Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Pope Benedict XVI

Crown Prince Frederick of Denmark is supposed to have said of his great-grandfather King Frederick VIII (1843-1912) that he is remembered more for the manner of his death (on a park bench in Hamburg) than for his life and reign. So historic, so precedent-shattering has been the Church's experience of Pope Benedict XVI's resignation that perhaps historians may easily settle for saying something similar about him - that the manner of his leaving the papal throne may be better remembered than anything else about his reign.
The Pope's decision to resign is indeed historic. It is indeed precedent-shattering. And it will indeed be remembered as one of "the signs of the times" in terms of the way we experience the petrine ministry in the contemporary Church. Long before assuming the papal office, Pope Benedict, who held his final papal audience today, had made his mark as one of the great theological thinkers and teachers of our time. As pope, he has continued to exercise the ministry of teacher in an incomparably profound and pastorally relevant way. He has also, from the beginning, approached his high office with great personal humility and visible devotion to the Church - an invaluable model for all of us who exercise offices in the Church. And it has been that humility and devotion to the Church that have been especially evident in the Pope’s decision to resign the papal office and devote himself to prayer and meditation. As I wrote this past Sunday, the Pope will be 86 in April; and, to his great credit, he is humble and honest enough to recognize the limitations of age and ill health and their inevitable impact on his ability to meet the ever expanding expectations of today’s "24/7," constantly on the move, and always in the public eye, modern papacy. As he himself said on February 11: "in today's world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me." In a world where people routinely cling to power for as long as possible, his action offers us all a good model of listening to the Lord - good practice, I think, for our own challenge of listening to the Lord - who often speaks to us through our day-by-day experience, including own human experiences of weakness and infirmity. It also reminds us all that ministry in the Church is never primarily about the minister but always about the Church.
At the Pope's final public audience this morning, a Roman woman said to an interviewer: "I understand why he did this. It was clear from the start that he was more at home in a library. A very good man but he realised in his heart that this was the right thing to do for himself and the Church and now he will pray, he will pray for all of us."
Analyses of Benedict's 8-year pontificate have highlighted his personality as a prayerful intellectual, whose vocation as scholar and teacher has been his strength and has enriched the Church immensely - notably in his three great encyclicals, in his regular catecheses, and in his books on Jesus. The same analysts have sometimes suggested that that same personality and qualities perhaps equip one less well for the very different challenges of administration and bureaucratic management. (Similar sentiments were sometimes expressed during the pontificate of his predecessor, Blessed Pope John Paul II, whose gifts expertly equipped him to lead the Church on the public stage of the world, but who likewise was not focused mainly on administration and management. )
The point, of course, is that we all have different gifts and talents. The challenges facing the Church - and hence the Pope - at any particular time are many and varied. It is absurdly unrealistic to expect that one person will be superlatively gifted in all the qualities necessary for meeting all those diverse challenges. Indeed, the Church has been amazingly fortunate in having had two popes in succession with so many - different but complementary - talents. Like Moses leading the people of Israel throuogh the desert, Pope Benedict has ably pointed the Church in the direction of the "New Evangelization." The next successor of St. Peter will hopefully be the Joshua figure needed to lead us there.

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