"Light of the World" a Must-Read; Literary Treasures

Sound Bites Fail to Capture Benedict XVI’s Message

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, DEC. 2, 2010 (Zenit.org).- I’d like to thank the New York Times and other secular media for helping me get my priorities straight. I had no plans to read right away Benedict XVI’s new book-length interview with Peter Seewald, as I was buried under final exams. I was saving the book for quieter times.

But between the international headlines generated by the New York Times and Associated Press reports, I stopped everything I was doing and picked up «Light of the World.» It was the best thing I did this semester, as his message of hope in the face of tremendous challenges offers calm amid chaos.

Not surprisingly, the secular media got the Pope’s message wrong. One would think with all the expensive educations milling around these news conglomerates, someone might have taken a class in reading comprehension. Ironically, the Associated Press claimed: «Pope’s remarks on condoms sow widespread confusion.» I would have gone with «Journalist illiteracy wreaks pandemonium.»

The point of contention is in Chapter 11, when the Pope speaks hypothetically of a prostitute using a condom as a sign of an awakening of his moral conscience. This tiny paragraph has now spawned novels — proving the Pope’s point in the preceding lines, that «concentrating on condoms alone banalizes sexuality.»

His remarks make perfect sense, the only mystery being why Catholics would look to the secular media for interpretation of the Pope’s teaching, especially those outlets that had spent most of this year trying relentlessly yet unsuccessfully to accuse him of complicity in the sex abuse crisis. Why not read Cardinal Raymond Burke, or papal biographer George Weigel, or a moral theologian such as Father Thomas Williams? Better yet, why not just read the Pope himself?

One thing is for sure — reading «Light of the World» will be more satisfying and fulfilling than any pundit’s pronouncements.

The book was meant to be read as a whole, not as sound bites. Peter Seewald conducts the interview as if embarking on an epic adventure, with Benedict XVI as our guide. Only in this journey we don’t travel through mythical lands, we navigate among the Scylla and Charybdis of the modern world. There are many things to fear, our own weaknesses included, but the gentle voice of the Holy Father helps us to look at the darkness of evil for what it is and then to forge ahead following the light of Christ.

The adventure opens with an intimate look at our guide; Benedict XVI reveals what it meant to answer the call to succeed St. Peter, sharing his feelings in the «Room of Tears,» when he accepted this heavy burden. He can also hit a lighter note, such as whether he practices a sport. The Holy Father gives himself unstintingly to the reader, as he prepares to lead us through the «dark wood» of the modern age where even Dante was lost.

Then, as in the «Divine Comedy,» we are standing at the gates of hell, looking at the sex abuse crisis in the Church. With no time to prepare or escape the turmoil, Chapter 2 brings us into the heart of the scandal. While we may look for others to blame, Benedict focuses the gaze inward. The media may have reported the story with bias, but it took a few bad Catholic priests who provided a story to tell. One can imagine sitting next to Cardinal Ratzinger in his office at the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith reading through report after report, studying how to combat the «filth» in the Church and, most importantly, praying, even weeping for the innocent victims.

The book is encyclopedic, covering everything from climate change to Islam and even the conversion of actress Raquel Welch. It dedicates an entire chapter to sexuality in the present era. His clear vision of the dangers of progress without ethics, sex as a «self-administered drug,» and the need for renewal in the Church is persuasive and inspiring. There are, however, moments when he makes one squirm, as we recognize ourselves to be part of the problem; at the same time the Holy Father offers us the means to be part of the cure.

He shows us many adversaries; from the real fatal persecutions taking place in many parts of the world, to the West where «tolerance might be abolished in the name of tolerance itself.» He also unmasks the many Catholics who claim to speak for the Church yet ignore Church teachings. The pitfalls are many and danger is omnipresent but our guide is so surefooted, one can only be grateful for the gift of Pope Benedict.

Two things in particular struck me about the book. The first was that for an interview, there is very little «I.» Amid the endless stream of first-person gushing in autobiographies, blogs and social networking pages — the bulk of our literary output — the Pope speaks for his Church or of his Church and most importantly, of the example of Christ. Benedict XVI states facts, recalls history and illustrates trends objectively. He limits his first person to opinions on questions outside of Church teaching, for example when asked about the Burqua law in France.

The second is how Benedict XVI startles with his humility and his hope. The secular media see the Pope as just another powerful political figure, yet the Holy Father lives his role quite differently.

At the end of the tempestuous week of the book release, the Church celebrated the feast of Christ the King. On this day we remember that our King does not march in triumphal parades at the head of gloating legions, nor does he force all nations to revere him through his visible awesome majesty. Our King walked among men as one of us; He was beaten, mocked and died a criminal’s death.

Even Rome itself, the See of Peter, had only turbulent waters for the early Christians. Benedict points out that «for the first three centuries of the Church, Rome was the fulcrum and capital of the persecution of Christians.» He alerts readers that «the Church, the Christian and especially the Pope, must be aware of the fact that the witness they must give may become scandal, and not be accepted and therefore he will find himself in the condition of the witness of the suffering Christ.»

Tradition, history, are a large part of the Church but not the secular media, which feed on the here and now. We carry a rich, often heavy past of experience and custom, errors made and lessons learned and continuity through the most devastating times. The papacy has never been about triumphal parades, but navigating the Barque of Peter until it reaches safe haven.

Benedict XVI has great hope in God’s ability to transform our lives and world. The door is open and the light is on and Benedict is on the path pointing the way. The media may try to twist and confound his message, but in God’s wondrous way, the foolishness of men (and women) will bring many to read the Pope’s message and to learn that Christianity really is «Light of the World.»

* * *

The Vatican and Its Books

Nowadays, books seem to have become a get-rich-quick scheme. A tell-all exposé, celebrity self-absorption or the newest unfounded conspiracy theory provide o few moments of empty stimulus, but rarely open our eyes. Despite increased literacy (at least compared to some earlier eras) and readily available books, as well as much more spare time, now that reading is a right, it is rarely seen as a privilege.
A new exhibit at the Vatican recalls the preciousness of the written word and shows that knowledge is a treasure. «Know the Vatican Library: A History Open to the Future,» in the Charlemagne Wing of St. Peter’s Square, allows everyone to explore the treasure trove that is the Vatican Library, and celebrate its more than half-millennium of existence. After the
three-year restoration, scholars will be able to return to the reading room and, in this exhibition we can peak over their shoulders at the extraordinary papal collection of documents.

Ironically, many popular novels and specious history books try to make the claim that Christianity came late to books, equating it to the cults of Cybele or Mithras, all mystery religions. Mystery cults have no written literature, just rites handed down orally. Christians, like their elder brothers the Jews, were a people of a written word; they recorded a historical event and a body of teaching.

St. Paul asked for his books, Bishop Albercius in the second century talks of learning the sacred writings, Diocletian’s persecution sought out and destroyed the Christian books. «In the beginning was the Word» and 2,000 years later, Christians are still called by it.

Central to the exhibit is a copy of Bodmer Papyrus XIV-XV from the third century — perhaps the world’s oldest known written fragment from the Gospels of Luke and John, as well as the earliest known copy of the Lord’s Prayer, donated to the Vatican by Frank Hanna III, of Atlanta, Georgia, in 2007.

Despite the use of facsimiles, the exhibit draws the visitor into the breathtaking world of books and the endless horizons they offer. The first room replicates the reading room of the library, the Salone Sistina; chairs are arrayed along the long wooden tables, before each place a book stands open. Going from place to place, one delves into natural history through a medieval text on plant life, then joins Dante on his harrowing decent into the Inferno in the pages of a 15th century manuscript, then roams the globe in Ptolomy’s Geography.

These texts, some exquisitely decorated, some dense with text, evoke the same breathless amazement that we feel today as the Internet opens a world of knowledge before our eyes.

The largest book is the Urbino Bible, commissioned by Federico di Montefeltro in the late 15th century. Bound with red velvet and clasped with gold, this magnificent tome tries to express the preciousness of the Word of God.

The Vatican library was founded by Pope Nicholas V who amassed about 350 volumes to be made available to those dedicated to learning. In 1471, Pope Sixtus IV, a remarkable scholar himself, increased the collection tenfold, enlarged the premises, created the inventory and hired Domenico Ghirlandaio to decorate the halls. A copy of the oldest ceremonial papal portrait in existence, by Melozzo da Forlì, shows the inauguration of the library and the appointment of the first paid librarian, Bartolomeo Platina.

The exhibit recalls the many men who have cared for this collection over the centuries as cardinal librarians or prefects of the library. From Cesare Baronio, whose great scholarship would produce the Roman Martyrology, to the astonishing Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, who spoke and wrote more than 38 languages, to Cardinal Achille Ratti, who would become Pope Pius XI, extraordinary men have nurtured this exceptional collection.

The exhibit has a multimedia guide that illustrates illuminated pages, explains the dazzling coin collection and simply lets one revel in this great collection of 1.6 million books, 80,000 manuscripts, 100,000 archival documents and 300,000 medals.

For this art historian, the section on drawings was the most exciting. A self-portrait of Bernini in rapid penstrokes brought me face-to-face with the great 17th century master, while Borromini’s drawings for a canopy at St. John Lateran were a joy to behold. Michelangelo’s handwritten drafts for letters and poetic verses closed the 500-year gap between me and this Renaissance genius.

Others will undoubtedly be more moved by the fourth-century copy of Virgil or Alexander VI’s Borgia Missal for the third Masses of Christmas, Easter and Sts. Peter and Paul or the Exultet scroll from the 11th century or Galileo’s Discourse on Sun Spots.

The list of prohibited books (which fits on a single page) from 1554 is fascinating. Martin Luther, John Calvin and Zwingli are all present and accounted for, but so is Lorenzo Valla’s 15th-century treatise on the falsification of the Donation of Constantine.

There is indeed something for everyone among these shelves, a generous celebration of man’s desire to grow in knowledge of his world and of his Creator.

The exhibit is open every day from 9 a.m. until 8 p.m. (9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays) and is free. There is a multimedia tour, or visitors can just wander in on their own. The show will close on Jan. 31.

— — —
Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org

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