IN my last column on this page last week, the phrase “pagan monarchs” appeared in place of “Islamic monarchs” to describe the heads of state who hosted President Rodrigo Duterte’s state visit during the Holy Week. That was a serious mistake, so I will begin this piece by apologizing humbly and sincerely for that unintended slur on their Sovereign Islamic Majesties, and for disturbing the peace of many of my readers, both Catholic and non-Catholic.
They deserve to know why such stupid mistakes happen. Like Chesterton, but without his talent, I tend to believe that having written it, no power on earth should force me to read it. Thus on that Tuesday, with its earlier than usual press deadline, I failed to go over what I had written before sending it to the editorial desk. Either the editor was out or she failed to read it herself, so I saw my mistake only after it was printed.
This is a poor explanation and hardly an excuse; I can only assure everyone that no offense or malice was intended. I had no motive for it. Over the years, I have been received well on my occasional visits to Saudi Arabia; in Qatar, on at least two occasions, the Emir was gracious enough to ask me to join his table with other state guests. I have not been to Bahrain, but I have no negative feelings about the kingdom, which employs many Filipinos.
As a Catholic Christian with many Muslim friends in various places, I have tried, in my own small way, to promote a deeper Christian-Muslim understanding and brotherhood, wherever I could. This is a theme that engages the world’s secular and religious leaders round the clock, but Easter is a time when we tend to feel it the most. For Easter is a time when we want to share the best things we have with our loved ones and friends; and Christ is the first love we want to share—even with those who do not know or believe in him.
Christ has died, and Christ is risen so that men and women may live and be saved. This is the good news which we want to share with everybody else. The cross of Christ, the victory of Christ. This is what we hear from the Pope, from the entire Church, and especially from Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap, the papal preacher, who says, “the cross is the living proclamation that the final victory does not belong to the one who triumphs over others but to the one who triumphs over self; not to the one who causes suffering but to the one who is suffering.”
Hearing the Gospel again, like the first time
This message is as old as the Gospel, and as the Gospel new. But we could learn from it, as though we were hearing it for the first time. This was what I thought was happening to me, from Maundy Thursday through Black Saturday, as I listened to the moving meditations at Stella Orientis Chapel in Pasig, with over a hundred other men. Listening to the priest, I had the feeling I was hearing words I had never heard before, or that, having heard them before, was giving them a meaning I had never given them before. God loves you, he died for you, and he rose again, so you could live in him.
This, I thought, was something only my Church made uniquely possible. In Rome, where for the first time in centuries we have two living Popes—one incumbent and the other emeritus—living side by side, we saw Pope Francis paying his respects to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on the eve of his 90th birthday, which fell on Easter Sunday (yesterday). It sets a model of friendship, brotherhood, and love, worth putting on a pedestal. But the real model of love is the Eucharist, where Christ gives himself to us, body and blood.
This is the love that binds these two men above all. In 2005, Benedict XVI succeeded Pope St. John Paul II after a long pontificate, and gifted the Church with a rare and extensive trove of deep knowledge and magisterial writings. But pleading the perils of advanced age after only eight years, he resigned on February 28, 2013 at 85—the first Pope to do so on his own initiative since Pope Celestine V stepped down under similar circumstances in 1294, and Pope Gregory XII vacated the papacy to end Western Schism in 1415.
Honoring the master
In his few years at the papacy, Benedict XVI had filled the bookshelves with clear, solid writings on almost every faith-related topic. Thus on his 90th birthday, 13 distinguished scholars in theology and related studies, all winners of the Ratzinger Prize, and known as “Cooperatores Veritatis” (“Co-workers of the Truth”), after the Pope Emeritus’s episcopal motto, have honored Benedict XVI with a 460-page Festschrift, a collection of essays celebrating the works of a well-known scholar.
The scholars included an Anglican Biblicist, an Ambrosian priest, a French philosopher, a Polish theologian, a Spanish theologian, a German theologian, a Greek Orthodox theologian, an American Jesuit, a Brazilian Jesuit, a Cisterian Abbot in Austria, a Lebanese scholar and an Italian historian. On Good Friday, Anne-Marie Pelletier, the French philosopher, offered the meditation during the Way of the Cross presided by Pope Francis at the Roman Colosseum.
According to a short Vatican preview, the Festschrift examines Benedict XVI’s insights on Christian-Islamic dialogue, Judaism, Christianity and Culture, Understanding Jesus through his three-volume work, “Jesus of Nazareth,” and how he sought to embrace and harmonize so many artificially divorced aspects of human existence: theory and practice, words and deeds, faith and reason, intelligence and feeling, science and religion, the material world and the transcendent, subjective experience and objective truth.
This is bound to become one of the more important publications on this outstanding Church intellectual. Years from now, when Benedict XVI is called to his heavenly home, and the Church decides to make him one of its eminent Doctors, this will be a valuable material.
The Vatican also released a stamp showing Benedict XVI on his 90th birthday, together with another stamp marking the 1950th anniversary of the martyrdom of Saints Peter and Paul in the year 67. Peter was crucified upside down, while Paul was decapitated, a distinction supposed to be reserved to a Roman citizen. This will be followed by the release of another stamp in honor of the three children—Lucia Santos and her cousins Jacinta and Francisco Marto—before whom the Blessed Virgin Mary was believed to have appeared at the Cova de Iria fields outside the hamlet of Aljustrel near Fatima, Portugal, between May and October 1917.
This was the same year the Russian revolution toppled the Tsarist regime and put the Bolsheviks in power, leading to the establishment of the Soviet Union, which disintegrated in 1991, after the end of the Cold War, which many people attribute to the active intervention of the Blessed Virgin through St. John Paul.
Between Faith and Reason
While Pope Francis has been called the “Pope of Mercy,” Benedict XVI may be called, among many other things, the “Pope of Faith and Reason.” His lucid and staunch defense of the purification of faith and reason compelled Jurgen Habermas, the well-known German non-believer, neo-Marxist social critic and philosopher, in their highly publicized debate at the Catholic Academy of Bavaria on January 19, 2004 (when he was still just Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith), to concede what few non-believers ever would, that philosophy had something to learn from religion. Ratzinger had long said that “the only strength with which Christianity can make its influence felt publicly is ultimately the strength of its intrinsic truth.”
On September 12, 2006, the Professor (now Pope) delivered his famous Regensburg lecture at the University of Regensburg, where he had earlier taught theology; the title of his lecture: “Faith, Reason and the University—Memories and Reflections.” In this lecture, he quoted the 1391 dialogue between the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus (1350-1425), one of the last Christian rulers before the Fall of Constantinople to the Muslim Ottoman Empire, and an unnamed “educated Persian”—(Dialogue 7, 26 Dialogues with a Persian). He argued that “not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature,” while his Persian interlocutor maintained that “God transcends concepts such as rationality and his will is not constrained by any principle, including rationality.”
But the quote that created a firestorm among some Muslim groups and some non-Muslim individuals like President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina was this: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Benedict XVI elaborated on this by pointing out that violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. “God is not pleased by blood (Manuel II again)—and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly without violence and threats…To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death.”
Benedict as prophet
The critics misinterpreted Manuel II’s words as the Pope’s own, and attacked him for them. It took a little while and some effort before the tempest died down. Ultimately Benedict XVI said he did not endorse Manuel II’s polemic but did not disagree with what he was saying. Such was the impact of this lecture on the Christian-Muslim dialogue that James V. Schall, S.J., of Georgetown University, wrote a complete book on it entitled, “The Regensburg Lecture.” One other perceptive American priest and author, Fr. George Rutler, pastor of St. Michael’s Church in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, called the Pope a “prophet” after this lecture.
“His only miscalculation,” wrote Rutler in Crisis Magazine, “ was to assume that civilization might still be civil enough to respect reason. Quoting Manuel II Paleologus, himself the remnant of a decaying civilization which still distinguished good from evil, he considered how the Islamic notion of a divine power divorced from reason, whose absolute will is its own justification, could ransack the dignity of man. He condemned no one, and spoke only for the truth without which the votaries of unreason, for whom there is no moral structure other than the willfulness of amorality and whose God is not bound by his own word, rain down destruction.”
Rutler credits Benedict XVI with having foreseen, in his Regensburg Lecture, the danger of Islamist extremism rising out of Iraq and the Levant and the refusal of the Islamic extremists to reason. This is one problem we Filipinos now face, not necessarily with respect to ISIS, which appears to remain a distant peril, but in relation to those who would use or threaten to use force or naked power to displace the rule of law and the use of reason. The greater danger comes from those who would not only threaten our freedoms but beyond that seek to possess our souls.