Benedict XVI’s sermon at Holy Mass in Erfurt

Pope Benedict celebrated Holy Mass in Erfurt, Germany.  Here is the sermon.

A highlight:

“you have had to endure first a brown and then a red dictatorship”


“We have no wish to hide in a purely private faith….”

My emphases and comments:

“Praise the Lord at all times, for he is good.” These are the words that we sang just before the Gospel. Yes, we truly have reason to thank God with our whole hearts. If we think back thirty years to the Elizabeth Year 1981, when this city formed part of the German Democratic Republic, who would have thought that a few years later, the wall and the barbed wire at the border would have come down? And if we think even further back, some 70 years, to the year 1941, in the days of National Socialism, who could have predicted that the so-called “thousand-year Reich” would turn to dust and ashes just four years later?

Dear Brothers and Sisters, here in Thuringia and in the former German Democratic Republic, you have had to endure first a brown and then a red dictatorship, which acted on the Christian faith like acid rain. [A clever use of an image in an age of environmentalist activism.] Many late consequences of that period are still having to be worked through, above all in the intellectual and religious fields. Most people in this country since that time have spent their lives far removed from faith in Christ and from the communion of the Church. Yet the last two decades have also brought good experiences: a broader horizon, an exchange that reaches beyond borders, a faithful confidence that God does not abandon us and that he leads us along new paths. “Where God is, there is a future”.  [Therefore a “New Evangelization” is needed?]
We are all convinced that the new freedom has helped bring about greater dignity and a great many new possibilities for people’s lives. [But it has also had detrimental effects, as we have seen in Poland and Russia.  Freedom, but without roots in Christianity, can become license.  Think of the London riots.] On the part of the Church, we can point gratefully to many things that have become easier, whether it be new opportunities for parish activities, renovation and enlargement of churches and community centres, or diocesan initiatives of a pastoral or cultural nature. But have these opportunities led to an increase in faith? [Implicit in that question is also the question of whether what the Church in former Eastern Germany been effective?] Are not the deep roots of faith and Christian life to be sought in something very different from social freedom? It was actually amid the hardships of pressure from without that many committed Catholics remained faithful to Christ and to the Church. [And so it has ever been.] They accepted personal disadvantages in order to live their faith. Here I should like to thank the priests and the men and women who assisted them during that period.

I would like to remember especially the pastoral care of refugees immediately after the Second World War: many priests and laypersons achieved great things in order to relieve the plight of those driven from their homes, and to provide them with a new home. Sincere thanks go not least to the parents who brought up their children in the Catholic faith in the midst of the diaspora and in an anticlerical political environment. With gratitude we remember, for example, the Religious Weeks for Children during the holidays and the fruitful work of the Catholic youth centres “Saint Sebastian” in Erfurt and “Marcel Callo” in Heiligenstadt. Especially in Eichsfeld, many Catholic Christians resisted the Communist ideology. May God richly reward their tenacity in the faith. That courageous witness and that patient trust in God’s guidance are like a precious seed that promises rich fruit for the future.  [This is a call to resist the Dictatorship of Relativism.]

God’s presence is seen especially clearly in his saints. Their witness to the faith can also give us the courage to begin afresh today. Above all, we may think of the patron saints of the Diocese of Erfurt: Saint Elizabeth of Thuringia, Saint Boniface and Saint Kilian. Elizabeth [NB] came from a foreign land, from Hungary, to the Wartburg here in Thuringia. She led an intense life of prayer, linked to the spirit of penance and evangelical poverty. She regularly went down from her castle into the town of Eisenach, in order to care personally for the poor and the sick. Her life on this earth was only short – she was just twenty-four years old when she died [Died before her time, in an earthly perspective.] – but the fruit of her holiness was vast. Saint Elizabeth is greatly esteemed also by Protestant Christians. She can help us all to discover the fullness of the faith that has been handed down to us and to translate it into our everyday lives.

The foundation of the diocese of Erfurt in 742 by Saint Boniface reminds us of the Christian roots of our country. This event at the same time forms the first recorded mention of the city of Erfurt. [NB] The missionary bishop Boniface had come from England and he worked in close association with the successor of Saint Peter. [And Benedict is Successor of Peter.] We honour him as the “Apostle of Germany”; he died as a martyr. [Died before his time in earthly terms.] Two of his companions, who also bore witness by shedding their blood for the Christian faith, are buried here in the Cathedral of Erfurt: Saints Eoban and Adelar.

Even before the Anglo-Saxon missionaries [NB], Saint Kilian, an itinerant missionary from Ireland, was at work in Thuringia. Together with two companions he died in Würzburg as a martyr, [Died before his time in earthly terms.] because he criticized the moral misconduct of the Duke of Thuringia whose seat was in that place. Nor must we forget Saint Severus, the patron saint of the Severus Church here on the Cathedral Square: he was Bishop of Ravenna in the fourth century and his remains were brought to Erfurt in 836, in order to anchor the Christian faith more firmly in this region. [Also came from outside. A foreigner.  And arrived already dead.]

[Quaeruntur…] What do these saints have in common? How can we describe the particular qualities of their lives and make them fruitful for ourselves? The saints show us that it is truly possible and good to live our relationship with God in a radical way, to put him in first place, not as one concern among others. The saints help us to see that God first reached out to us, he revealed and continues to reveal himself to us in Jesus Christ. Christ comes towards us, he speaks to every individual with an invitation to follow him. This was an opportunity that the saints acted on, they as it were reached out to him from deep within themselves in the ongoing dialogue of prayer, and in return they received from him the light that shows where true life is to be found.  [And all the saints Benedict mentioned came from somewhere other than Thuringia and the all died early or arrived early.  They were fruitful because they had a missionary spirit, a clear identity, and died.]

Faith always includes as an essential element the fact that it is shared with others. [Benedict speaks in first person now…] In the first place I have God to thank for the fact that I can believe, for God approaches me and so to speak “ignites” my faith. [God gave him grace.] But on a practical level, I also have to thank my fellow human beings for my faith, those who believed before me and who believe with me.[Someone passed along the faith to Benedict.  When we discuss “faith”, we have to distinguish the faith by which we believe and the faith in which we believe: fides, quae and fides, qua.  The first is the grace, the theological virtue given by God.  The second is what we learn, formulas we can memorize and doctrines we can study. We need both.  And there is a fascinating relationship between them.  We have a phrase, based on a variation in Scripture, by St. Augustine: nisi credideritis non intelligetis… unless you will have first believed you will not understand.  Somethings we can study are mysterious.  We need the faith by which we believe to get them.  On the other hand, learning things can open us to the gift of faith by which we believe.] This “with”, without which there can be no personal faith, is the Church. [The day before, in Erfurt with the Lutherans, Pope Benedict spoke about the spread of a thin, non-doctrinal shapeless form of “Christianity”.  These evangelical, fundamentalists (and more ecclesial Protestants), have a sola Scriptura approach to faith.  I am mindful of Augustine in Contra epistolam Manichaei 5,6: “Ego vero Evangelio non crederem, nisi me catholicae Ecclesiae commoveret auctoritas… I would not believe the Gospel if the authority of the Catholic Church did not compel me.”] And this Church does not stop at national borders, as we can see from the nationalities of the saints I mentioned earlier: Hungary, England, Ireland and Italy. Here we see the importance of spiritual exchange, which encompasses the entire universal Church. If we open ourselves up to the whole of the faith in all of history and the testimony given to it in the whole Church, then the Catholic faith also has a future as a public force in Germany. At the same time the saints that I mentioned show us the great fruitfulness of a holy life, of this radical love for God and neighbour. Saints, even if there are only a few of them, change the world[He circled around to the points I made, above. But he stressed how a small person, someone small in earthly terms, makes a huge impact.  We can all make a huge impact.  But we need our faith to be strong and clear.  Clear from the point of view of the quae and the qua: we should not by our personal sins place obstacles against the gifts God wants to give and we should apply our own elbow grease to know our faith well so that we can articulate it when necessary.]

Thus the political changes that swept through your country in 1989 were motivated not just by the demand for prosperity and freedom of movement, but also decisively by the longing for truthfulness. This longing was kept awake partly through people completely dedicated to serving God and neighbour and ready to sacrifice their lives. [Like the martyrs Benedict mentioned.  Remember: the cultural identity of the people there in Erfurt also depends on the influence of those saints echoing down through the centuries.  The identity of the people there is grounded in the Catholic Christian Faith (fides quae/quae creditur).] They and the saints I mentioned before give us courage to make good use of this new situation. [NB] We have no wish to hide in a purely private faith, but we want to shape this hard-won freedom responsibly.

Like Saints Kilian, Boniface, Adelar, Eoban and Elizabeth of Thuringia, we want to engage with our fellow citizens as Christians and to invite them to discover with us the fullness of the Good News. [This is fantastic!] Then we will resemble the famous bell of the Cathedral of Erfurt, which bears the name “Gloriosa”, the “glorious”. It is thought to be the largest free-swinging medieval bell in the world. It is a living sign of our deep rootedness in the Christian tradition, but also a summons to set out upon the mission. It will ring out once more at the end of today’s solemn Mass. [When bells are consecrated, we call that consecration a “baptism” of the bell.  Bells move. Bells speak with a voice.  They communicate message.  They tell us when to pray (e.g., Angelus and “resurrection” bells, what is going on in the church (when the consecration takes place of a funeral begins or what Mass is to start), they are rung against storms and in times of joy or danger.  Bells are given names at their baptism.  Bells in Europe ring from churches which often, in cities, face on public squares.  We have to have a voice in the public square and ring out clearly in times of danger, and joy and, always, prayer.] May it inspire us, after the example of the saints, to ensure that witness to Christ is both seen and heard in the world in which we live. Amen.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. tnconvert says:

    Thank you for your succinct catechesis on the theological virtue of faith and The Faith. I will be using it in my RCIA class ! What a beautiful “feedback” system God has given us for faith!

  2. digdigby says:

    Listen to the Erfurt Bell:

    [Amazing harmonics!]

  3. Sol says:

    Dear Fr Z,

    your remark concerning the detrimental effects of freedom as seen in Poland an Russia has finally spurred me – a born and bred Pole, who has nonetheless lived andf travelled mwidely – to offer a few general points regarding the actual state of the Catholic nation in Poland.

    It seems to me that the effects of the fall of communism in fact did to Catholicism in Poland what the French Revolution had done to Catholicism in France. Now, of course the extent to which it happened cannot be compared for obvious reasons, most important difference being that religion is not persecuted or banned from the public life. But…

    Consider the fact that the Church in Poland had for years been a staunch defender of the nation oppressed by the Communist regime, and in the nation’s subconscious it was the Church who was ‘with us’ against ‘them’. Many priests risked their lives fearlessly preaching from pulpits all over the country about the people’s inviolable right to live and be free. Quite a few laid down their life for their sheep, refusing to be silent, and ended up imprisoned or, worse still, dead.. Among them one has to name the now Blessed Father Jerzy Popie?uszko, kidnapped and then murdered by the Polish security service after he would not stop giving fiery homilies and saying Mass for the intention of the nation. The likes of Fr Popie?uszko and countless others, not least bishops, who preached, ran covert seminaries (which was illegal and could be severely punished) gave hope and courage to the Poles every day.

    What happened since then? The politics have changed, the economy with it. People’s focus, now that the external enemy was gone, shifted to new possibilities that opened, especially with regards to material goods, hitherto inaccessible, now available. Sloely, peple’s material status improved, they could afford more, spend their free time in more luxurious ways than before, travel a lot more extensively than they used to.

    The rest of the story is known to us all: the influence of mass ‘culture’, Internet, media, ‘Holywood’ lifestyle patterns and sheer consumerism have slowly but surely led the people into spiritual decay. It’s happened everywhere in the West. The only thing that was needed for it to happen in Poland was the disappearance of the tight grip of the Iron Curtain and the onset of pseudo-free market economy and its accoutrements.

    There is light at the end of this tunnel though: traditional Catholic communities centred around the celebration of the forma extraordinaria have flourished in recent years, and its definitely a trend now.

    I do realise my account is quite simple, but my aim was only to throw some pointers in the mix, as it where, not giving you the full, detailed history.

  4. SegoLily says:

    Thanks for the excellent overview, Sol. I appreciate knowing the broad brushstrokes of what is happening in Poland. I certainly got some sense in 2006 that secularism was on the rise. What troubles me is the high abortion rate in Poland–before and after the fall of the communist regime. It certainly is a dark undercurrent and perplexes me. Poles, historically so Catholic in good times and bad, abort at an astonishing rate. Makes me think they have the dental extraction mentality cultivated under communism.

  5. Supertradmum says:

    What a holy and fantastic man is our Holy Father. We are so fortunate to have him as Pope. The German people have been brave in the past, and the minority of Christians there need to be encouraged. All the saints listed remind us of the time when the Church was truly Universal and not nationalistic or parochial, in the trenches or in the ghetto. We need this attitude of boldness-not to be afraid to preach the Gospel, “in season and out of season”. Being a missionary means giving up all for Christ, including the comforts of daily, known, and easy culture. May we see a new generation of missionaries, who know that there is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

  6. APX says:

    We have to have a voice in the public square and ring out clearly in times of danger, and joy and, always, prayer.

    There is a church back home that used to ring the bells three times a day (morning, lunch, and in the evening, so I’m assuming it was the Angelus) and the people living in the surrounding neighbourhoods complained to the city. No more church bells ringing throughout the day. They can only be used for special occasions now if the church is in a residential area. :(

  7. Re: Benedict’s faith — Probably most people, when he was growing up, thought of his dad as just some loser cop who didn’t have enough sense to go along with the Nazis, and his mom as just some hausfrau who had to come over from Italy to find a husband. But they were doing something very important to history, just by doing what was right.

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