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Abbot Peter NovokoskyHomilies made understandable

Pope Francis is known for speaking off the cuff, sometimes to the consternation of his advisers, but often to the delight of his audience. He is known for using colourful metaphors. One of his more memorable ones is that shepherds should have “the smell of the sheep.” The point is immediately made.

Pope Benedict, on the other hand, was known for making more erudite speeches. This is natural given his academic background. However, while erudite, his speeches were not necessarily dense. He was able to teach complicated theology in an understandable way.

Pope Benedict, while not known for off-the-cuff, colourful comments as Pope Francis is, also had a gift for that. 

In a recent book, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, published 10 homilies that are informal, colourful and off-the-cuff reflections made in a small Bavarian parish. The 100-page book — currently available only in Italian — is titled The Homilies of Pentling, the German village where the cardinal vacationed and kept a home he had hoped to retire to one day.

“Imagine God as a kind of really strict school teacher who assigned humanity homework that only very few are able to do,” the cardinal said to his villagers. “For the majority, the notebook of life will be handed back with the grade: ‘Poor!’ ’’ That’s an analogy his parishioners could readily understand.

The god of Mammon is “like a wild animal, trying to clutch me with his talons and enslave me,” he once said. And people not open to the Holy Spirit, he said, “are like swamps that give off foul-smelling gases.” 

According to a Catholic News Service story, Pope Benedict kept the familiar style of his homilies just as they were delivered years ago. He said he hoped the homilies, taken from transcribed audio recordings between 1986 and 1999, would help not just “my fellow citizens of Pentling,” but all readers in “understanding and living the word of the Gospel.”

Pope Benedict’s gift of warm and informal instruction found few outlets in his busy pontificate. The best ones were often rare Q&A sessions, especially with children.

One young boy, who had recently celebrated his first communion, asked Pope Benedict how Jesus was really present in the eucharist when “I can’t even see him.”

With a polite laugh, the pope smiled and explained that there were lots of important things that exist even though they cannot be seen. Electricity, for example, is invisible, but people know it is there because “we see the light” it produces — people can see its effects, the pope said during a festive ceremony featuring clowns and stilt-walkers in St. Peter’s Square in 2005.

And just as people cannot see Jesus with their eyes, they can see him through what he affects. “We see that where Jesus is, people change, they become better,” he explained.

In a 1987 homily, then-Cardinal Ratzinger used words reminiscent of those of Pope Francis in describing how the church needs to be open to the Holy Spirit. “A church community that closes up inside itself saying, ‘It’s so nice here, just us, we understand each other so well that all the other things that come from Rome or elsewhere bother us so that’s that,’ — such a community would collapse upon itself and shrivel up. It wouldn’t have any more life force.”

And speaking of our tendency to judge others, then-Cardinal Ratzinger said, “It is none of our business, so to speak, to check on God’s bookkeeping, to take hold of his accounting ledgers, to outguess his thinking. . . . The task of deciding the destiny of other people has not been entrusted to us. We are before him and we need to have him look at us and allow him to address us. The others are in his hands.”

As noted earlier, the book is just out in Italian. We hope it will be translated into English. It might make a good gift for one’s pastor.