“Every best gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no change nor shadow of alteration. For of His own will He hath begotten us by the word of truth, that we might be, as it were, the first fruits of His creatures.”
That passage from Saint James’ epistle has always been one of my favorites. It brings forth, first of all, a beautiful image. One can easily imagine seeing the Father of Lights in a cold and clear winter sky, far away from the interference of civilization—with the heavens glowing, perhaps, a little more radiantly than normal. And, perhaps, that sky was the night sky over Bethlehem, when He sent down His best and most perfect Gift, the Word of Truth made man, our Lord Jesus Christ.
More than just a starlight image, Saint James also proposes a theological truth that is central to our Catholic Faith. Much more, even, than the unchanging sky, God is eternally without “change or shadow of alteration”—He always was and always will be. And it was, indeed, through His Word of Truth, Jesus Christ, that He established our community of believers, His One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. And, further, it is through Jesus Christ and His Church that we have the treasure of God’s doctrine and morality—with unfailing certainty we know the things which God wants us to know about Him, and we know how He wants us to behave toward Him, and towards those around us.
Today, in Rome, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger is being installed as Pope Benedict XVI, the 265th successor of Saint Peter, to whom our Lord entrusted the keys of the kingdom—the guidance of His Church here on earth. Pope Benedict will not have an easy task before him. Generally speaking, those who shape world opinion repudiate the idea that the Father of Lights sent His Son into the World to reveal His unchanging doctrine and morality. The media outlets often speak of the former Cardinal Ratzinger as an “ultra-conservative,” who will slow down the work of bringing the Catholic Church into conformity with the modern world. What the networks and the newspapers either do not know (or fail to disclose) it that it is precisely the job of the Pope to resist any and all deviation which the secular world would like to impose on the Catholic Faith. It is not for the world to tell God how His doctrine must change, and how His morality must conform to the behavioral notions of the modern world. As God is “without change or shadow of alteration,” so must be His Church’s teaching about Him. Being in the world, some of the outward trappings of the Church may reasonably change over time, but this essential core of doctrine and morality simply cannot.
Just prior to the beginning of the conclave that elected Pope Benedict, he addressed the participants as Dean of the College of Cardinals. There was a passage in that homily which bears repeating, for in it the Pope-to-be clearly expressed his awareness of the need for the Church to be guided by God’s eternal Truth alone:
Pope Benedict is a man of great intellect. He recognizes that “ideas have consequences.” The problems in the Church and in the world today are numerous. But, ultimately, they will not be solved by “allowing this” or “prohibiting that” as determined by human opinion. The Pope can neither be a “conservative” nor a “liberal” as judged by the powers of the world—he must be nothing other than “Catholic.” The Pope’s goal must be, as he defined it himself: “The Son of God, true man” for Jesus Christ is the true measure and perfect exemplar of what men and women must be in this world in order hold His friendship, and to be the adopted sons and daughters of God.
There is, I believe, cause for a certain optimism in the election of Pope Benedict XVI. He recognizes the centrality of God’s unchanging and revealed truth and morality to the Catholic Faith. He recognizes that in the past decades, human thought and human action have flitted back and forth, every which way, in departure from this central truth.
But this recognition will not gain him any favor with the powers of the world; with those who shape popular opinion; or with those pseudo—Catholics (bishops, priests, and lay people) bent on clothing immoral behavior with the respectability of the Church.
I would urge you to consider that, over the coming months and years of the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI, we must do two things. The first is to pay careful attention to what he has to say—and that means what he himself says, rather than what networks and the newspapers claim he said, or have to say about him. We must make the effort to read and understand his writings and his statements—fortunately, his writings are fairly clear, even when he writes about lofty things, so that won’t be too difficult.
The second thing is that we must support him with our prayers. Over the centuries, we have seen lesser men grow into great men, with God’s grace, as they exercise their offices as Popes and bishops. Thomas Becket, for example, was a cohort of the English King Henry II; but when Becket was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, God’s graces were so great that he resisted all of the evil designs of the king against the Church, even to the point of martyrdom. We don’t want to see the new Pope killed, but we certainly can pray that he will receive the same measure of God’s grace to carry out his office; we can pray that future generations will look back on Benedict, as English Catholics look back on Becket.
So keep him in your prayers, certainly for all of his good intentions when you pray your daily Rosary. Remember that “Every best gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no change nor shadow of alteration. For of His own will He hath begotten us by the Word of truth,” Jesus Christ, Whose words we receive through the “holy Catholic Church, under the wise and loving keeping of His vicar,” who is now Benedict XVI.
Ad multos annos—may God give him