Popes don't deliver general conference talks. They write "encyclical letters" — epistles to the Catholic faithful.
Their writing is even divided into verses.
And last Christmas, Pope Benedict XVI sent out a Christmas newsletter to his family of 1 billion members. In the letter, which ran to 24 pages, the news — in the tradition of Christmas letters — was all good. The news was "God is love."
I read it the other evening. The message teaches much about love but much more about the man, Benedict XVI.
Back when the pope was still Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, he had the reputation of a "doctrinal drill sergeant." He was a papal guard dog. "God's Rottweiler," they called him. But this encyclical displays another side. Beneath the firm, outer shell, the pope has a soft soul.
And I think there's a lesson there. Often we see someone who is rigid about rules and behavior and figure they must be brittle all the way through. But that's not always the case. Usually, I think, that firm crust on the outside simply shields the vulnerable bread within. At least such seems to be the case with Pope Benedict XVI. His encyclical seems to have something positive for everybody — Mennonites, Muslims, Methodists and Mormons. Here are a few kernels of wheat that I gleaned from him:
We contribute to a better world only by personally doing good now, with full commitment, wherever we have the opportunity . . . A Christian knows when it is time to speak of God and when it is better to say nothing and let love alone speak.
Faith, hope and charity go together. Hope is practiced through the virtue of patience, which continues to do good, even in the face of apparent failure . . . Faith tells us that God has given us his son for our sakes . . . Love is the light — and, in the end, the only light — that can always illuminate a world grown dim and give us the courage to keep living and working.
It is time to reaffirm the importance of prayer in the face of activism and the growing secularism of many Christians engaged in charitable work. Clearly, the Christian who prays does not claim to be able to change God's plans or correct what He has foreseen. Rather, he seeks an encounter with the Father of Jesus Christ, asking God to be present with the consolation of the Spirit.
When people claim to build a case against God in defence of man, on whom can they depend when human activity proves powerless?
Mary's greatness consists in the fact that she wants to magnify God, not herself. She is lowly . . . she places herself completely at the disposal of God's initiatives.
Needless to say, there's more. The rest of the encyclical can be found on the Vatican Web site: www.vatican.va. Click on "God Is love" (Deus Caritas Est). Still, the above quotes do give a feeling for what Benedict XVI is about. In a world of woe, he's determined to offer hope. Life beats us all up. At times, even religious leaders have to scold. But for me, nothing is more motivating than someone preaching optimism with firm conviction. I know what needs to be done. I just need someone to help me find the courage to do it.
Pope Benedict XVI, I think, is one of those people.