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Posted November 16, 2005

Book: God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church
Author: George Weigel
HarperCollins, New York, 2005, pp. 307

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

George Weigel’s bestselling biography of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope, set the standard by which all portraits of the modern papacy are now measured. With God’s Choice, he gives us an extraordinary chronicle of the rise of Pope Benedict XVI as well as an unflinching view of the Catholic Church at the dawn of a new era.

When John Paul II lapsed into illness for the last time, people flocked from all over the world to pray outside his apartment. He had become a father figure to millions in a world bereft of strong paternal examples, and those millions now felt orphaned. After more than twenty-six years of John Paul II’s guidance, the Catholic Church is entering a new age, with its bedrock traditions intact but with pressing questions to address in a rapidly changing world. Beginning with the story of John Paul’s final months, God’s Choice offers a remarkable inside account of the conclave that produced Benedict XVI as the next pope, drawing on George Weigel’s unrivaled access to this complete event.

Weigel also incisively surveys the current state of the Church around the world: its thriving populations in Africa, Latin America, and parts of the post-communist worlds; it collapse in western Europe; its continued struggles in Asia; and the vibrancy of many aspects of Catholic life in the United States, even as the Church in America struggles to overcome its recent experience of scandal.

Reflecting on John Paul II’s greatness, drawing on firsthand interviews to paint an intimate portrait of the new Pope, and boldly assessing the Church’ s current condition, God’s Choice is an invaluable book for anyone seeking to understand the Catholic future and the larger human future the Church will help to shape.

An Excerpt from the Book:

In the rapid flurry of journalistic portraiture that followed Joseph Ratzinger’s election as Pope Benedict XVI, his musical interests were frequently cited, and more than one reporter described him as a Beethoven aficionado. No doubt Pope Benedict respects Beethoven’s achievement, but his own musical orientation is actually different. Growing up near the German-Austrian border, he and his family were drawn into the musical orbit of nearby Salzburg – and to be drawn into Salzburg means to be drawn into Mozart. There, Ratzinger told Peter Seewald, “Mozart thoroughly penetrated our souls, and his music still touches me very deeply, because it is so luminous and yet at the same time so deep. His music is by no means just entertainment; it contains the whole tragedy of human experience.”

Which is certainly true enough, as anyone familiar with Mozart’s unfinished Requiem will readily testify. Still, it would seem to be an established law of human personality that, while a Beethoven man may have a lot of dark, brooding corners in his soul, a Mozart man is someone who is, fundamentally, a happy person — even if that happiness is a happiness on the far side of tragedy. Musically inclined theologians sometimes say that, while Bach is what the angels play in heaven on high days and holy days, they turn to Mozart when they’re playing for the sheer pleasure and joy of it. Joseph Ratzinger never discussed hist in his theological reflections on angels, but he may well agree.

And that, in a sense, brings his understanding of the papacy into focus one last time: for Benedict XVI, the Office of Peter is charged with promoting and defending the integrity of the faith through which human beings may enter the joy that is on the far side of the tragic — the Easter that follows Good Friday. Pope Benedict made precisely this, and related, points in his sermon at the Basilica of St. John Lateran, his cathedral church as Bishop of Rome, on May 7, 2005.

It is only within the mystery of Christ, he began, that the mystery of the chair, symbol of the bishop’s teaching authority, can be understood. During that Ascension weekend, the Pope said, the Church should reflect on the fact that, in the Ascension, the Risen Christ takes our humanity into the very life of God himself: “And given that God embraces and sustains the whole cosmos, the Lord’s Ascension means that Christ has not gone far away from us, but now, thanks to the fact that he is with the Father, he is close to each one of us forever.” We may turn our backs on him (as so much of Europe and other parts of the developed world have done); but “he always awaits us and is always close to us.”

Christ told his disciples, before the Ascension, to be his “witnesses.” Another word for “witness,” Benedict XVI reminded his congregations, is “saint.” A saint is someone who is a “shining light capable of leading [others] to Christ.” Once again, Benedict was proposing, the Church must learn to think of itself as a “communion of saints.” Yet that communion of saints has a structure, also willed by Christ — it is the responsibility of the Church’s bishops, th successors of the apostles, “to make this network of witnesses endure with the passing of time.” That is why this network of witnesses endure with the passing of time.” That is why the first task of every bishop, and most especially the bishop who is the successor of Peter, must be the proclamation of the truth that “Jesus is Lord.” Like Peter, Peter’s successor must “strengthen the brethren” in their confession of that absolutely basic, three-word Christian creed. And that is what any bishop’s chair, and certainly the Chair of Peter, is for: its teaching authority exists, not to flatter him who sits there, but “to give testimony of Christ,” to articulate the “living voice of the Church” which teaches the truths for which human beings have lived and died.

He was not, Benedict XVI insisted, “an absolute monarch.” The pope, too, was subordinate — subordinate “to Christ and his word.” Thus “the pope must not proclaim his own ideas, but bind himself constantly and bind the Church to obedience to the Word of God, in [the] face of attempts to adapt and water down, in the face, as well, of all opportunism.” The awesome responsibility of the Bishop of Rome is to ensure that the Word of God “continues to be present in its grandeur and resonating in its purity.” The Chair of Peter exists so that the one who speaks from the Chair bears witness to the fact that “the Word of God — his truth — may shine among us, indicating the way to us.”

And the way, ultimately, is the way of love. St. Ignatius of Antioch described the see of Rome as that see “which presides in love.” This is no vague sentimentality. The love here is the love of the crucified and risen Christ, “always made tangible among us” in the Eucharist, over which the Bishop of Rome also presides. So the two go together: teaching from the Chair and presiding at the Eucharistic table. “To preside in doctrine and love, in the end, must be only one thing: all the doctrine of the Church, in the end, leads to love.” Doctrine is not an impediment on the Christian journey, as so many have misunderstood it. Doctrine is the vehicle that permits the journey in the first place — and that keeps the journey pointed in the right direction.

That was what it meant to be the father of this “great family of God, that family in which there are no strangers.” It means to preside in truth and in love, knowing that truth and love are both of God.

And that, in the final analysis, is what Pope Benedict XVI proposes to do: to be a servant of truth and love, in the conviction that “in the end, the world is not redeemed by machinery, but by love.” The commitment he has made, before God, the Church, and the world, is to show the way toward truth and love. It promises to be a mos interesting journey indeed.

Table of Contents:

1. The death of a priest

2. The Church that John Paul II left behind

3. The tears of Rome

4. God’s choice — the conclave of 2005

5. The making of a new Benedict

6. Into the future