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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anthony Lilles

Pope Benedict and the Question of 16th Century Christianity

Over at is Pope Benedict's address to the representatives from the Council of the Lutheran Church of Germany at the ancient Augustinian Monastery at Erfurt where Martin Luther studied theology. The Holy Father's words include a great examination of conscience for anyone engaged in the task of theology, especially for those who know that prayer and theology must not be separate enterprises, who strive for a theology to help build up the Church. He observes: "Most people today, even Christians, set out from the presupposition that God is not fundamentally interested in our sins and virtues. He knows that we are all mere flesh. Insofar as people today believe in an afterlife and a divine judgement at all, nearly everyone presumes for all practical purposes that God is bound to be magnanimous and that ultimately he mercifully overlooks our small failings. But are they really so small, our failings? Is not the world laid waste through the corruption of the great, but also of the small, who think only of their own advantage? Is it not laid waste through the power of drugs, which thrives on the one hand on greed and avarice, and on the other hand on the craving for pleasure of those who become addicted? Is the world not threatened by the growing readiness to use violence, frequently masking itself with claims to religious motivation? Could hunger and poverty so devastate parts of the world if love for God and godly love of neighbor – of his creatures, of men and women – were more alive in us? I could go on. No, evil is no small matter. Were we truly to place God at the centre of our lives, it could not be so powerful. The question: what is God’s position towards me, where do I stand before God?" Pope Benedict's question which he attributes to Martin Luther, is a question of prayer, and this question was the driving question of the 16th Century—not only among protestants, but also for Catholic saints and mystics like Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila, Philip Neri, and Catherine of Genoa - to name only a few. We constantly find in the witness of 16th Century Christians how much they loved prayer. They gave the highest priority to seeking and attending to the Lord for extended periods of time every day. Prayer seems to have opened them to a deeper encounter with the Savior because through it they learned how much they needed salvation. The Holy Father's reflections suggest it was in prayer that they opened their heart to the truth about sin in all it's horrific dimensions - great and small, malicious and petty. These holy men and women also realized the price the Lord suffered to free them from this reality and in the Cross they also glimpsed the vast horizons of His unsurpassable love. They clung by faith to the Risen Lord, radically trusting that He is personally concerned about each of us in the most tender of ways. They loved virtue and though they stove for it with all their strength, they always attributed any growth or development in it to the gracious goodness of God. They loved the Word of God and those that could read were convinced that prayerful study of the Holy Bible provided an irreplaceable means of attending to the Lord. Prayer, conversion and theology went together for them. It is in things such as these that good Christians still hold so much in common. Just as such friendship with God was a source for the renewal of the Church in the 16th Century there is little doubt that the restoration of the Church in our own time will be accomplished by a return to such radical and honest prayer: a prayer that imbues the way we live and the way we understand our faith.

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