The Magi and the Host

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: Care for Her Act: A common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies

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The pro-life community is often accused of only being pro-birth; however, a congressman from Nebraska is seeking to not only bring more visibility to the countless organizations which provide care for women experiencing crisis pregnancies through birth and beyond, but to also imitate that care at the federal level and enshrine it into law.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R), who serves the first congressional district in Nebraska, is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill that’s been in the works since last year. The overall goal of the bill is to “[commit] to care for that journey of life through a complementary set of services whereby the government makes a decided choice on behalf of the life of the unborn child and meeting the needs of the expectant mother,” Rep. Fortenberry told the Denver Catholic.

The Care For Act seeks to accomplish this through four basic provisions: A $3,600 tax credit for unborn children which would apply retroactively after the child is born, in addition to the existing tax credit for children; a comprehensive assessment and cataloguing of the programs and resources that are available to expectant mothers; providing federal grants to advance maternal housing, job training mentorships and other educational opportunities for expectant mothers; and lastly, offering financial incentives to communities that improve maternal and child health outcomes.

The Biden Administration recently indicated that they’ll be removing the Hyde Amendment in next year’s budget, which has historically been in place to prohibit pubic funds from going to abortions. The Care for Her Act would circumvent this to some degree, and it would also test whether Rep. Fortenberry’s dissenting colleagues who have in the past expressed that women should be cared for throughout their pregnancies and beyond are willing to stand by their words.

While the conversation around pregnancy and women’s health often centers around abortion, Rep. Fortenberry intentionally crafted the Care for Her Act to not be against abortion, per se, but rather for women and their babies.

“Abortion has caused such a deep wound in the soul of America,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “However, the flip side of this is not only what we are against, because it is so harmful, but what are we for? So many wonderful people throughout this country carry the burden of trying to be with women in that vulnerable moment where there is an unexpected pregnancy and show them the gift of what is possible for that child and for that woman. Let’s do that with government policy as well.”

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R) of Nebraska is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill which seeks to provide a community of care for women facing an unexpected pregnancy. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives)

Even The Washington Post has taken notice of the Care for Her Act. Earlier this year, Rep. Fortenberry introduced the idea to his constituents, and as to be expected, he received mixed feedback. Those who are pro-life were supportive of the idea, while those who support abortions were more apprehensive. Still others shared consternation about what the government ought to or ought not to do, expressing concern about what the Care for Her Act seeks to do.

“My response is, if we’re going to spend money, what is the most important thing? And in my mind, this is it,” Rep. Fortenberry said.

However, he was very encouraged by one response in particular, which for him really illustrates why this bill is so important and needed.

“One woman wrote me and said, ‘Jeff, I had an abortion when I was young. But if I had this complement of services and commitment of community around me, I would have made another decision,'” Rep. Fortenberry recalled. “And I said ‘yes.’ That’s why we are doing this. For her.”

So far, Rep. Fortenberry has been able to usher support from a number of women representatives on his side of the aisle. He is hopeful, though, that support could come from all sides of the political spectrum.

“Is it possible this could be bipartisan? I would certainly hope so, because it should transcend a political divide,” he explained. “We, of course, stand against abortion because it is so detrimental to women and obviously the unborn child. At the same time though, I think that others could join us who maybe don’t have the fullness of our perspective, who want to see the government actually make a choice on behalf of protecting that unborn life.”

Amidst the politically polarizing discussions about pregnancy and unborn life, the Care for Her act is a common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies. It offers women facing an unexpected pregnancy the chance to experience hope in a seemingly hopeless situation and make a life-giving decision for both herself and her child.

“I’m excited by this,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “I think it opens a whole new set of imaginative possibilities for America, a transformative ideal that again makes this moment of vulnerability when there is an unexpected pregnancy, our chance, our commitment as a community of care.”