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February 9, 2006 Edition

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Pope Benedict XVI:
Focuses on the divine love story

photo of George Weigel

The Catholic 

George Weigel 

German journalist Peter Seewald once posed a question to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: Why is the Catholic Church always saying "No?"

Cardinal Ratzinger explained that the church wasn't fundamentally a matter of "no" but of "yes" - God's "yes" to humanity, most dramatically revealed in the Incarnation, when God entered the human world in order to redeem it.

If the church has to say "no" sometimes, that "no" is in service to a higher "yes." The church says "no" to call us to the dignity and glory that are ours through God's redemptive action in Christ.

Classic Ratzinger

That "yes" rings clearly throughout Pope Benedict XVI's first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love). The text is classic Joseph Ratzinger: a master theologian, weaving together materials from the Bible and two millennia of Christian reflection to teach the basic truths of Catholic faith.

The subject matter is also classic Ratzinger. Those who bought the cartoon of "God's Rottweiler" might have imagined a first encyclical entitled "No You Don't." The real Ratzinger, the real Benedict XVI, wrote something quite different: an encyclical of affirmation, an invitation to ponder more deeply and live more completely "the heart of the Christian faith" - the claim that God is love.

Press attention to the encyclical, such as it was, tended to focus on its second, programmatic part, which explores living the charity which the love of God should compel in each of us. The pope makes some important points here, including a critique of the notion that charitable giving and charitable work are a distraction from our obligations to build just societies; Benedict neatly scuttles that piece of soft-Marxist flotsam with a few well-chosen sentences.

Images of God

The theological meat of the encyclical is in its first part, however, and here, four ideas seemed particularly striking.

First, Pope Benedict teaches that God's relationship to the world is best understood as a love story, not as a relationship of power that expresses itself in a contest of wills. The God who comes into history in search of man does so precisely to draw men and women into a communion of love - with each other and with the triune God. As God's love enters ever more deeply into our lives, the pope writes, "self-abandonment to God increases and God becomes our joy."

Second, the pope suggests that the image of God in a culture will have a profound effect on that culture's image of man. The fundamental orientation of a culture is not derived from its family patterns, its way of doing politics, or its method of allocating goods and services.

Rather, cultures take their basic direction from what they worship: from the way in which a culture imagines the divine, thinks of the divine (if it imagines that the divine can be "thought"), and relates to the divine. To believe in and worship a God who is love "all the way through" (as Thomas More puts it in A Man for All Seasons) gives Christian cultures a distinctive view of the human enterprise in all its dimensions.

Warped ideas

Which brings us to a third point Benedict makes, if briefly: warped ideas of God lead to warped ideas of the human, warped understandings of human relationships, and, ultimately, warped politics.

When Pope Benedict speaks of "a world in which the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence," it is not difficult to imagine at least one of the primary reference points. That the pope has jihadist Islam in mind here is also suggested by his address to the diplomatic corps at the Vatican on January 9, when he spoke of a danger that had been "rightly" described as a "clash of civilizations."

Great commandments

Finally, the pope neatly links the two great commandments, reminding us that we can love our neighbor because we have been first loved by God. Love of neighbor is thus a response to the experience of love by which God has first graced us, rather than rote obedience to an order from an external authority.

A great teacher and an acute cultural analyst sits in the chair of Peter.

George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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Funerals: Benefits in pre-planning

photo of Tom Hanlon

Decisions Today 

Tom Hanlon 

In Matthew 25:13 we read: "Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour."

I have had the privilege in my work with the Catholic Cemeteries in the Diocese of Madison to be with families who have experienced the death of a loved one. And I have found that the funeral that had been planned before the time of need provided more opportunity for the survivors to help one another in the healing process. This was especially important for those family members who needed special attention and care.

Also, if pressing decisions such as casket and grave selection have been made in advance of death, a more meaningful liturgy can be planned with the pastor. There is more time to focus on what is truly important, that is, the celebration of the life of our loved ones and how that relates to our faith. "This day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43).

And, of course, there is the more practical matter of pre-planning funerals because of finances involved. Merchandise and services cost less today then they will in the future because of inflation. Therefore, purchasing in advance of need could save a considerable amount of money.


The more time invested in research and familiarizing oneself with products and services, the more able one is to make an informed decision. The value of certain products and their personal worth to the consumer can best be determined by gathering information ahead of time.

Another thing to remember is that emotions often influence a buying decision. They can cloud reason. This is especially true when arranging for the funeral of a loved one. Therefore, eliminating having to make a decision involving large sums of money at a time when emotions are highly charged makes sense.

The above reasons all point to the wisdom of confronting our mortality and the advantages of pre-planning certain necessary decisions. So why is it that the majority of us have such a difficult time approaching the subject of our own funeral? After all, everything written above is not revelation.

A celebration

If we are believers in our faith, and we are, then wouldn't it follow that death is truly a celebration? And the business of death should be no more intimidating than making any other major purchase.

But funeral planning is intimidating, seemingly daunting, and even downright scary to most of us.

I am not a grief therapist or psychologist so I cannot speak to the workings of our psychic when it comes to coping or understanding death. But I can educate in the business of death.

And, hopefully, with full understanding of the available choices of products, procedures, and services surrounding a funeral, the planning of such an event will be less intimidating. And, hopefully, more people will consider making preparations in advance of need and experience the peace of mind of doing so.

During the ensuing weeks I will write what I know about such things. I will try to inform as best as I can about traditional funerals, cremation, and the choices available for Catholics surrounding such decisions.

Tom Hanlon has been the director for the Department of Cemeteries for the Diocese of Madison since 1995. He has had a long career in funeral service.

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