Say it ain’t so, Joe


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.


11 Responses to Say it ain’t so, Joe

  1. Tom Piatak says:

    An excellent reflection.

  2. Fr. Rob Kroll, S.J. says:

    Wonderful, Tony! I agree 100%. Thanks for writing this piece.

  3. Thanks for a good piece. But I wonder about the trope of the liturgy being God’s work rather than a human achievement. There’s an important distinction to be made here somewhere–but Christians really can’t afford a worldview that sharply distinguishes between divine and human agency. Once we reformulate accordingly, it’s not so obvious that applause has no place. “O clap your hands, all you peoples … ‘

  4. Father Joseph M. LeBlanc, SJ (Ca) says:

    A beautiful reflection. There are many of us priests and laity out here who feel the same as you. Thank you for the thoughts

  5. elialuz says:

    I look forward to the reflections on this page and always find something to ponder and pray about. I have read some of Benedict’s reflections and have found then inspiring. I don’t doubt his spirituality.
    Having said that I must say that I am surprised that you have not made mention to his grave damage to some of the advances of Vatican II. I also found his statement about wanting a “smaller but purer” church something that Jesus would never, ever espoused since He said more than once that He had come not for the righteous but for the sinners. What chance do sinners have in a “purér” church? Where is the hope that the Spirit promises? Where is the consolation that the Spiritual Exercises encourage all throughout? Benedict is not speaking ex cathedra when he makes those callous statements, I know, but he is also not speaking as a shepherd. I never saw him as a defender of Vatican II, rather as someone out to eradicate the progress made by it.

    • Dante says:

      I have not read the phrase “smaller but purer” Church in context, but I’m not sure he’s referring to a more militant or more sinner-unfriendly Church. Based on his interest in Sts. Hildegard and Bonaventure (who the Pope considered as purifying the thought of Joachim of Fiore), is it possible he’s talking about a Church less beholden to Western states and emerging from the “shackles” of the 19th century West? I believe when he talked about a “smaller” or “purer” Church before he means a Church which is, after secularization, something of voluntary choice and commitment to God rather than a display of outward obligation for the sake of a superficially “Christianized” culture. I think what he’s questioning is just how complete European culture had ever been “Christianized” in the alliance of throne and altar and is moving towards a less culturally bound Church – one that is truly a truly radical, pilgrim institution. Something not unlike Joachim or Hildegard envisioned.

      I think this fits well with his strong Augustinianism which emphasizes, unlike many Christian millenarians and apologists of the Roman Empire as the Reign of Christ (for lack of a better term) like Eusebius of Caesaria, the incomplete fulfillment of the Kingdom in any one cultural, political, or temporal form.

      I do not mean to endorse Joachim’s heretical notions of viri spirituales by any means, but the more I have read about the Spiritual Franciscans, Hildegard, and Joachim I cannot help but understand their real anxieties and hopes.

    • thereserita says:

      The fact that you “never saw him as a shepherd” doesn’t , in fact , mean that he is not a shepherd. As Tony says, Benedict has forgotten more than anyone I’ve ever met has known.

      If you don’t see him as a ‘defender of the Vatican II’, you haven’t read much that he’s written. Please identify one apostolic exhortation/encyclical/book etc that he has authored that doesn’t contain multiple references to Vatican II. He has, like JPII, dedicated his pontificate to a true interpretation of the teachings of Vatican Ii, not the vague “spirit’ of VII that was so often & erroneously invoked.

      Finally, if Jesus was only interested in a bigger tent, He would’ve recanted what He said about the Eucharist in John 6 when His followers began to walk away from Him. But, if He’d said, “Never mind, if that’s too hard, I didn’t really mean it”, He wouldn’t have been a true Shepherd, would He? Sometimes shepherds, like good parents, have to say unpopular things. It’s called tough love.

  6. Nicolas says:

    Being here in Italy what I can say is “Lunga vita al Papa”, “Long life to the Pope”. So much speculation has gone on about this historical decision, a lot of “behind the scene” conjectures.

    What I see, foremost, is an act very much in the line of Joseph Ratzinger’s persona. In all his teachings, in all his writings we are always confronted with such a clarity and precision of thought, no usless intricacies, no fanciful or labyrinthine jargoon, but “simply” a refreshing and no nonsense intellectual authenticity. This same authenticity which stems from a deep commitment to service and truth, utterly devoid of any smugness, is present in this decision.

    Like the kernel of wheat. It will, I hope and pray, produce many seeds for the benefit of the Church.

    • Qualis Rex says:

      Salve Nicolas,

      I agree with you 100%. Pope Benedict is nothing if not an accademic, theologian and realist, while his predecesor attempted to construct a post-Vatican II church based on his own cult of personality at the detriment of those who tried to maintain dogma and justice (i.e. Cardinal Ratzinger) which had very little to do with reality or continuity. Kissing babies and mugging for photo-ops should not ever be a requirement for the papacy. We will be beyond fortunate to have our next Pope be half the man in spirituatlity and sincerity that our current and blessed Pope is. Miserere nobis.

  7. “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”

    I fully agree. I see something to St. Thomas’s silence in this abdication. For an otherwise such verbose and “konsequent” theologian to retreat into silence and weakness is a kind of mystical sign for our times. In keeping with the sign of JPII, it’s not a pragmatic surrender to euthanasia, but also not an obsession with what one does versus by whom one is loved.

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