Siobhan Reeves

Children, young adults and priests gain unprecedented access to the Pope

(Our Sunday Visitor, 2008, hardback, 175pp, $33.95.

Available from Freedom Publishing)

Here is a gem of a book, illustrating Pope Benedict's warm, personal style as children, young adults and priests gain unprecedented access to the Pope to question him on topics of divorce, consumerism, music, remarriage, science, pastoral care, feminism, relativism, Scripture and much more.

One should realise that this book is not a kind of catechism, as its title might suggest, and it would be difficult for those who have no knowledge of the Catholic faith. But for those who know the fundamentals, Questions and Answers provides a broad range of insights from one of the most intellectual popes of modern times.

Children's questions

In speaking to the children (First Communicants) Benedict has a rare gift in that he does not 'talk down' to them but rather adjusts his answer to their intellectual level; a very important distinction. As such, his answers to the children are equally as fruitful for adults.

Here too he exposes more of himself, his own experiences, prayers and personality. One child asks about the Pope's memories of his First Holy Communion in 1936, when he was nine years old. He describes it as 'the beginning of a lifelong friendship with Jesus, the beginning of a journey together'.

He emphasises for the children the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus, speaks of the beauty of prayer, and the importance of confession even for minor sins 'to foster the cleanliness and beauty of the soul'. He advises a child whose parents do not take him to Mass, and explains what good it does for our everyday life to go to Mass, speaking expressively of the presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. He imparts the important message that 'if Jesus is absent from my life an essential friend is missing.' This chapter alone is a great resource for parents.

The book is being used in a number of classrooms around the world as a teaching tool to bring the Pope into the classroom as it were. It is proving highly successful in teaching children that Pope Benedict is 'real human being who loves the Lord, loves the Church and loves all of them' (in the words of Rev Joseph Classen, a teacher in a St Louis Catholic school).

The questions from young people and priests cover a wide range of topics, and are refreshing in that they are more practical than theological.

Questions include:

* How can women have a hand in governing the Church?

* How do we acquire a living faith, a truly Catholic faith, a faith that is practical, lively and effective?

* What are the priorities a parish priest should strive for?

* What, in your opinion, are the greatest challenges to face in our time?

* What does the Lord expect of us?

* What should we do to bring God to others in the world?

* How do we understand our vocation?

Benedict's answers cover these and other topics. He speaks on Sacred Scripture ('the inexhaustible treasure'), the liturgy, sacred music, religious sculpture and sacred art. He discusses Africa, a continent of great hope for the faith but 'still the object of abuse by great powers', and the harmonising of scientific knowledge and faith.

In relation to evolution and theism, he says these 'are not mutually exclusive alternatives [for] science and philosophy must merge to find the answers'. He also touches on the Church's unique, spiritually fertile history, and wonderfully condenses the fundamental values of the Ten Commandments 'reinterpreted in the life of Christ and in the light of the Church and her experiences'.

Benedict declares the greatest challenge of our time to be secularisation, a 'way of living and presenting the world as 'si Deus non daretur', in other words, as if God does not exist'. We cannot live, he says, 'as though we are autonomous, authorised to invent what freedom and life are.'

He discusses the dangers of the prevailing idea that 'only what is quantifiable can be rational', and also the question of formation of conscience: 'our very own nature carries in itself a moral message, a divine message that must be deciphered'.

Vatican II

Regarding the legacy of Pope John Paul II, Benedict says, 'It was in this very century (20th), which was opposed to the faith of the Church, that the Lord gave us a series of great popes; hence a spiritual inheritance that I would say historically strengthened the truth of the primacy of the successor of Peter.'

Speaking on the disillusionment after Vatican II, he explains how all councils in the Church's history have been followed by periods of dispute, and how implementation of Vatican II was affected by the cultural revolution of 1968, and the collapse into nihilism after the fall of Communism in 1989, as well as by 'those fragments in the press that presented an erroneous image of the council'.

On the topic of women in the Church, Benedict acknowledges the roles of strong charismatic religious women like St Catherine of Siena, St Teresa of Avila and Mother Teresa: 'I could not imagine the government of the Church without this contribution', describing it as 'a crucial factor without which the Church cannot survive'.


He discusses frankly the problems confronting parish priests: passing on the faith to the younger generations, the shortage of priests in many areas and lack of time to attend to all ministerial duties. The importance and beauty of Eucharistic adoration is mentioned several times.

Benedict's answers are sometimes quite lengthy, particularly to his fellow priests, but his humility is evident when he occasionally admits insufficient knowledge of a topic. While some questions overlap, each answer is adapted to the audience.

There are a number of memorable quotes among Benedict's responses:

* Life can be successful only if we have the courage to be adventurous.

* Love is an abandonment of self and thus becomes a self-discovery.

* Divine beauty appears in the liturgy and that heaven unfolds before us.

* Being in the great company of the saints and moving forward with them can change the world.

* True conversion is an act of life that is achieved through the patience of a lifetime.

* Our life has a meaning that we must not produce ourselves but which precedes us and guides us.

Questions and Answers is a valuable resource for today's younger and older Catholics. What stands out is Benedict's eternal optimism and hope for the future of the Church. This book underlines his intelligence, compassion and understanding, and his ability to reach out to all demographics across the Church.

Siobhan Reeves is research assistant with the Thomas More Centre.

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