Pope Benedict: Yearning for mercy is sign of longing for God's love

IMAGE: CNS/Stefano Spaziani

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Although he lives a relatively hidden
life in a villa in the Vatican Gardens, retired Pope Benedict XVI continues to
study modern theological questions and, occasionally, to comment on them

The attention Pope Francis and many Christians are giving to
the theme of divine mercy is a “sign of the times” that shows how,
deep down, people still experience a need for God, the retired pope told
Belgian Jesuit Father Jacques Servais in a written interview.

“Mercy is what moves us toward God, while justice makes
us tremble in his sight,” Pope Benedict said in the interview published in

Archbishop Georg Ganswein, the retired pope’s personal
secretary, read Pope Benedict’s German text in October at a conference on the
doctrine of justification and the experience of God. The retired pope approved
the Italian translation of the text, which was published along with other
papers presented at the conference.

The doctrine of justification — how people are made
righteous in God’s eyes and saved by Jesus — was at the heart of the
Protestant Reformation, which will mark its 500th anniversary in 2017.

In the interview, Pope Benedict said, “For people today,
unlike at the time of (Martin) Luther and from the classical perspective of the
Christian faith, things have been turned upside down in a certain sense: Man no
longer thinks he needs to be justified in God’s sight, but rather he is of the
opinion that it is God who must justify himself because of all the horrendous
things present in the world and in the face of human misery.”

The extreme synthesis of such an impression, he said, could
be formulated as: “Christ did not suffer for the sins of men, but in order
to cancel the faults of God.”

“Even if today the majority of Christians would not
share such a drastic overturning of our faith, you could say that it indicates
a basic tendency,” the retired pope said.

Another sign of a strong change in general thinking that
challenges at least medieval Christian thought, he said, is “the sensation
that God cannot simply allow the perdition of the majority of humanity.”

Yet, Pope Benedict said, there still exists a general perception
that “we need grace and pardon. For me it is one of the ‘signs of the
times’ that the idea of God’s mercy is becoming increasingly central and
dominant” in Christian thought.

St. Faustina Kowalska’s promotion of the divine mercy
devotions in the early 1900s and the ministry and writings of St. John Paul II,
“even if it did not always emerge in an explicit way,” both gave a
strong push to a popular Christian focus on mercy and to theological
explorations of the theme.

From his experience as a youth during World War II and his
ministry under communism in Poland, St. John Paul “affirmed that mercy is
the only true and ultimately effective reaction against the power of evil. Only
where there is mercy does cruelty end, only there do evil and violence stop,”
said the retired pope, who worked closely with the Polish pope for decades.

“Pope Francis,” he said, “is in complete
agreement with this line. His pastoral practice is expressed precisely in the
fact that he speaks continuously of God’s mercy.”

The fact that so many people are open to that message, Pope
Benedict said, shows that “under the patina of self-assurance” and a conviction
of self-righteousness, “man today hides a deep awareness of his wounds and
his lack of worthiness before God. He is waiting for mercy.”

In many ways, he said, the focus on divine mercy is a modern
way of speaking about “justification by faith,” knowing how important
God’s mercy is.

The role explicit faith in Jesus plays in one’s salvation is
an area where “we are before a profound evolution of dogma,” Pope
Benedict said. “In the second half of the last century an awareness that
God cannot allow the perdition of all the nonbaptized was completely

“If it is true that the great missionaries of the 16th
century were convinced that one who was not baptized was lost — and that
explains their missionary commitment — in the Catholic Church after the Second
Vatican Council that conviction was definitely abandoned,” he said.

Theologians are still trying to work out full and valid
explanations that would affirm the Christian certainty that salvation comes
through Christ without insisting baptism and an explicit profession of faith in
him is needed, the retired pope said. In the meantime, though, it is clear that
the church — the entire Christian community — is the body of Christ and that
body must reach out to offer help, healing and an invitation to a deeper
relationship with God.

“The counterbalance to the dominion of evil can consist
only in the divine-human love of Jesus Christ that is always greater than any
possible power of evil,” Pope Benedict said. “But we must insert
ourselves into this response that God gives through Jesus Christ.

“Even if the individual is responsible only for a fragment
of evil,” he said, he or she is therefore “an accomplice in its

Like Pope Francis, Pope Benedict urged a return to the
sacrament of reconciliation. That is where, he said, “we let ourselves be
molded and transformed by Christ and continually pass from the side of one who
destroys to that of the one who saves.”

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Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden.

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