I’m sometimes asked by artless, though usually fairly harmless, people, “Are there some Church teachings you don’t believe?” I resist the urge to respond with equal tactlessness, “Are there things about your wife you don’t love?” The question itself reveals just how much political paradigms have distorted our ways of thinking and speaking about the Church, as if the deposit of faith were somehow equivalent to a party platform.
And yet—here you have it, Mr. Artless Questioner—this week I find myself ready to dissent publicly—for all the web to see—from an official act of the Vicar of Christ, the Supreme Pontiff, the Successor of the Apostle Peter.
Benedict XVI, do you have to go so soon?
I agree, to be sure, with all the generous things that have been said about the pope’s decision—that it’s a selfless and humble act, the fruit of great prayer and faith, born out of a profound love of the Church. Of course, it is. And of course Pope Benedict is a better judge of his own limits and abilities than anyone else and is also in a better position to judge the needs of the Church than some two-bit blogger from South Dakota.
But still, I can’t help but thinking, Benedict at 75% is still better than most of us at 100%. Who else combines Benedict’s spiritual and intellectual breadth and depth, his combination of scholarly incisiveness and gentleness of spirit? Who else has better seen through the pomps and empty promises of secularism or proposed so insistently, so clearly their remedy—friendship with Jesus Christ? Who else has Benedict’s sense of the liturgy, sense of history, sense of prayer? Couldn’t he just stay on for another year or two? Couldn’t he at least have waited until after finishing that encyclical on faith?
I love this pope a great deal. I discovered his books at about the same time I was discovering my own vocation, and they took my faith to a deeper level. Of particular value were his book-length interviews—God and the World stands out—conducted while he was a cardinal, the reading of which felt a bit like being able to shoot the breeze with a particularly good professor after exams were done. Benedict was—and is—a great teacher; his ability to articulate the core truths of our faith with clarity and elegance is unrivaled.
And, of course, Benedict’s decision to resign arises out of those same characteristics that make him such a great teacher. So many of the great theologians of the late twentieth century—if I may make an admittedly sweeping but still valid generalization—tried to create vast new theological systems with which to reframe the way we see our faith. In Ratzinger’s work the sweeping vision is still there but without the desire to remake the system as Ratzingerian. The system, in other words, is God’s, and the job of the theologian is not to reshape it but simply to see it and to help others to see it.
Perhaps what I’m trying to say is better conveyed by anecdote than by vast abstraction. A seminarian friend of mine who is studying in Rome and was at Pope Benedict’s Ash Wednesday Mass forwarded me a link of the lengthy applause for the Holy Father that broke out at the end of Mass. I couldn’t help but chuckle as I watched; in The Spirit of the Liturgy Cardinal Ratzinger is critical of applause in the liturgy: “Wherever applause breaks out in the liturgy because of some human achievement, it is a sure sign that the essence of liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment” (198). The theme of the book—the liturgy as God’s work and not man’s—is central to the thought of Joseph Ratzinger.
At another point—I don’t remember where exactly—Benedict told an anecdote about the week of celebrations that followed his ordination in the pious Bavarian town in which he grew up; throughout the heady festivities, the young Fr. Ratzinger says he kept thinking to himself, “It’s not about you, Joseph.” I wanted to say, as I listened to the applause in St. Peter’s last week, thinking of Joseph Ratzinger’s long service to the Church, so much of it doing the utterly thankless, “Just this once, it is about you, Joseph.”
And, yet something tells me that just the opposite was going through the mind of that good and faithful Servant of the Servants of Christ even then: “It’s not about you, Joseph.”
In the end, sad as I am to see him go, I don’t dissent from this papal decision either. Just as the painful end of John Paul II’s reign was a lesson in the meaning and redemptive value of suffering, so the end of Benedict’s is a reminder of Who really governs the Church. No one is more keenly aware of the problems and difficulties that beset the Church in this new millennium than Pope Benedict XVI; nor has this good man ever shirked the responsibilities of meeting those challenges head on. No, leaving the throne of Peter is itself an act of faith: faith in the power of the Holy Spirit, whose plans are so far beyond our ability to anticipate; and faith in the promise Jesus once made to Benedict’s predecessor: “Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18).
I bet the encyclical would have been pretty good, but perhaps Benedict’s last act as pontiff presents an even greater lesson in faith to absorb.
As the applause in St. Peter’s wore down—really as soon as he could jump in at a lull—Pope Benedict responded in a way that is simply oh-so-Benedict, “Grazie. Ritorniamo alla pregheria.”
I have a feeling he’d say just about the same thing to me if I told him I wish he wouldn’t go.
Thank you. Let us return to prayer.