Professor Ratzinger Goes Back to School. With the Children
by Sandro Magister
ROME, June 3, 2009 (http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it) – He does it every year with the priests of the diocese of Rome, at the beginning of Lent. He does it in the summer with the priests in the place where he is on vacation. He does it with groups of young people. He does it with the journalists at his departure on each journey.
The direct question-and-answer, without reading prepared texts, is a method that pope Joseph Ratzinger loves. He used it when he was a professor. He still braves it, although he knows the risks. The latest of these, a sensation, happened when he said that condoms are ineffective in fighting AIDS.
But until a few days ago, Benedict XVI had tried this method with children only once. The question-and-answer session took place in Saint Peter's Square in October of 2005, the first year of his pontificate. The square was full of children from Rome and Lazio who had made their first communion that year. They were between the ages of 8 and 10.
There were seven questions, and pope Ratzinger passed the test with flying colors. He grabbed the children's attention, made himself understood, and gave simple but profound answers.
Inexplicably, however, he did not have any such encounters in the following years. Until just a few days ago, when for the second time he met with children and answered their questions.
The encounter took place on the afternoon of Saturday, May 30, the vigil of Pentecost, in the audience hall at the Vatican. The seven thousand children belonged to the Pontifical Society of Missionary Childhood.
This time there were three questions. They were gathered ahead of time together with others, exactly as is done for with the journalists on the papal journeys. The pope's staff make the initial selection. But it is Benedict XVI himself who makes the final pick, choosing the questions he wants to answer.
The complete transcript of the question-and-answer – presented below – reveals the typical traits of the current pope's personality. Effectiveness in capturing attention. Simplicity of language. The clarity of the things said. Deep optimism. Sincerity.
The listener intuits that Benedict XVI doesn't have any hidden meanings. Nor does he insinuate or indulge in doubts. He instills certainties – not his own, but those he himself has received from on high.
Defying the current clichés, pope Ratzinger is a great communicator. And he is at his best when he talks with children:
Dialogue of Benedict XVI with the children of the Pontifical Society of Missionary Childhood
Rome, May 30, 2009
Q: My name is Anna, I'm twelve. Pope Benedict, my friend Giovanni has an Italian daddy and his mother is from Ecuador, and he is very happy. Do you think that someday the different cultures can live together without arguing in the name of Jesus?
A: I understand that you all want to know how we, as children, were able to help one another. I must say that I lived my elementary school years in a small town of 400 inhabitants, very far from the big cities. So we were a bit naive, and in this town there were, on the one hand, very rich farmers and also others who were much less rich but well off, and on the other poor laborers, craftsmen. Shortly before I started elementary school, our family arrived in this town from another town, so we were a little bit like strangers to them, even our dialect was different. So in this school, there were very diverse social situations. Nonetheless, there was a beautiful communion among us. They taught me their dialect, which I didn't know yet. We worked together well, and I must say that sometimes we argued too, but afterwards we made up and forgot about what had happened.
This seems important to me. Sometimes arguing seems inevitable in human life; but it is still important to be able to reconcile, forgive, start over again and not leave bitterness in our souls. I recall with gratitude how we all worked together: each helped the other, and we made our journey together. We were all Catholic, and this was naturally a great help. Because of this we learned the Bible together, from the creation to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and also the beginnings of the Church. We learned the catechism together, we learned to pray together, we prepared together for first confession, for first communion: that was a wonderful day. We learned that Jesus himself comes to us, and that He is not a faraway God: he enters into my life, into my soul. And if Jesus himself enters into each one of us, we are brothers, sisters, friends, and so that is how we should behave.
For us, this preparation for first confession as the purification of our consciences, of our lives, and then also for first communion as a concrete encounter with Jesus who comes to me, who comes to all of us, were factors that contributed to forming our community. They helped us to get along together, to learn together to reconcile when necessary. We also put on little performances: it is important to work together, to be attentive to each other. Then when I was about eight or nine I became an altar boy. Back then there weren't any altar girls yet, but the girls read better than we did. So they read the readings of liturgy, and we were altar boys. At that time there were still many Latin texts to learn, so everyone had work to do.
As I said, we weren't saints: we had our arguments, but still there was a beautiful communion where the distinctions between rich and poor, between intelligent and less intelligent didn't count. What counted was communion with Jesus in the journey of the common faith and in common responsibility, in games, in common work. We found the capacity to live together, to be friends, and although since 1937, for more than seventy years, I haven't been in that town, we have remained friends. So we learned to accept each other, to bear one another's burdens.
This seems important to me: in spite of our weakness we accept each other and together with Jesus Christ and the Church we find together the path of peace and learn to live well.
Q: My name is Letizia. Dear Pope Benedict, when you were a boy did you ever think you would become pope?
A: To tell the truth, I never thought about becoming pope, because as I said before I was a rather naive boy in a small town far from the cities, in a forgotten province. We were happy to be in this province, and we didn't think about anything else. Naturally, we knew, venerated, and loved the pope – it was Pius XI – but for us he was at an unattainable height, almost in a different world: a father to us, but in any case a reality much higher than all of us. And I must say that even today, it is hard for me to understand how the Lord could have thought of me, how he could have destined me for this ministry. But I accept it from his hands, even if it is a surprising thing and seems to me to be far beyond my power. But the Lord helps me.
Q: I'm Alessandro. Dear Pope Benedict, you are the first missionary. How can we young people help you to proclaim the Gospel?
A: I would say that one initial way is this: work with the Pontifical Society of Missionary Childhood. In this way you are part of a great family that brings the Gospel to the world. In this way you belong to a great network. We see here how the family of the different peoples is reflected. You are in this great family: each one does his part, and together you are missionaries, bearers of the missionary work of the Church. You have an excellent program: to listen, pray, learn, share, support. These are essential elements that really are a way of being missionary, of advancing the growth of the Church and the presence of the Gospel in the world. I would like to highlight some of these points.
First of all, prayer. Prayer is a reality: God listens to us, and when we pray, God enters into our lives, he becomes present among us, active. Prayer is a very important thing, which can change the world, because it makes the power of God present. And it is important to help each other to pray: we pray together in the liturgy, we pray together in the family. And here I would say that it is important to begin the day with a little prayer, and also to end the day with a little prayer: remembering our parents in prayer. Pray before lunch, before dinner, and on the occasion of the common celebration on Sunday. A Sunday without the Mass, the great common prayer of the Church, is not a real Sunday: the heart of Sunday is missing, and with it the light of the week. And you can also help others – especially when there are no prayers at home, when prayer is unknown – you can teach others to pray: pray with others and introduce them to communion with God.
Next, listening, which means really learning what Jesus tells us. Moreover, knowing the Sacred Scripture, the Bible. In the story of Jesus, we come to know the face of God, we learn what God is like. It is important to know Jesus deeply, personally. This is how he enters into our lives, and, through our lives, enters into the world.
And also sharing, not wanting things for ourselves alone, but for all; sharing with others. And if we see another who may be in need, who is less fortunate, we must help him and in this way make the love of God present without big words, in our little personal world, which is part of the big world. And in this way we become a family together, where each respects the other: bearing with the other in his uniqueness, even accepting those we don't like, not letting anyone be marginalized, but helping him to be part of the community. All of this simply means living in this big family of the Church, in this big missionary family.
Living the essential points like sharing, knowing Jesus, prayer, listening to each other, and solidarity is a missionary activity, because it helps the Gospel to become a reality in our world.