Benedict XVI – a papacy full of suprises

Benjamin Church meets World

Pope Benedict’s eight years as Bishop of the See of Rome have not been what anyone expected. Vatican observers were frequently surprised by him, including the moment October when the Pope announced a consistory to create six new cardinals. Vatican observers could not make heads or tails of the announcement, and they wondered out loud why the Pope would not have waited until March to appoint new Cardinals. No one could have guessed the real reason because it was so simple – no one had quite gotten used to this man who was never what anyone expected.

Pope Benedict at his inauguration Mass, April 24th, 2005.

Pope Benedict at his inauguration Mass, April 24th, 2005.

Those who had expected Benedict XVI to loose the hounds against heretics were surprised to discover a gentle, kind, and humble man. Those who expected a quiet papacy marked by attention to business and paying the bills, on the other hand, could not have been more wrong: this has been a papacy full of adventures. Some of these adventures were blunders that, whether by the Pope himself or by top aides in the Vatican, exposed the Church to a huge amount of criticism. Others of these adventures were the product of a deliberate campaign to unearth any possible evidence that would imply a connection between Joseph Ratzinger and the Nazi regime, or between Cardinal Ratzinger and clergy sex abuse. Some of these adventures were rumbles of infighting in the Vatican, and most bizarre of all was the adventure of Pope Benedict’s own butler being arrested and sentenced for publishing private Vatican correspondence.

Given all that has happened, you could easily be forgiven for thinking that Pope Benedict’s papacy would be defined by the things that happened around him. There are certainly powerful forces that have worked very hard (and are still at work) trying to define him and his legacy in their own terms. This campaign has not been a success: anyone with an open heart or an open mind will notice that Pope Benedict has escaped from anyone’s definitions of him.

Pope Benedict has been a total traditionalist: he has made great efforts to accommodate those who love the traditional Latin Mass, and his public Masses in St. Peter’s have been prayed in Latin, with classical styles of vestments, with finery taken out of the papal closet, and with Gregorian chant. Under his tenure, leftist-leaning sisters-sans-habit have felt the sting of Vatican disapproval, and several bishops who have stubbornly wandered outside the lines of the faith have been forced to resign.

Pope Benedict - New Year 2008

Yet Pope Benedict has been a total liberal. In his homilies, and even in his encyclicals, he is not afraid to ponder things in novel ways, to put forward his own personal reflections, to talk about his own experiences, and to propose whatever images might illustrate the adventure of faith (like Christ the Supernova). He has expanded the voice of the Papacy in ways that a previous generation would have never dared to try (@pontifex anyone?). As if his efforts to communicate the faith as Pope have not been far enough outside traditional models, he has published three books on Jesus of Nazareth, which he insists are not papal teaching but his own personal writings. Who but the most radical liberal would have ever entertained the idea that a Pope could publish books “unofficially?”

While his methods might be surprising, Pope Benedict’s message has stayed the same throughout the Papacy. He has spoken frequently and eloquently about the central importance of truth and love, which he insists must always go hand-in-hand. Truth and love must be connected because ultimate truth and authentic love do not contradict: they come from God and through seeking them we can come to God. Pope Benedict insists that it is only through coming to God and entering into friendship with God that we are able to become fully human. He is a pretty good example of what a person can become by living in friendship with God.

While the things Pope Benedict has done have frequently been a surprise, the biggest surprise has been Pope Benedict himself: the more he has been exposed, the more we have been able to see how simple and authentic he is. With this in mind, his decision to resign his pontificate should be as a simple matter. His uncomplicated sense that a Pope could or even should resign was already expressed in an interview with Peter Seewald. While his health has not been the best recently, and this certainly contributed to his decision to resign, a thoughtful post or two have pointed me towards something deeper.

Pope Benedict is resigning because he believes that someone else could lead the Church better than he can, but also because he believes that he can do more for the Church by his prayers. In his address to retired men and women during a visit to a nursing home, Pope Benedict talked eloquently about the value of prayer. The Pope said,

Do not forget that one of the valuable resources you possess is the essential one of prayer: become interceders with God, praying with faith and with constancy. Pray for the Church, and pray for me, for the needs of the world, for the poor, so that there may be no more violence in the world. The prayers of the elderly can protect the world, helping it, perhaps more effectively than collective anxiety. Today I would like to entrust to your prayers the good of the Church and peace in the world.

The idea that the Pope will be dedicating himself to prayer, and that this is very important for healing the wounds of the modern world, was confirmed for me when I looked back at his homily for the inauguration Mass of his papacy. While reading that homily, I stumbled across a passage I had never noticed before. The newly-elected Pope had said:

The pastor must be inspired by Christ’s holy zeal: for him it is not a matter of indifference that so many people are living in the desert. And there are so many kinds of desert. There is the desert of poverty, the desert of hunger and thirst, the desert of abandonment, of loneliness, of destroyed love. There is the desert of God’s darkness, the emptiness of souls no longer aware of their dignity or the goal of human life. The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast.

The reason our world is struggling and filled with collective anxiety is because we are living far from God. Yet there is no need to be far from God since each of us can find God in the depths of our soul, in depths of the interior life. If we are filled with fear and dying of spiritual and emotional thirst, it is because we have not sought out the water that runs deep within us. We can seek this water only through prayer.

Benedict XVI celebrating Mass

Pope Benedict’s Wednesday audiences included a whole catechesis on prayer. With these thoughts in the back of my mind, I was totally amazed by the Pope’s simple response to the great applause he received at the end of Ash Wednesday Mass: Grazie, torniamo alla preghiera, “Thank you; let us return to the prayer.”

Pope Benedict’s latest surprise was a total shock because we do not believe in the value of prayer, and so we do not understand how he could possibly do more for the Church in retirement than he can do as Pope. His decision to resign looks like a blessing for the Church only if we take prayer seriously. Here is one last quote from the Pope himself:

Dear friends, making time for God regularly is a fundamental element for spiritual growth; it will be the Lord himself who gives us the taste for his mysteries, his words, his presence and action, for feeling how beautiful it is when God speaks with us; he will enable us to understand more deeply what he expects of me. This, ultimately, is the very aim of meditation: to entrust ourselves increasingly to the hands of God, with trust and love, certain that in the end it is only by doing his will that we are truly happy.

Pope Benedict with Cardinal Burke