Saturday, October 1, 2011

Benedict XVI in Germany, My Take: We're Not About "Joyless Saints"

Pope Benedict XVI gave some young Germans a challenge during his recent trip. I think it's worth considering: even for folks who aren't young, and don't live anywhere near Germany.

This is the sixth of seven posts:
  1. "Benedict XVI in Germany, My Take: Hope, Confidence, and Looking Forward"
    (September 27, 2011)
  2. "Benedict XVI in Germany, My Take: Liberation, Transformation, and Getting Personal"
    (September 27, 2011)
  3. "Benedict XVI in Germany, My Take: Scandal, Abuse, and the Cross"
    (September 28, 2011)
  4. "Benedict XVI in Germany, My Take: Harlots and Pharisees, Agnostics and Routine Believers"
    (September 29, 2011)
  5. "Benedict XVI in Germany, My Take: Dissent, Conversion, and Knowledge"
    (September 30, 2011)
  6. "Benedict XVI in Germany, My Take: We're Not About 'Joyless Saints' "
    (October 1, 2011)
  7. "Benedict XVI in Germany, My Take: 'Where God is, There is a Future' "
    (October 3, 2011)
Now, about the Pope, a challenge, and saints:

We're Not About "Joyless Saints"

"Pope Benedict XVI has challenged young people to 'dare to be glowing saints, in whose eyes and hearts the love of Christ beams and who thus bring light to the world.'

"Addressing tens of thousands of young pilgrims gathered for a candlelight prayer vigil in the German city of Freiburg, the Pope explained that saints are those who never give up in the spiritual life despite setbacks.

" 'Christ is not so much interested in how often in your lives you stumble and fall, as in how often you pick yourselves up again,' he said....

"...'Dear friends, again and again the very notion of saints has been caricatured and distorted, as if to be holy meant to be remote from the world, naive and joyless,' said the Pope in his address...."
(CNA (September 25, 2011))

Optimism, a Challenge, and Conventional Responses

It's like I said about Zambia last Monday: I'm cautiously optimistic about Germany.

Sure, I could dismiss that challenge "to be glowing saints" as an old man's empty gesture to disenfranchised youth: or whatever 'serious thinkers' are wringing their hands about these days. Besides, 'as everybody knows,' only a miserable handful of unintelligent misfits have religious beliefs and take them seriously.

Numbers, Statistics, and Making a Difference

According to David Kerr, CNA, "tens of thousands of young pilgrims" showed up in Freiburg. Assuming that's accurate, Benedict XVI spoke to a minimum of 20,000 young people: ten thousand, twice.

Just to get a 'feel' for how significant the size of that crowd is, let's say 20,000 folks were there, and that all of them were Germans. Those are both really big assumptions on my part, of course.

"Tens of thousands" sounds like a lot of people, but on a national scale? Not so much:

Entire population181,471,834
Young pilgrims in Freiburg20,0000.024%

At this point, if I wanted to adopt a conventionally gloomy attitude, I'd point out how hopelessly impossible it would be for a mere fraction of one percent of a nation's population to make a difference.

Using that sort of reasoning can lead to false conclusions. If some minimum fraction of a population must be fully involved in a successful mission: one person from, say, Albania, 'obviously' couldn't have an effect on poverty.

I've posted about Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta before.

Bottom line? Sometimes 1/1,000,000,000 or less of a group can make a difference.

Religious Beliefs, Assumptions, and Getting a Grip

As I've said before, 'everybody knows,' that only a miserable handful of unintelligent misfits have religious beliefs and take them seriously. 'Everybody' in the some circles, that is.2

I could invoke the 'pictures don't lie' principle, and show what 'religious people' are really like:

(ArizonaLincoln (talk), via Wikipedia, used w/o permission)

(Reuters photo, via, used w/o permission)

Wow. That pretty much proves that having religious beliefs causes intolerance, right?

Wrong: I picked those photos to illustrate a particularly noisy, earnest, and annoying sort of 'religious people.' I don't doubt that the folks on those photos are sincere. I'm also quite sure that they're not typical Christians. I don't even think they're typical American Protestants. And that's another topic.

This photo shows 'religious people,' too. Their religious beliefs aren't quite the same as those of the 'God Hates You' bunch, though:

(The Pontifical Academy of Sciences, used w/o permission)

The "Nature is a book" photo is from the Pontifical Academy of Sciences' home page, by the way. You won't see that sort of thing in the news: not very often. I do not think that reporters and editors are consciously trying to distort the public image of what religion in general, and the Catholic Church in particular, are like.

My guess is that the upper echelons in news media tend to live in a relatively affluent subculture that is relatively well-insulated from non-secular experiences. And that's yet another topic.

"Saints ... Caricatured and Distorted"

I grew up in a nice mainstream Protestant family. My parents were emphatically not afflicted by the sort of malignant virtue I heard on the radio. A 'cradle Catholic' would have a different set of childhood experiences: but from what the Pope said, I suspect that we both might have gotten the wrong idea of what a 'Saint' is.

If I hadn't bothered to learn, I'd assume that a Catholic Saint was a sort of fictional character: one based on a real person, but with embellishments. Sort of like what movies do to historical events. These semi-fictional saints:
  • Lived centuries ago
    • In a faraway land
  • Were weird
    • Spent most of their time on a pillar
    • Didn't eat enough
    • Generally got some sort of painful disease
      • Preferably fatal
Some Saints really are a bit like that:
The desert fathers weren't necessarily Saints, and that's another topic.

Then there's the inhumanly bland 'plaster saint:' who apparently achieved sainthood by never feeling any human desire.

Some Saints who don't quite fit the 'spiritual soap opera' stereotype:
I don't know if someone who listened to Benedict XVI this year will become as famous as Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Padre Pio, or Saint Maximilian Kolbe. But I think there's a good chance that some of the folks there will 'catch fire' and make a difference in the 21st century.

Who knows, maybe I could make a difference. Or at least get further ahead on my own conversion.

More posts in this series:Other related posts:
In the news:
  • Catechism of the Catholic Church on
    • Happiness
      • It's okay to be happy
      • 27
    • Hope
    • Interior repentance and conversion
    • Popular piety
      • Including joy and humor
      • 1676
    • Saints

1 Source:
  • "Germany"
    The World Factbook, CIA (last updated September 27, 2011)
2 I think assuming that folks with 'religious beliefs' are necessarily irrational is as silly as assuming that emotional 'highs' are all transcendental spiritual experiences. I've posted (harangued?) about faith and assumptions fairly often:


Brigid said...

Wow, almost got to the end without any typos. "irrational is a silly as assuming that emotional"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian Gill said...


Wow, indeed. And, fixed. Thanks!

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