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The Church Speaks to the World: On Pope Francis’s Urbi et Orbi Blessing

April 6th, 2020 | 7 min read

By Brandon McGinley

Pope St. John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris broke new ground with its greeting: It was the first encyclical addressed not just to the Church but to “all men of good will.” Thus, in the midst of his Second Vatican Council, John catalyzed another development in the Church’s engagement with the modern world. Last month’s extraordinary Urbi et Orbi blessing by Pope Francis should be considered, in substance and symbolism, just as important a moment in Church history.

Ever since John “[threw] open the doors of the Church,” as he announced on taking the throne, one of the major fault lines among Catholics regarding the Council and the overall disposition of the modern Church has been about her discursive relationship with the world. After the disintegration of Christendom, how should the Church address the secular saeculum? Does she talk with the world, or to the world?

Over the intervening half-century, there has been a frustrating and often destabilizing disconnect between the content of the Church’s interventions and posture from which she makes them—what we might call the dramatics of Catholic engagement with the world. The result has been a collection of teachings more challenging to the development of liberal secularism than the prevailing image of modern Catholicism projected by and from Rome.

The dominant figure of this period was St. John Paul II, and he demonstrates this dynamic perhaps more clearly than is generally recognized. While the charismatic Pole was known as a master of modern communication—he was famously a dramatist himself—the emphasis was often on the modern. His major Masses and other appearances took the form of popular rallies or even stadium concerts; the visual and theatric idiom of Catholicism was overwhelmed by that of the mass meeting and mass media.

This emphasis on a more compromising presentation of the Church extended beyond the visual: Rome was apparently unbothered, for instance, that John Paul’s social teachings were largely presented to American Catholics as Ronald Reagan with a crozier. Generations of bourgeois American Catholics have been raised to believe that the American political-economic arrangement is unimpeachable. The real and challenging teaching of John Paul on these matters—Laborem Exercens would make the average American conservative see red—was reduced to esotericism for specialists.

The happy fact is that popes have never quite gotten over the ancient habit of speaking to the world with a certain distant and detached authority. The language and structure of papal documents, while more approachable than a century ago, still represent an elevated and instantly recognizable register. And the teachings are prophetic. For instance, Francis’s Laudato Si’, ignorantly caricatured as a regurgitation of environmentalist talking points, is an unprecedented broadside against modern, liberal, egoist civilization—almost certainly the most comprehensively anti-modern papal intervention since the Council.

We could say much the same about the reception and reality of Pacem in Terris. The document is largely remembered for that salutation and for its unyielding insistence on nuclear disarmament—and thus by many as a representation of faddish liberalism. But the very first sentence puts the lie to this assumption: “Peace on Earth—which man throughout the ages has so longed for and sought after—can never be established, never guaranteed, except by the diligent observance of the divinely established order.”

Peace and good order on earth can only exist if mankind recognizes and organizes around the divine order. Could there be a more succinct dismantling of secular liberalism? This is not just a recommendation of “natural law” broadly speaking: It’s a straightforward assertion that true religion is essential to all the social goods human beings naturally desire. It’s bold, radical, and transcendently Catholic.

The problem is that, in the day to day life of the Church and her relationship with the saeculum, this confidence and distinctiveness too often doesn’t come through. The visible posture of the Church is tentative, apologetic, insecure, one of stilted and too-eager dialogue rather than self-assured moral and spiritual direction. This forms perceptions much more strongly than awkwardly-translated jargon-filled book-length essays—no matter how bold and powerful they may be. Last week’s Urbi et Orbi, however, suggested a new era in the Church’s relationship to the world: a reintegration of teaching and dramatic praxis, a rediscovery of confidence amid crisis.

If we were to identify a single theme in Pope Francis’s social teaching, it would be this: Civilization—especially “advanced” Western civilization—has gotten terminally out of sync with the order established by God. This comes through in some of the most memorable lines of his address last week:

In this world, that you love more than we do, we have gone ahead at breakneck speed, feeling powerful and able to do anything. Greedy for profit, we let ourselves get caught up in things, and lured away by haste. We did not stop at your reproach to us, we were not shaken awake by wars or injustice across the world, nor did we listen to the cry of the poor or of our ailing planet. We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick. Now that we are in a stormy sea, we implore you: “Wake up, Lord!”

The Holy Father attracts criticism, which I intermittently sympathize with, for focusing too much on the natural rather than the supernatural aspects of order and justice. But the entire structure of this address, like that of Pacem in Terris, was a call to true faith as the solution to our disordered relationship with reality—social, political, and epidemiological. Throughout the Holy Father delivered the nearly taunting refrain, from the Gospel reading he selected for the occasion, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?”

More important than the content of the address, though, was the content of the drama, which synchronized in authentic, outward-facing spiritual urgency. The entire production was both brilliantly staged for film and completely in the distinctive idiom of the Catholic tradition. Of course there was chant and a litany and Latin, but perhaps more powerful still were the moments of silence: Francis’s lonely approach to the dais, his reverencing of the miraculous crucifix, his mental prayer before Our Lord on the altar.

And it culminated in the blessing of Rome and the world with the very Person of Jesus Christ, present in the Sacrament, which asserted in a way that no words possibly could that the Church really believes in the supernatural order, and that she alone can bring that order to bear on our crisis of health and hope. The blessing and the Person was presented as an oblation for the world, with all its troubles symbolized by the police lights and sirens, overwhelmed for a beautiful moment by the bells of Rome’s churches and the peaceful presence of the Lord, who condescended to be placed in the hands of a man.

This was the Catholic Church as a church, as the Church, not as a glorified NGO or an impotent proposer of alternatives or a gathering of eccentrics, addressing the world on the terms of heaven. This was the Church throwing open the windows not for the world to come in but for Christ to go out. This was the beginning, if she sees it through, of a new era of speaking to the world, not just with words but with the confident posture and full dramatic tradition of the Church of Jesus Christ, savior of the world.

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