Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Seven Years in Peter's Chair

Seven years ago this week, on April 19, 2005, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (who turned 85 just yesterday) was elected Pope and took the name Benedict XVI. I was Parochial Vicar at St. Paul the Apostle Parish in New York at the time. The previous day during a conversation about possible papal names, my then pastor had asked me what name I would choose if I were elected. Recalling the half-donze or so names chosen by modern popes, I settled on Benedict XVI - partly because it was the most recent name chosen by a pope prior to my lifetime and partly because I admired Pope Benedict XV (who reigned from 1914 to 1922) especially for his efforts to end World War I in a way which would have left the pre-war world largely intact. A day later, my intellectual appreciation of the conclave's choice was personallyheightened by my emotional appreciation of his choice of name!
The choice of name may say something about a particular pope's personality and piety and may possible even hint at his priotities and plans for his pontificate. It is sometimes suggested that this Pope's choice of name reflects his appreciation of the great St. Benedict (c.480-547) and a concern for the re-evangelizaiton of Europe (whose patron St. Benedict is) - certainly a most worthy priority and a natural one for a great European intellectual who is in so many ways a product precisely of that classical Catholic European culture that is tragically fast disappearing.
Certainly, one of the especially attractive things about Pope Benedict is how obviously a product he is of the Catholic culture of his native Bavaria - in his formative years (and probably still now) the most Catholic and conservative part of Germany. This is all the more noteworthy in view of the popular prejudice that embracing an intellectual vocation necessarily distances one from the piety in which one was formed. If nothing else, Joseph Ratzinger's life story illustrates how the two - a traditonal Catholic spirituality and a profound commitment to an intellectual life - not only can be reconciled but can actually reinforce one another in the most supportive and positive manner.
Both as Joseph Ratzinger and as Supreme Pontiff, Pope Benedict's lifelong theological work represents a major contribution to the present and future life of the Church. Still, it is relatively rare for a first-class theologican to sit in Peter's chair. Even back when most bishops were expected to be theologians, they were also expected to excel at other things too. For all the brilliance he brings to the papal office, the Pope is first and foremost a Bishop - the pastor "Urbi et Orbi" of God's people, whose ministry includes modelling pastoring for the rest of us. Personally, I suspect that his greatest single contribution - so especially significant in today's self-absorbed culture of performance and celebrity - may be the self-effacinn reverence with which he celebrates Mass and which he has sought to re-introduce into papal events, inviting by example all of us to focus less on ourselves and more on what we are doing and why and how.

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