Pope Benedict performed the first baptisms of his pontificate on Sunday, using the occasion to launch an impassioned denunciation of irresponsible sex and a “culture of death” that he said pervaded the modern world.
Pope Benedict, abandoning his prepared sermon, compared the wild excesses of the ancient Roman empire to 21st century society and urged people to rediscover their faith.
“In our times we need to say ‘no’ to the largely dominant culture of death,” Benedict said during his improvised homily in the frescoed Sistine Chapel where he was elected pope last April.
“(There is) an anti-culture demonstrated by the flight to drugs, by the flight from reality, by illusions, by false happiness ... displayed in sexuality which has become pure pleasure devoid of responsibility,” he added.
Benedict did not spell out what he meant by a “culture of death”, but the phrase was a rallying cry of his predecessor John Paul who regularly used the term to define abortion and artificial birth control.
With Michelangelo’s dramatic depiction of the Last Judgment as a backdrop, Benedict attacked the “thing-ification of mankind,” suggesting that people had become little more than objects to be traded, picked up and discarded at will.
He singled out ancient Rome’s Colosseum amphitheater and the gardens of the emperor Nero, where Christians were once martyred, as a “real perversion of joy and a perversion of the sense of life.”
“The anti-culture of death was a love of lies and of deceit. It was an abuse of the body as a commodity and as a product. Even in our times there is this culture and we must say ‘No’ to it,” he said.
It was the first time since he became pope that Benedict has ignored the prepared text of his homily, sent to the media beforehand, and instead spoken at length off the cuff.
The official speech focused on the significance of baptism, which marks the admission of a person into the community of Christians.
Benedict was following in John Paul’s footsteps by performing baptisms in the Sistine Chapel on the day when Roman Catholics remember Christ’s own baptism in the river Jordan.
“This is a ‘yes’ to Christ, a ‘yes’ to the victors of death, a ‘yes’ to life,” Benedict said before carefully pouring water on the heads of the babies — five girls and five boys.
John Paul baptized almost 1,400 infants during his 26-year reign, but was forced to miss the Sistine Chapel ceremony in the last two years of his pontificate because of ill-health.