Is his a lone voice in the wilderness?

THIS week I want to take a break from the thrilling (in the fashion of fiction) tales of traitors and conspirators and delve into the calmer and more edifying (i.e., it should be) world of spirituality.

THIS week I want to take a break from the thrilling (in the fashion of fiction) tales of traitors and conspirators and delve into the calmer and more edifying (i.e., it should be) world of spirituality.

Occasionally, one needs to retreat to the security of religion in order to regain one’s composure so as to grapple with the uncertainties of the secular world.

Well, that is how it used to be. Now there seems to be more doubts in religion. Still, the habit of seeking shelter and assurances in spiritual matters persists.

My retreat into the safety of religion was triggered by Pope Benedict XVI’s four-day state visit to Britain, on 16th -18th September. The Pope made his visit amid accusations of priestly sins, dogmatic and institutional inflexibility, and protests that it was a waste of taxpayers’ money to host him. Some of these charges have been with the Pope from the time he was a cardinal, while others are more recent.

A lesser individual would have buckled under the weight of the accusations. A weaker institution would have crumbled under the heavy and sustained barrage. Not so Benedict XVI and the Roman Catholic Church. The devout might say this is proof of the rock foundation on which the church is built, and the unbroken apostolic succession of its leaders.

The more pragmatic will point to the fact that most enduring institutions and leaders have had to go through a time of adversity and come out of it stronger. It does not really matter which. The fact is that the church is remarkably resilient.

Talking about resilience and strength in the face of attack, I could not help thinking about our own Rwanda. There are, of course, differences. Rwanda does not have the same universal spread as the Catholic Church in terms of space, organisation and ideology. Of course you can argue that this country has a universal reach in terms of the moral and political correctness of its positions on many things. Some of the accusations against the church are well-deserved and the Pope has acknowledged and apologised for them.

Others are more dubious. The ones against Rwanda are not only wrong; they have also been conceived in bad faith and pursued with a vindictiveness born out of hatred and a wish for the destruction of the country.

To some of the other charges - institutional strength and durability, clarity of vision and strong commitment to the preservation of unity - both plead guilty. These are elements that are crucial for the survival and continued existence of both Rwanda and the church.

Pope Benedict XVI went to the United Kingdom anyway. The already overcast climate (figuratively) was not helped much by the utterances of Cardinal Walter Kasper, who was supposed to be in the papal entourage.

The good Cardinal lamented in an interview that Britain was like a third world country as it was caught in the grip of a vicious atheism. His remarks caused a furore. The British felt offended, not so much by the charge of atheism as by the third world label. Their anger was misplaced.

Third world countries should have been more offended. All indications show that Christianity in all its forms and endless mutations, and other religions are growing fastest in the so-called third world. We are so God-fearing that atheism cannot get a toehold in our parts of the world. And to lump atheism and third world together? What cheek!

We in Rwanda are not surprised at the distortion. It is all too familiar. Truth is inverted; the culpable and the innocent swap places; history is rewritten and new stories invented to validate the new history; all this without as much as a blush. I suppose the Brits now understand what it is like to be tagged to the wrong label.

I found the Pope’s manner in answering the accusations very instructive. He faced them with dignity and firmness. He did not shy away from clerical sex scandals or the furore that rose by his Cardinal’s remarks. He spoke against the “dictatorship of relativism” and secularism.

Said he, “There are some who seek to exclude religious beliefs from public discourse, to privatise it or even paint it as a threat to equality and liberty.” He warned that this trend lays the perfect ground for the growth of extremism and fundamentalism.

The remedy against these dangers, the Pope said, was for society to have “clear voices which propose our right to live, not in a jungle of self-destructive and arbitrary freedoms, but in a society which works for the welfare of its citizens...”

These words may have been said to a congregation in Scotland, but they were meant for many around the world. For us in Rwanda, the injunction about the right to live and against destructive and arbitrary freedoms is particularly relevant.

Pope Benedict XVI has been unfavourably compared with his predecessor, John Paul II. The latter was seen as an activist pope who helped dismantle totalitarianism. He was in the league of mega stars that pull huge crowds to their events. The present pope is not a political activist, He might even appear self-effacing and humble, but he has a singular focus that will perhaps have an equally major influence on world affairs. His focus now seems to be fighting to roll back secularism and reassert spiritual values.
There were fears at the beginning of the pontificate of Benedict XVI that he might be a lone voice in the wilderness of secularism without conscience. Now there are many who are already reassessing that view. One hopes that these values will touch some of the individuals and organisations which seek to order the world according to their wishes (perhaps sinful?) and make them work for the welfare of all the citizens of this world which we share.


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