By John Thavis
At first glance, Pope Benedict XVI’s two-day visit to the northern Italian city of Genoa seemed designed to highlight the ascendancy of the region’s prelates in his pontificate.
The Pope chose Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the former archbishop of Genoa, as his secretary of state. He named the new head of the archdiocese, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, president of the Italian bishops’ conference. And the archdiocese’s liturgist, Mgr Guido Marini, is now the master of papal liturgical ceremonies at the Vatican.
But for all the local pride it evoked, the Pope’s May 17-18 visit had broader implications and a deeper purpose. Despite its strong Catholic traditions, Genoa has become a new front in the church’s battle to maintain its social and political influence.
It’s a struggle being played out not only in Italy, but throughout the European continent, where secular culture has drifted away from Christian foundations. Indeed, church leaders sometimes describe this as a battle for Europe’s soul. In Genoa, these tensions have found an unlikely focus in the figure of Cardinal Bagnasco, a soft-spoken man who has defended church teaching on a number of controversial social issues, including gay marriage and cohabitation.
That prompted criticism and even death threats, and the cardinal now travels under armed escort provided by the state.
Pope Benedict’s trip to Genoa and the nearby city of Savona was, therefore, an important opportunity to defend the Church’s voice in the moral and ethical affairs of society.
The Pope did so not with theoretical arguments about church-state relations, but by highlighting the Church’s real efforts to help real people.
One of his most moving encounters was his visit on May 18 to the Giannina Gaslini Institute in Genoa, the biggest children’s hospital in northern Italy. He blessed children in wheelchairs, listened to a 10-year-old cancer patient’s eloquent greeting and smiled in appreciation of their gift – a large portrait of the pontiff.
The Church does not own or manage the hospital, but it helps fund it and has a permanent voice in its administration. That kind of cooperative arrangement, the pope said, reflects Genoa’s historic reputation as a “city of Christian charity.” The Pope’s next event was a meeting with thousands of enthusiastic young people, who stood under pouring rain to cheer him in central Genoa.
The Pope said being young was beautiful, but he warned about a culture that tries to hold on to youth at any cost. “Today everyone wants to be young and remain young, and they mask themselves as young even if the time of youth is past – visibly past,” he said.
One reason, he said, is that a culture moving away from faith leaves a great emptiness in the hearts of men and women, and many of them want to “stop time” because they fear a meaningless future.
The Pope emphasised that a key demand of the Christian faith is to move the focus from oneself to others and make time for the poor and needy.
The Pope’s talk was thought-provoking, but the impact of the encounter went beyond words: For one morning, Genoa’s young Catholic activists ruled the city’s historic square, and the future of the Church was clearly visible in their faces.
A few minutes later, the pontiff was immersed in a far older crowd of men and women religious in the city’s cathedral, where he underlined their historic service in education and in helping the poor, the sick, families and children.
The Pope said they should not be overly discouraged by the declining numbers of religious. He made a similar point in Savona the day before, saying, “Priestly ministry cannot be measured in numbers and statistics – the results we will know only in heaven.”
The Pope’s heartening words were appreciated in a region where priests were once a common presence in factories and other places of social life, but where vocations have dwindled and anti-clerical pressures have grown.
Even as the Pope was arriving in the area, about 1,000 “Lay Pride” demonstrators marched in Genoa to protest what they said was unwarranted clerical and Vatican influence in Italian political life. A
few “No pope” slogans were painted on walls throughout the city.
A more respectful and carefully worded challenge came from Genoa’s leftist mayor, Marta Vincenzi, who said the Church, like other institutions, should have a “strong and authoritative voice” in political affairs. But she cautioned against a confusion of roles and said it was important not to “transform ethics into an area of political battle.”
The mayor quoted two points made by the 20th-century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer: that ethics are not something that can be predetermined by principles, and that the proper mission of the lay faithful is to help shape society while respecting the competence and responsibility of others.
Much of the controversy over the Church’s role in Italy has focused on questions like abortion, euthanasia and gay marriage, issues that the Pope did not address directly during his visit. Instead, at a closing Mass in central Genoa, he talked about the concept of God that lies at the foundation of human society. The human being “does not realize himself in an absolute autonomy” but in relation to God, he said, and this relationship gives meaning to the various human institutions.
He said it is this vision of God that inspires the Church’s social doctrine and its concrete acts of charity. This is how the Church serves society, he said – through teaching, but above all through the witness of its faith.
The Pope’s words echoed his comments at his opening liturgy the day before in Savona, a seaport on the Ligurian coast, where he cited the Christian duty to perform works of charity.
The Pope appealed on behalf of prisoners in the region, and he also spoke about one famous detainee of the past: Pope Pius VII, who was imprisoned in Savona for three years by Napoleon.
This “obscure page of European history” holds lessons for today, the Pope said.
“It teaches us courage in facing the challenges of the world: materialism, relativism, secularism, without ever giving in to compromise, prepared to pay personally to remain faithful to the Lord and his church,” he said.