Were You Made for Greatness or for God?

One of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s most often quoted lines is this:

 “The world offers you comfort, but you were not made for comfort, you were made for greatness.” (Sources: 1 2 3)

It’s a good line, but did he ever really say it? Well, I’ve been doing some digging to try and track down this line (Others have tried too). To me, it looks like he never actually said it. However, he said a couple things that were close. In a visit with German pilgrims in the first month of his pontificate, back in April, 2005, Benedict said:

“Christ did not promise an easy life. Those who desire comforts have dialed the wrong number. Rather, he shows us the way to great things, the good, towards an authentic human life.” Source

The original German reads,

“Wer Bequemlichkeit will, der ist bei ihm allerdings an der falschen Adresse. Aber er zeigt uns den Weg zum Großen, zum Guten, zum richtigen Menschenleben.”

The main difference here is that Benedict is saying that he’s saying that Jesus is showing the way to great things, away from the false temptations of comfort. Here the focus is on Him, not on us.

This next quote, from the same speech is the closest thing:

 “The ways of the Lord are not easy, but we were not created for an easy life, but for great things, for goodness.”

Original German: “Bequem sind die Wege des Herrn nicht, aber wir sind ja auch nicht für die Bequemlichkeit, sondern für das Große, für das Gute geschaffen.

The first key word in the German is “Bequemlichkeit,” which can be translated as “convenience, comfort, ease.” The second key word is “Große,” which is hard to translate. It is a substantival adjective in the neuter singular, so we could translate we were made “for the great, for the good.” The Vatican translators opted for “great things.” Since translation is always an art including interpretation, we could even render it “you were made to do great things.” It seems to me that the “famous quote” is really an alternate translation/expansion/interpretation of this last example.

But wait! Maybe Benedict said something somewhere else that sounds like his famous quote, non-quote. In fact, he did. In his Encylical, Spe Salvi, he says, “Man was created for greatness—for God himself; he was created to be filled by God. But his heart is too small for the greatness to which it is destined. It must be stretched” (sec. 33). Here the official Latin reads, “magnam realitatem,” which could more literally be rendered “a great reality.”

What’s the point of all this translational nit-picking?

The point is that when we read, especially when we read something authoritative, it is very easy for us to import our pre-conceived notions into what we’re reading. Benedict’s point is simple enough—that a life of ease and convenience, a selfish life of me-pleasing, is not what God has for us. Instead, God offers something so much better—something great, in fact. But he is not saying that we were all made to be rich, famous, powerful and “great” in a worldly sense–as would be suggested from a typical use of “greatness.” In fact, notice that in each of the quotes, Benedict is pointing not to human attributes (like “being great”), but to the destiny to which God invites us, the magnam realitatem, He Himself. The great thing we’re made for is God.

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6 thoughts on “Were You Made for Greatness or for God?

  1. MarcAlcan

    I love your nitpicking (really more an attention to detail).

    So many wrong conclusions can stem from even a slightly bad translation.

  2. Gina Warner

    Many thanks for this! I have been doing some research on this quote for a column I’m writing and it lead me to you – go figure!

  3. Sr. Rebecca

    Thank you for clearing this up. I want to hang one of these quotations on my classroom wall, and I appreciate it being authentic.

  4. marsha daigle-willliamson

    I was looking for the reference for this “misattributed quote” and could not find a solution until I found your web page here. Now the footnote in the translation I am working on will be correct and so will the quote! Thanks!

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