HONG KONG — Until three years ago, you had a well-earned reputation as the fierce watchdog of the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. You were nicknamed “God’s Rottweiler.”
That did not seem to worry you, and you applied your formidable intellect and your considerable power to sanctioning theologians who offended. But now you are pope, the Chief Shepherd, who should remember the model of the Good Shepherd in cherishing and rescuing errant and weak sheep. Christmas is a good time to reflect.
Remember a chilly night more than 2,000 years ago: a pregnant mother trekking from inn to inn could not find a place to rest, so she had to settle for an outhouse or stable, where her son was delivered amid the cattle. It was an unpromising beginning, and the boy was to meet an ignominious end three decades later, crucified as a common criminal.
Yet this man, Christians believe, was the Messiah, God become man. What an expression of Love — Almighty God become weak child.
That sacred birth is celebrated now throughout the world, often in a distorted form. Christmas trees have become so popular in China that the government has set price controls. Santa Claus is a jolly sight in Japan and worldwide.
Christmas lights twinkle all over the world even in places where God is reviled. Christmas, renamed Winterfest or Winterval, by governments that think they are god, has become a splendid opportunity for a yearend economic boost by splurging on drink and presents.
This hijacking of a sacred festival by Mammon and its friends is a reminder that Christians are a minority, about 30 percent of the world’s 6.5 billion people, of whom about 1.2 billion, or only 18 percent are Catholics.
Your predecessor John Paul II embraced the world — though clearly unhappy with a lot of its practices — but you, Holy Father, seem to have an uncomprehending intolerance of other religions, not realizing that many believers of other religions are seriously searching through the fog of their limited brains and the winds and storms buffeting their personal lives for God.
I wish I could make you a pilgrim who for a few days could thrust off the cares of the papal office. I would take you to Barisal in Bangladesh, where the Ganges and the Brahmaputra rivers meet and flimsy lives float at the mercy of the elements — capricious rains and cruel winds whose fury no one in Europe can imagine — and show you poor people with birds’ nest homes who patiently turn toward Mecca five times a day to pray to Allah, and I’d ask you, “Who and where is their God?”
I’d take you to Statue Square in Hong Kong to see the twittering groups of Filipinas meet and eat, do each other’s hair and nails, and play cards — sad refugees from Asia’s only Catholic country, snatching moments of happiness in a life of separation from home and family. And I would ask you, “Where is their family life?”
I’d take you to see my oldest friend in India, a Hindu Brahmin, who, when I happened to pass by mistake at 6 o’clock one morning immediately offered me, a complete stranger, his home and hospitality, cared for me when I got sick, taught me about Indian culture and religion and cricket and politics, dreamed that his son might one day play for India against a son of mine playing for England, and when nine months after I departed sent me a letter saying, “When you left, I was so sad to see a friend go, and I went to my wife and now we have a daughter, who is your goddaughter.” And I would ask you, “Who is my good neighbor?”
And I would humbly ask you to use your great personal charm and brain to work out how to bring the good news of Christ into these people’s lives.
I have to admit that you have disappointed me so far. You exiled my friend the Arabic-speaking Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald from the Vatican probably thinking him too soft on Islam. But he might have saved you from antagonizing Muslims by dissuading you from using that infamous quotation from a Byzantine emperor insulting Muhammad.
You hurt Jews when visiting the Auschwitz death camp by failing to acknowledge responsibility, as either a German or a Catholic, for the Holocaust. To assert that Nazism was the product of a “ring of criminals” of whom the German people were victims is to wriggle from the uncomfortable truth.
You will remember that as a cardinal you upset Buddhists by dismissing the religion as “spiritually self-indulgent eroticism.” Maybe it is a problem of the imagination and heart not being able to step outside your own world.
Please remember that not everyone has the good fortune to be born into the economic security of Western Europe and the intellectual challenge of a good education in ancient universities steeped in Christian civilization.
You will remember that your Japanese colleague Cardinal Stephen Fumio Hamao, who died last month, lamented an “excessively Westernized” church. Archbishop Leo Jun Ikenaga of Osaka has also drawn attention to differences between the West and Asia. He said Western missionaries “stressed the very, very big image of God and separated it almost infinitely from human beings, pointing out that we humans are very, very small. God is so big. So if we sin against the will of God, he will strongly condemn us.”
But for the people of Asia, the archbishop continued, the view is that: “God is very, very near to us. And God lives even inside of us. And the character of God is also full of love for each person. He is very kind. If we sincerely express to God the sinfulness of ourselves, God will accept us.”
This, of course, is not some arcane theological question, but goes to the heart of how we live our life. Catholics believe that each individual has one life on Earth, his or her journey to God. You do not get a second chance. There is no reincarnation letting you do better next time.
So how does the church reach the 60 percent of the world who have little opportunity of learning about Catholicism, especially the vast majority who live in Asian Buddhist or Hindu or Communist countries? It should be an urgent matter for you, Your Holiness.
Christ used the image of himself as the Good Shepherd who would go to all lengths to rescue his sheep who were lost or astray. That, surely, means all of us. He also gave a strict injunction to his apostles to go and teach all nations of his commandments of love.
How can you stress the universal nature of the Catholic Church and of Christ’s saving mission without making greater efforts worldwide?
So far you have hardly strayed from the safe paths, visiting your native Germany, next-door Austria, Poland, Turkey and Catholic Brazil. In 2008, you will go to the United States in April and to Sydney, Australia, in July. Africa and Asia do not figure in Vatican scheduling. But Asia intrudes. There is no aircraft that can fly from Rome to Sydney without stopping for refueling. Here is an opportunity.
May I suggest it is time now for you to look for the sheep outside the fold of the West, and to use the Australia visit as an opportunity to show yourself to Asia.
Stop at Hong Kong, preferably for at least 48 hours. Give solace to Hong Kong’s longest suffering Catholics by celebrating mass for the Filipina maids; meet, officially or unofficially, the mainland’s leaders and religious leaders; see both the successes and the scars of China’s international city; learn about China and the non-Christian world; let China learn about the pope.
Then, on the return journey, stop in Japan to reassure your bishops and people that you are a pope for the whole world, not just a Westerner. Then as you fly over India, send a message of greetings and a promise to visit soon a country where the Apostle Thomas brought Christianity nearly 2,000 years ago. Gloria in Excelsis Deo. Happy Christmas.
Kevin Rafferty is a former editor of The Universe, Britain’s Catholic newspaper.
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