus forgive sins. 

Because falling into sin leads to despair, and to death. Sin is the heavy burden Jesus sets out to remove from the shoulders of men, from the hearts of men.

And his forgiveness of sins is, above all, what outrages the religious leaders of his time – because God alone can forgive sins.

Jesus brought hope. He brought hope to the blind, and deaf, and dying, and even raised the dead. He also brought hope to sinners, to people who were spiritually dead. He brought hope of new life to people who had fallen short, failed and despaired.

Benedict XVI is the Vicar of Christ, the Successor of Peter.

As such, his mission, in the deepest sense, is simply that of bringing hope.

Benedict conceives of his own mission this way, as a mission to bring hope to a world which, despite so much external wealth and power, is spiritually impoverished.

It is a mission to bring meaning to those many who have come to believe life no longer has meaning.

And this is the great blow Benedict strikes in the battle between the “culture of life” and the “culture of death.” He strikes a blow on behalf of meaning, on behalf of the true “Logos” who is meaning itself. And in so doing, Benedict brings hope to the hopeless.

On Sunday afternoon, Pope Benedict was in the little Italian hill town of Bagnoreggio, the birthplace of St. Bonaventure, to continue this ongoing mission.

And, in his homily Sunday afternoon, he made a reference to hope which is strikingly beautiful, and worth remembering.

Bonaventure lived in the 1200s, the so-called High Middle Ages when Europe was building the great cathedrals, and establishing the great universities, which still astonish and benefit us today.

Bonaventure was born in 1221 and lived only until 1274, but in that brief half-century of life, he became, arguably, one of the very great Catholic theologians of all time.

Sunday, Benedict XVI celebrated Bonaventure as a messenger of hope.

The Holy Father spoke about how Giovanni Fidanza — Bonaventure’s baptismal name — became “Fra Bonaventura,” a Franciscan friar, and eventually the minister-general of the Franciscan Order, which was attempting to renew the Christian faith of that time by a commitment to total poverty.

“It isn’t easy to summarize the rich philosophical, theological and mystical doctrine handed down to us by St. Bonaventure,” Benedict said. But, he added, if he had to choose a phrase, it was that Bonaventure found a “wisdom rooted in Christ.”

Bonaventure, he said, oriented every step of his thought toward “a wisdom that blooms into holiness.”

Bonaventure, the Pope affirmed, “was a tireless seeker of God” from the time he was a student in Paris until the very end of his life, and his writings indicated the path this search should take.

“Because God is above,” Bonaventure said in his “De reductione artium ad theologiam” (On the Reduction of the Arts to Theology), “it is necessary that the mind raise itself to Him with all its strength.”

But how can the human mind do this? Can our minds, by study and reflection, truly draw near to God?

Bonaventure, the Pope said, believed that study and reflection alone were not sufficient. Study must be accompanied by grace, Bonaventure taught, science by love, intelligence by humility (Itinerarium mentis in Deum, prol. 4).

“This journey of purification involves the whole person so that the person can, through Christ, reach the transforming love of the Trinity,” Benedict XVI explained. “Faith is thus the perfection of our cognitive faculties. Hope is thus a preparation for the encounter with the Lord. And love thus introduces us into the divine life, by bringing us to consider all men our brothers.”

Then the Pontiff spoke specifically about hope.

“St. Bonaventure was the messenger of hope,” he said. “We find a striking image of hope in one of his homilies for Advent, where he compares the movement of hope to the flight of a bird, who spreads his wings as widely as possible, and uses all of his strength to move them. His whole being, in a certain sense, becomes movement in order to rise up and fly.

“To hope is to fly, St. Bonaventure tells us,” the Pope continued. “But hope demands that all parts of our being become movement and turn toward the true depth of our being, toward the promises of God. He who hopes, Bonaventure affirms, ‘must lift his head, turning his thoughts toward what is high, that is, toward God.’ (Sermo 

XVI, Dominica I Adv., Opera omnia, IX, 40a).”

The Pope ended this way: “Every human heart is thirsty for hope. In my encyclical “Spe Salvi,” I noted, however, that some types of hope are not sufficient to face and overcome the difficulties of the present. What is needed is a ‘certain hope’ which, because it gives us the certainty that we will reach a ‘great’ goal, justifies the effort of the journey. 

“Only this great and certain hope assures us that, despite the failures of our personal lives and the contradictions of history as a whole, the ‘indestructible power of Love’ always protects us.

“When such a hope supports us, we never risk losing the courage to contribute, as the saints have done, to the salvation of humanity, opening ourselves and the world to the entrance of God — of truth, of love, of light (cf. “Spe salvi,” No. 35). 

“May St. Bonaventue help us to ‘spread the wings’ of that hope that enables us to be, like him, incessant seekers after God, singers of the beauty of creation, and witnesses to that Love and that Beauty that ‘moves all things.’”

If we follow the teaching of Benedict, and of Bonaventure, and focus our seeking on the “certain hope” announced by Jesus Christ, we too can give our souls the wings they need to fly, though all the trials of this world afflict us, and then we can soar, as birds do, by setting our entire being into motion, and becoming, as it were, that very hope which we await with such longing.

* * *

Robert Moynihan is founder and editor of the monthly magazine Inside the Vatican. He is the author of the book “Let God’s Light Shine Forth: the Spiritual Vision of Pope Benedict XVI” (2005, Doubleday). Moynihan’s blog can be found at www.insidethevatican.com. He can be reached at: editor@insidethevatican.com.

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