Thursday, December 29, 2005

Waiting For a Light

It's amazing how much can, with time and attention, be gleaned and culled from seven paragraphs of text. In a word, this is the magic of Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict XVI.

I'd like to return yet again to the Pope's homily at Midnight Mass, because it's just an amazingly stellar piece of work, especially when listened to in all its inflected glory.

The final push of the message deals with the message of peace and the presence of the shepherds. Here it is, first in Italian, then in English.
Nel loro ambiente i pastori erano disprezzati; erano ritenuti poco affidabili e, in tribunale, non venivano ammessi come testimoni. Ma chi erano in realtà? Certamente non erano grandi santi, se con questo termine si intendono persone di virtù eroiche. Erano anime semplici. Il Vangelo mette in luce una caratteristica che poi, nelle parole di Gesù, avrà un ruolo importante: erano persone vigilanti. Questo vale dapprima nel senso esteriore: di notte vegliavano vicino alle loro pecore. Ma vale anche in un senso più profondo: erano disponibili per la parola di Dio, per l'Annuncio dell'angelo. La loro vita non era chiusa in se stessa; il loro cuore era aperto. In qualche modo, nel più profondo, erano in attesa di qualcosa, in attesa finalmente di Dio. La loro vigilanza era disponibilità - disponibilità ad ascoltare, disponibilità ad incamminarsi; era attesa della luce che indicasse loro la via. È questo che a Dio interessa.

In the world of their time, shepherds were looked down upon; they were considered untrustworthy and not admitted as witnesses in court. But really, who were they? To be sure, they were not great saints, if by that word we mean people of heroic virtue. They were simple souls. The Gospel sheds light on one feature which later on, in the words of Jesus, would take on particular importance: they were people who were watchful. This was chiefly true in a superficial way: they kept watch over their flocks by night. But it was also true in a deeper way: they were ready to receive God’s word. Their life was not closed in on itself; their hearts were open. In some way, deep down, they were waiting for him. Their watchfulness was a kind of readiness – a readiness to listen and to set out. They were waiting for a light which would show them the way. That is what is important for God.
When you listen to the audio, the way the Pope emphasizes the words "Certamente non erano grandi santi..." ("To be sure, they were not great saints...") with his rising voice is notable, almost crying out that this is something you should remember, that it's a key to the message of Christmas night.

But what does this exposition of the shepherds -- that they were "looked down upon," "considered untrustworthy" by the world, that they were surely "not great saints," but most importantly that "They were waiting for a light which would show them the way," that they were watchful -- mean for our own time? Could it be the Ratzingerian synthesis of the qualities of the shepherds of our own time, i.e. the current pastors of the church? Not necessarily what they always are but, in the ideal, in his own vision and highest hopes and sometimes in spite of their faults or the misperceptions of others, what they should be?

The interpretation is certainly an open question, but its modern relevance to the heart of pastoral leadership sure seems to be where it points. It's just a thought.