Backpacking and Faith

Today Pope Benedict XVI officially proclaimed the beggining of the year of faith with an inaugural Mass and a private note with reflections on Vatican II. During the Mass the Pope spoke about the importance of faith, in continuum with Vatican II and the teachings of the most recent Pope’s since then. IN concluding his homily he used an important metaphor drawn from the Book of Sirach, but also applied to our times: the traveller, or perhaps today the backpacker. The Pope says that the number of people who embark on journeys, such as The Camino de Santiago de Compostela, has increased and asks the rhetorical question of whether it is an expression of an intuition of knowing that we journey in this world, that we search for meaning and faith. (I have posted on related matters here and here). Below his own words and the Mass Reading:

 The first reading spoke to us of the wisdom of the wayfarer (cf. Sir 34:9-13): the journey is a metaphor for life, and the wise wayfarer is one who has learned the art of living, and can share it with his brethren – as happens to pilgrims along the Way of Saint James or similar routes which, not by chance, have again become popular in recent years. How come so many people today feel the need to make these journeys? Is it not because they find there, or at least intuit, the meaning of our existence in the world? This, then, is how we can picture the Year of Faith: a pilgrimage in the deserts of today’s world, taking with us only what is necessary: neither staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money, nor two tunics – as the Lord said to those he was sending out on mission (cf. Lk 9:3), but the Gospel and the faith of the Church, of which the Council documents are a luminous expression, as is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, published twenty years ago.

A reading from the book of Ecclesiasticus

A much travelled man knows many things,
and a man of great experience will talk sound sense.

Someone who has never had his trials knows little; but the travelled man is master of every situation.

I have seen many things on my travels,
I have understood more than I can put into words.

I have often been in anger of death,
but I have been spared, and this is why:

the spirit of those who fear the Lord can survive,
for their hope is in someone with power to save them.

The man who fears the Lord will not be fainthearted, will not be daunted since the Lord is his hope.

Happy the soul of the man who fears the Lord. On whom does he rely? Who supports him?

34, 9-20

The eyes of the Lord watch over those who love him,
he is their powerful protection and their strong support,
their screen from the desert wind, their shelter from the midday sun, A guard against stumbling, an assurance against a fall.

He revives the spirit and brightens the eyes, he gives healing, life and blessing.

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Verbum Domi- ni. C. De- o gra- ti- as.


But there is also another important environmental parallel drawn by the Pope to explain the current state of our times: the desert. Pope Benedict XVI explains that the loss of faith which Pope John XXIII foresaw when he convoked the COuncil in 1962 is what we are living today in a world which is a spiritual desert, barren and empty:

If today the Church proposes a new Year of Faith and a new evangelization, it is not to honor an anniversary, but because there is more need of it, even more than there was fifty years ago! And the reply to be given to this need is the one desired by the Popes, by the Council Fathers and contained in its documents. Even the initiative to create a Pontifical Council for the promotion of the new evangelization, which I thank for its special effort for the Year of Faith, is to be understood in this context. Recent decades have seen the advance of a spiritual “desertification”. In the Council’s time it was already possible from a few tragic pages of history to know what a life or a world without God looked like, but now we see it every day around us. This void has spread. But it is in starting from the experience of this desert, from this void, that we can again discover the joy of believing, its vital importance for us, men and women. In the desert we rediscover the value of what is essential for living; thus in today’s world there are innumerable signs, often expressed implicitly or negatively, of the thirst for God, for the ultimate meaning of life. And in the desert people of faith are needed who, with their own lives, point out the way to the Promised Land and keep hope alive. Living faith opens the heart to the grace of God which frees us from pessimism. Today, more than ever, evangelizing means witnessing to the new life, transformed by God, and thus showing the path.

This aspect was echoed in the Pope’s notes describing his interpretation of Vatican II. Of special mention to the crisis of faith in the modern world, are the themes of religious liberty, which is urgently under attack in America today and the relationship of Christianity with other religions, and especially Judaism. Here there is a specific recognition of the contribution of American bishops which speaks to the urgency of this question lived in the USA.

The Church, which during the Baroque era was still, in a broad sense, shaping the world, had from the nineteenth century onwards visibly entered into a negative relationship with the modern era, which had only then properly begun. Did it have to remain so? Could the Church not take a positive step into the new era? Behind the vague expression “today’s world” lies the question of the relationship with the modern era. To clarify this, it would have been necessary to define more clearly the essential features that constitute the modern era. “Schema XIII” did not succeed in doing this. Although the Pastoral Constitution expressed many important elements for an understanding of the “world” and made significant contributions to the question of Christian ethics, it failed to offer substantial clarification on this point.

Unexpectedly, the encounter with the great themes of the modern epoch did not happen in the great Pastoral Constitution, but instead in two minor documents, whose importance has only gradually come to light in the context of the reception of the Council. First, there is the Declaration on Religious Liberty, which was urgently requested, and also drafted, by the American Bishops in particular…

The second document that was to prove important for the Church’s encounter with the modern age came into being almost by chance and it developed in various phases. I am referring to theDeclaration “Nostra Aetate” on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. At the outset the intention was to draft a declaration on relations between the Church and Judaism, a text that had become intrinsically necessary after the horrors of the Shoah. The Council Fathers from Arab countries were not opposed to such a text, but they explained that if there were an intention to speak of Judaism, then there should also be some words on Islam. How right they were, we in the West have only gradually come to understand. Lastly the realization grew that it was also right to speak of two other great religions – Hinduism and Buddhism – as well as the theme of religion in general. Then, following naturally, came a brief indication regarding dialogue and collaboration with the religions, whose spiritual, moral, and socio-cultural values were to be respected, protected and encouraged (ibid., 2).

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