Random headlines from daily newspapers which reached our door last Wednesday to Friday: “Pope Ventures Into Land of Luther, and Criticism,” “A Papal Homecoming to a Combative Germany: Benedict Faces Calls for Change,” “Pope to Visit Germany Amid Turmoil,” “Protesters, Faithful Greet Pontiff in Native Germany,” “Faithful Flock to See Pope in Berlin, as Thousands Protest,” and “Pope Warns Against Religious Apathy: On German Visit, Pontiff Addresses Falling Church Influence, as He Is Met with Reverence and Protests.”
Almost all of the headlines have ambiguity or tension written into them, as the stories they banner or the issues on which they report tug in opposite directions. One side reflects tender themes: “Homecoming,” “Faithful,” (twice), and “Native” give reason to picture the German Pope heading happily for Germany, where he spent most of his years. The other side is just the opposite: “Combative,” “Turmoil,” “Protest” and “Protesters.”
Were this a report of 500 years ago, the most traumatic challenge would be “Luther,” and the name and legacy may leave the Pope half-fulfilled with an agenda calling for “Change.” Today it troubles him less than all the rest. True, the headline cited includes the positive word “Reverence,” but even that headline points to a benumbing motif which outweighs almost everything else said: “Apathy.”
Popes, especially those as intelligent, experienced, and surrounded by counsel as Benedict XVI is, can argue their way out of challenges, ignore what does not please them, or offer softeners against the blows. What one thinks of critics and challenges depends upon who is looking in or looking on: aggrieved and outraged parents who feel they have not been heard or who are thwarted when they protest clerical abuse. These include women denied ordination, and some other intra-Catholic issues which needn’t directly concern the five-sixth of the world that is not Catholic of the Roman obedience.
Get past these, and then observe Catholics, Europeans, Christians in most parts of the world—half paralyzed or shaken by that word “Apathy.” The stories, taken together, suggest that the grievances and protests of the faithful should be at least signs of life. They are the voices of the faithful who still care enough to rise above apathy and inertia. The problem of which the pontiff is assuredly aware is that apathy has led millions of Europeans to vacate the pews, check out of the liturgies, stop participating in church-inspired works of love and maybe, as they exit the chapels and cathedrals, forget about those works of love entirely.
Knowing about apathy is one thing, but as these stories and all reports of the lead-up to the papal visit suggest, knowing what to do is another. The pope can be friendly to Lutherans, an ecumenical signaler of hope to those called “the faithful,” a greeter to people of other faiths. But he should have learned by now that “warning” does little in complex situations. German and European Catholics argue: does the Pope’s discouragement of the hopeful people who once flocked to the movement of aggiornamento and to generous ecumenism four decades ago contribute to the problems? He does not pretend that things are going well: all the statistics and cultural evidences challenge him. This apathy is not merely an isolated sign of a short and mild setback, but a symptom among populations which have simply lost faith in God, love for the Church, and the ability to care about them.