The Magi and the Host

George Weigel

Questions about Pope Benedict XVI’s ability to connect with young people were decisively answered at World Youth Day in Cologne last month. He connects, all right. And the “connection” is through the same “connection” that binds the entire Church together — the Holy Eucharist.

In four days of winsome, challenging catechesis, during which he called the youth of the world to ponder “the inconceivable greatness of a God who humbled himself even to appearing in a manger, to giving himself as food on the altar,” Pope Benedict returned time and again to the Eucharist and the Magi (whose relics, tradition holds, are preserved in the Cologne cathedral). Like John Paul the Great, Benedict XVI did not come to World Youth Day to say, “Look at me.” Like his papal predecessor, Benedict asked his young followers to look to Christ, to the redeemer worshiped by the Magi at Bethlehem. According to one etymology, “Bethlehem” derives from the Hebrew for “House of Bread.” That is where the Magi found the One they sought. And that is where young people — indeed all of us — will find the truth we seek: in the “House of Bread” that is the Eucharist.

“We have come to worship him,” a phrase from of the infancy narrative in St. Matthew’s gospel, was the theme of World Youth Day 2005; Pope Benedict seized on it from the moment of his arrival in Germany. In his first extended public remarks, he spoke of “the great procession of the faithful, called ‘the Church’.” In the Church, he suggested, we follow the Magi in their search for the One to whom worship is due; and that is why the city of the Magi’s relics was an appropriate venue for a global Catholic celebration of faith.

Yes, the Pope said, these men in Matthew’s Christmas story were just men, and their relics “are indeed just human bones.” But these are the bones of “individuals touched by the transcendent power of God.” Cologne, and the relics of the Magi, had been a pilgrimage destination for centuries. Now, in August 2005, that tradition of pilgrimage to the great Gothic cathedral on the Rhine was being revivified. For here in Cologne, the young people of the Church were discovering “the joy of belonging to a family as vast as the world, including heaven and earth, the past, the present, and the future.”

In the Basilica of the Nativity in March 2000, John Paul II had spoken of Bethlehem as a place where “we are called to see more clearly that time has meaning because here Eternity entered history and remains with us forever.” Benedict XVI made the connection between Bethlehem and the Eucharist in a moving address at the Vigil service at Marianfeld outside Cologne on the last night of World Youth Day 2005. He reminded the vast, youthful congregation that Matthew’s gospel account “is not a distant story that took place long ago. It is with us now. Here in the sacred Host he is present before us and in our midst…He is present now as he was then in Bethlehem. He invites us to that inner pilgrimage which is called adoration.”

Whatever else may eventually be said about the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI, the experience of World Youth Day 2005 confirms the intuition that many had in Rome during those remarkable days in April, five brief months ago: this will be a great catechetical papacy. Joseph Ratzinger has long had a striking ability to bring the depths of Christian truth to life in a language accessible to everyone, with a simplicity that comes from the most profound erudition. Now, that ability is being displayed on a global stage.

And, again like his great predecessor, Benedict XVI is demonstrating that what the 21st century world craves is not Catholic Lite, but a demanding faith — a faith proclaimed with confidence, humility, and joy by a Church that has taken seriously the Second Vatican Council’s challenge to nourish its spiritual and intellectual life on the Bible, the Fathers of the Church, and the great masters of theology throughout the ages.

COMING UP: A man for strengthening others

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When the choirs of angels led Father Paul Mankowski, SJ, into the Father’s House on September 3, I hope the seraphic choirmaster chose music appropriate to the occasion.  Had I been asked, I would have suggested the Latin antiphon Ecce sacerdos magnus as arranged by Anton Bruckner. The all-stops-pulled moments in Bruckner’s composition, deploying organ, brass, and full choir, would have been a perfect match for Paul Mankowski’s rock-solid Catholic faith, his heroic ministry, and his robust literary and oratorical style; the a capella sections, softly sung, mirror the gentleness with which he healed souls. Above all, I would have suggested Bruckner’s motet because Father Mankowski truly was what the antiphon celebrates: “a great priest who in his days pleased  God.”

We were friends for some 30 years and I can say without reservation that I have never met anyone like Paul Mankowski. He was off-the-charts brilliant, an extraordinary linguist and scholar; but he wore his learning lightly and was a tremendous wit. He rarely expressed doubts about anything; but he displayed a great sensitivity to the doubts and confusions of those who had the humility to confess that they were at sea. He could be as fierce as Jeremiah in denouncing injustice and dishonesty; but the compassion he displayed to spiritually wounded fellow-priests and laity, who sought healing through the work of grace at his hands, was just as notable a feature of his personality.

His curriculum vitae was singular. The son of working-class parents, he put himself through the University of Chicago working summers in a steel mill. He did advanced degrees at Oxford and Harvard, becoming the sparring partner of a future Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, at the former, and delving deeply into the mysteries of Semitic philology – unfathomable, to most of his friends – at the latter. He taught at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and was pastor of an English-speaking parish in Amman, Jordan. Wherever he was, he lived like a true ascetic; he was also the best company imaginable at a meal or a party.

He was a writer of genius, although his published bibliography is considerably slimmer than it might have been, thanks to the years when he was silenced or censored by his religious superiors. A good example of his ability to combine keen insight and droll humor is his 1992 dissection of the goings-on at the annual convention of the American Academy of Religion (available here). More recently, Father Mankowski drew on his extensive experience as a confessor and spiritual director to pen, with his superiors’ permission, a respectful but sharp critique of his fellow Jesuit James Martin’s book, Building a Bridge (available here). In the decades between those two pieces, and when permitted to do so, he published essays and reviews on a wide range of topics, including literature, politics, Church affairs, biblical translations and the priesthood, while sharing his private musings with friends in a seemingly endless series of pungent parodies, revised song lyrics, and imagined news stories.

Years ago, his friend Father Richard John Neuhaus dubbed Father Mankowski one of the “Papal Bulls:” Jesuits of a certain generation notable for their intellectually sophisticated and unwavering Catholic orthodoxy, which often got them into hot water of various temperatures (including boiling) with their Ignatian brothers and superiors. Paul Mankowski was no bull, papal or otherwise, in a china shop, though. He relished debate and was courteous in it; what he found off-putting was the unwillingness of Catholic progressives to fight their corner with a frank delineation of their position. This struck him as a form of hypocrisy. And while Father Mankowski, the good shepherd, often brought strays back to the Lord’s flock, he was unsparingly candid about what he perceived as intellectual dishonesty, or what he recently deplored as “ignoble timidity” in facing clerical corruption. Paul Mankowski was not a man of the subjunctive, and he paid the price for it.

He is beyond all that now, and I like to imagine St. Ignatius of Loyola welcoming him to the Father’s House with a hearty “Well done, my son.” In this valley of tears, freshly moistened by those who mourn his untimely death at age 66, Father Paul V. Mankowski, SJ, will be remembered by those of us who loved him as a man and a priest who, remaining faithful to his Jesuit and sacerdotal vocations, became a tower of strength for others. This was a man of God. This was a man, whose courageous manliness reflected his godliness.