Last year, before his shock resignation from office, a friend sent me a handsome chunky little volume, with snapshot-size illustrations accompanying the text, titled “Benedictus: Day by Day with Pope Benedict XVI.” A joint publication of Magnificat and Ignatius Press and edited by Fr Peter John Cameron OP, it collects together homilies, addresses, extracts from his books and general audiences of the (now-styled) Pope Emeritus for every day of the year. My friend suggested I make it my daily spiritual fare. For several weeks I did keep up conscientiously reading these brief meditations; then I stopped, thrown off course by the advent of Pope Francis and his very different mode of discourse.
Now Gracewing has produced a similarly chunky little book (paperback this time) entitled “Through the Year with Pope Francis”. It is interesting to compare the two Popes’ extracts for 14th February. There is no reference to St Valentine as such – the commercial world has rather swallowed him up – but both Popes allude to the love of God from whom all human and romantic love flows.
Pope Benedict has Lent in mind; the heading is “Forty Days of Preparation.” In his gentle, self-effacing fashion and clearly steeped in Scripture, he reminds his readers -or listeners – that “it is only in the silent, barely noticeable things that what is great takes place, that man becomes God’s image and the world once more becomes the radiance of God’s glory.” He appeals to us to “step out of our bitterness, our anger towards others, our refusal to accept the other’s otherness” and reminds us that it is through our practice of the little daily virtues that we become more like Christ, imitating God who “has given himself to us so that we can give ourselves to him and to one another.”
The daily entries for Pope Francis are shorter. As is well-known he, unlike Pope Benedict, often talks in an extempore fashion which can cause headaches for his translators and interpreters. The extract for 14 February is from a homily at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, where the Pope lives, and it reflects the very homely and personal style of the Holy Father’s own faith. “The Lord loves us tenderly” he explains, adding, “The Lord knows the beautiful science of caresses – God’s tenderness…” He introduces a more direct element into his address, challenging his listeners in a way that his theologian predecessor rarely did: “More difficult than loving God is letting ourselves be loved by him. “Lord, I want to love you but teach me the difficult science, the difficult habit of letting myself be loved by you.” Pope Francis is a more instinctive communicator than Pope Benedict, less the gentle scholar with his more elaborate syntax. No wonder the media has taken him up in a big way. He is a gift for sound-bites and for the kind of dramatic “copy” that journalists are permanently seeking.
Kevin Cotter, the editor of this latter selection, has added his own questions for reflection at the bottom of each page. For 14 February he writes, “Why is it so hard to let ourselves be loved by God? How can we get better at this difficult science?” I know it’s the modern fashion to add questions like this to publications of this sort but it makes me feel as if I am being quizzed by a psychologist. It’s not that this particular question is off-beam but that, as Pope Francis suggests, only God can ultimately “teach me the difficult science.” And that means prayer.
Do I have a preference between these two texts? No. Each brings its own illumination on how to live the Christian life. But I could do without the editorial inquisition.