Last Sunday, on his visit to Germany, Pope Benedict XVI met with Catholics who are engaged in social work and social advocacy, or, as he described them, persons who “do dedicated work for the present and the future from a faith perspective.”
His whole address is well worth reading, but I’d like to focus primarily upon remarks which seem to me to call for a striking level of detachment from worldly power and goods.
The pope’s remarks focus a good deal on the importance of the Church renewing her focus and dedication to her mission, in the midst of the constant tendency of the world to constrain and obscure that mission. And so, the Church must, as much as she must enter into all the joys and hopes of the world (to steal a line from Gaudium et spes), Benedict points out that “she will need again and again to set herself apart from her surroundings, to become in a certain sense ‘unworldly’.” He bases this claim in the mission of Christ:
It has come down to humanity, to us, in a particular way through the incarnation and self-offering of God’s Son: by virtue of the fact that Christ, the Son of God, as it were stepped outside the framework of his divinity, took flesh and became man, not merely to confirm the world in its worldliness and to be its companion, leaving it to carry on just as it is, but in order to change it.
The true mission of the Church, obviously, is the continuation of the mission of Christ, continuing Christ’s outreach of preaching, teaching and healing all of humanity. But Benedict notes that sometimes the Church becomes distracted from this mission:
the Church becomes self-satisfied, settles down in this world, becomes self-sufficient and adapts herself to the standards of the world. Not infrequently, she gives greater weight to organization and institutionalization than to her vocation to openness towards God, her vocation to opening up the world towards the other.
Noting this danger, Benedict suggests that the Church has in fact lived her mission most strongly in the times when she is least attached to worldly goods and powers:
History has shown that, when the Church becomes less worldly, her missionary witness shines more brightly. Once liberated from material and political burdens and privileges, the Church can reach out more effectively and in a truly Christian way to the whole world, she can be truly open to the world. She can live more freely her vocation to the ministry of divine worship and service of neighbour. The missionary task, which is linked to Christian worship and should determine its structure, becomes more clearly visible. The Church opens herself to the world not in order to win men for an institution with its own claims to power, but in order to lead them to themselves by leading them to him of whom each person can say with Saint Augustine: he is closer to me than I am to myself (cf. Confessions, III,6,11).
And so, what is Peter’s successor saying to the Church in this moment? The heart of the message is: “it is time once again to discover the right form of detachment from the world, to move resolutely away from the Church’s worldliness.” Now, he is clear that this is not a move away from brothers and sisters in need, but a move toward rooting all the actions of the Church in the life of the Triune God, rather than in the concerns of worldly powers.
I see in these remarks a concern with too much protection of the Church as an institution and an organization, and a desire to focus on leading people toward a deeper union with God. There is also a hope here, that even the increasing secularization of society will prove a blessing to the life of the Church, particularly if we are prepared to focus on what is truly important in the life of the Church and her members.
But there is also an invitation here to the very important task of discerning precisely what “the right form of detachment from the world” should look like.