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Sail on: Pope Benedict and his seafaring metaphors

© Jeffrey Bruno
Papa Benedetto XVI (2011)
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There’s been a lot of throat-clearing and hand-wringing over Benedict’s remarks, delivered via telegram, at the funeral of Cardinal Joachim Meisner:

What particularly impressed me in that last talk with the retired Cardinal, was the loosened joy, the inner joy, and the confidence he had found. We know that this passionate shepherd and pastor found it difficult to leave his post, especially at a time in which the Church stands in particularly pressing need of convincing shepherds who can resist the dictatorship of the spirit of the age and who live and think the faith with determination. However, what moved me all the more was that, in this last period of his life, he learned to let go and to live out of a deep conviction that the Lord does not abandon His Church, even when the boat has taken on so much water as to be on the verge of capsizing.

I’d encourage you to read the full text, which presents a more complete picture of what the Pope Emeritus was saying and the point he was making.

Meantime, those who a long memory may recall that Benedict has used that very image before—a few times, over many years and in a variety of circumstances. He’s quite taken with it.

For example, there was the homily he delivered as Cardinal Ratzinger in the Cathderal of Trier 14 years ago, in 2003:

Throughout all of history, the little bark of the Church travels in stormy waters and is in danger of sinking…or at least, that is how it seems.

Then there was his meditation for the Way of the Cross in 2005:

Lord, your Church often seems like a boat about to sink, a boat taking in water on every side.

Finally, there were his comments during his final General Audience in 2013:

I have felt like Saint Peter with the Apostles in the boat on the Sea of Galilee: the Lord has given us so many days of sun and of light winds, days when the catch was abundant; there were also moments when the waters were rough and the winds against us, as throughout the Church’s history, and the Lord seemed to be sleeping. But I have always known that the Lord is in that boat, and I have always known that the barque of the Church is not mine but his. Nor does the Lord let it sink; it is he who guides it, surely also through those whom he has chosen, because he so wished. This has been, and is, a certainty which nothing can shake.

There may be other incidents I’ve missed, but you get the idea. The “barque of the Church” idea isn’t something new; it’s one he has used repeatedly. And I suspect this isn’t the last we’ll find him using that image. The man knows how to work a metaphor.

UPDATE: A sharp-eyed reader found at least two more times Benedict has used that seafaring motif.

There was his 2006 homily on the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul:

The Church – and in her, Christ – still suffers today. In her, Christ is again and again taunted and slapped; again and again an effort is made to reject him from the world. Again and again the little barque of the Church is ripped apart by the winds of ideologies, whose waters seep into her and seem to condemn her to sink. Yet, precisely in the suffering Church, Christ is victorious.

In spite of all, faith in him recovers ever new strength. The Lord also commands the waters today and shows that he is the Lord of the elements. He stays in his barque, in the little boat of the Church.

And he also used the barque image in a 2012 address from the window of his Apostolic Palace:

In these 50 years we have learned and experienced that original sin exists and that it can be evermore expressed as personal sins which can become structures of sin. We have seen that in the field of the Lord there are always tares. We have seen that even in Peter’s net there were bad fish. We have seen that human frailty is present in the Church, that the barque of the Church is even sailing against the wind in storms that threaten the ship, and at times we have thought: “the Lord is asleep and has forgotten us”.

Deacon Greg Kandra
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Deacon Greg Kandra is a Roman Catholic deacon in the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York. For nearly three decades, he was a writer and producer for CBS News, where he contributed to a variety of programs and was honored with every major award in broadcasting. Deacon Greg now serves as Multimedia Editor for Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA.) He and his wife live in Forest Hills, New York.
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