My heart broke when I heard the news of Benedict XVI’s abdication. Not for the Church, which will be fine, but because I will miss him so. I always tell people I identify completely with the late Oriana Fallaci’s remark, “I feel less alone when I read the books of Ratzinger.”
He was the pope to get the abuse crisis in hand and to make genuine ecumenical advances, but I thank him especially for five things.
For being the pope of Joy. One thing you know immediately about anyone who suggests Joseph Ratzinger is a “rottweiler” or a hide-bound conservative: that person hasn’t read a thing the Pope ever said or wrote. It is impossible on any fair-minded reading not to notice how often he speaks of Joy and how often he gently corrects the kind of rigid Christianity that emphasizes rules instead of inviting everyone to “find joy in God.”
To the bishops at Fatima, for example, he taught, “The courageous and integral appeal to principles is essential and indispensable; yet simply proclaiming the message does not penetrate to the depths of people’s hearts, it does not touch their freedom, it does not change their lives. What attracts is, above all, the encounter with believing persons who, through their faith, draw others to the grace of Christ by bearing witness to him.” Through his serene and joyful approach to everything thrown at him, Benedict himself has been one of these witnesses.
I am grateful that one of the few genuinely open minds of our time has been in the See of Peter these eight years. In an age of spin and superficiality, I admire his intellectual fearlessness, born of the conviction that God is Truth, and therefore there is nothing to fear in what is true. When he traveled to Great Britain, all the Catholic commentators said the Pope would be too diplomatic to bring up St. Thomas More. I burst out laughing when the saint’s name was the first thing out of his mouth at Westminster Hall. It was typical Benedict: always gentle, but equally direct, not wasting our time with things that don’t matter. If you’re not going to seek what’s most important, why bother?
At a time when popular Catholicism is too quick to conflate eloquence or energy in the apostolate for personal sanctity, Benedict’s disarming ability to take his duties – but never himself– seriously is refreshing. The answer he gave some years ago to a priest complaining his ministerial duties were too onerous for him to find time for serious prayer sprang to my mind the day we heard the news. It was something on the order of, “Whenever we think we are indispensable, we exaggerate.”
It strikes me that his papacy is ending as it began: in an act of humility. The pope told a group of German pilgrims how much he begged God during the conclave NOT to let him be pope, how much he feared the office. Yet if you look back at the video of him stepping out on the Loggia to greet us, you don’t see a frightened man; you see serenity and calm acceptance. He seems to be taking the infirmity of his old age in the same spirit.
His serenity. He always preaches trust in God, and he has modeled it for us – on the Loggia on the day of his election and now in his retirement –and all along the way. Something I’ll really miss are his periodic Q&A sessions with priests, when he spoke off the cuff about problems both theological and practical. Two examples of his marvelous calm: his description of family life and what priests can learn from it (see #7) in this session; and his relaxed response to a young priest agitated by some heretical theological movement. I’m an old man who’s seen a lot of theological movements come and go, he says: trust God, think with the mind of the Church…and don’t worry. The false passes sooner than you think and you wonder what you were fussing about.
Mostly I thank him for his prayer. The main theme of his pontificate is joy and the main means to joy is prayer. Benedict XVI has constantly been teaching us both the importance of prayer – its relevance to real life—and how to pray. How beautiful and fitting that his final public act is to retire to a life of prayer – almost as if to say, “See? I really believe what I say.” It’s a comfort to know this deeply Christian man will be praying for us.
Here are some resources for those who might like to know more about the coming conclave.
- Electing the Pope. Catechist Dorian Speed’s site has resources for anything you might want to know about a papal conclave or the traditions surrounding it.
- The Anchoress has a useful round-up of commentary and tidbits of all kinds.
- Prof. Edward Mulholland reminds us: They’re not picking the CEO of God-Mart!
Update: Don’t miss out on your chance to own Catholic Digest’s beautiful commemorative book celebrating Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy. Read more and order it here today.
Photo credit: turnbacktogod.com
A shorter version of this essay first appeared at nationalreviewonline.com.