“They say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.'”
So wrote the Apostle Paul describing the scuttlebutt about himself in one of his periodic gusts of annoyance with the Church at Corinth. The Corinthians had definite ideas about what an apostle should look and sound like and Paul did not measure up in their eyes. Part of the problem apparently was that there seemed to be a disconnect in the minds of the Corinthians between how Paul sounded in print and the way he came off in person.
Communication wasn’t especially helped by the fact that the Corinthians were pretty confident they were All That and that Paul would really be improved if he would just listen to their up-to-date theories. Throughout the correspondence that constitutes 1 and 2 Corinthians, you can see Paul patiently (and sometimes not-so-patiently) attempting to shepherd a group of people who are blissfully confident that they had it together. They brag about their tolerance of sexual immorality, revel in class inequalities, pull their chins thoughtfully while the latest philosopher tells them there is no resurrection from the dead, resent Paul’s authority, are all excited about some new moral theory that “Grace” = “Go Nuts and Do Whatever you Want!”, as well as various other alarums and discursions that force the apostle to put out a bunch of fires.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The Corinthians sound remarkably American. And as you survey the Mainstream Media (MSM) coverage about Pope Benedict, what comes through again and again is that much of the MSM is already weary of hearing what it has never yet heard. Many come to bury Benedict, not to praise (or even listen to) him. Their mind is made up. Like the Far Side cartoon about what we say and what dogs hear, much of the press coverage will consist of TV spots which will consist pretty much of regurgitations of The American Media Narrative on Benedict: “Benedict blah blah blah Hitler Youth blah blah blah God’s Rottweiler blah blah blah inflexible blah blah blah homosexuality, divorce, women priests blah blah blah Vatican crackdown, etc. blah blah.”
This will not be helped by the fact that we are a Paris Hilton people meeting a Pope who expects us to think. Much of the media–especially the visual media–finds this as hard as Barbie finds math. So large swaths of TeeVee America encounters the Pope’s visit on exactly the same basis they encounter the Presidential race: “How does the guy look? He has a German accent! His eyes are deep set! I heard somewhere that he thinks only Catholics go to Heaven! I liked John Paul II better because he had twinkly eyes.”
I wish it were not so, but the fact is a visual medium encourages this sort of surface stimulus/response and discourages large numbers of people from doing much else. Who has time for all those encyclicals and all their big words?
Nonetheless, this Pope who believes so strongly in the transformative power of the Holy Spirit appears to think that even a Paris Hilton people can be granted the sight to see beyond the tips of their own cosmetically-enhanced noses. And so he comes to us in one of the darker hours of our history when we are at war, the economy is in a shambles, the election is a choice between Larry, Curly and Moe, Solomonic judgments are about to be made in the field of bioethics by the best court prophets money can buy, the Church is wracked by scandal, and we are preparing ourselves to cope with it all by watching That Pregnant Guy on Oprah and dosing up on a cocktail of Viagra and Ambien.
Will Benedict succeed in his mission to America? I suppose it depends on what you mean by “succeed” and “mission”. Will he succeed in making the world not be the world? No. Even Jesus couldn’t do that. But then, that’s not the mission for either Jesus or Benedict. Will he succeed in preaching the gospel? Yes. Nothing can stop that, including three nails and a lance.
My own modest definition of “success” would include, as well, some modest progress toward fulfillment of Shea’s Iron Law of Media-Reported Benedictine Growth, which states that “Whenever the MSM declares that Pope Benedict has grown, undergone a dramatic change of course or gone a long way toward accepting positions he once rejected this invariably means the reporter or pundit who has discovered Benedictine ‘growth’ has no clue whatsoever what Benedict (and often, the Catholic faith) teaches and is only now discovering it.”
So I look forward to some dim recognition by the media that Pope Benedict, while mysteriously choosing to remain Catholic despite exposure to the bracing intellectual and spiritual winds blowing from the summits of our Hiltonic media culture, still has some good points and does not seem to be as mean and anti-intellectual as member of our journalistic class have been assuring one another he is.
This tiny movement of the grey matter, while no great shakes by itself, could be a prelude to at least some of our chattering classes attempting to familiarize themselves with the immense oceans of light and lucidity that are his works. For though his bodily presence may be “weak” (to use Paul’s term) or “unphotogenic” (to use the language of the image-obsessed media), his letters are indeed weighty and strong. Strong enough, I pray, to speak to a culture that is desperately in need of the clarity, humility, beauty, and love of Christ he preaches with such marvelous grace.