The full import of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI due to the frailty that comes with advancing years will emerge only with the passage of time.
Even now, however, two observations might be in order. The first is that Pope Benedict’s decision reveals that he has a pastor’s heart. He put the Church and her mission of evangelization first, before every other consideration. How we should admire his humility and his humanity.
The second is the changing manner in which the papacy is exercised. Papal trips, once thought to be an innovation, have become an important part of how the Holy Father’s universal ministry is carried out. Add to that his heavy schedule of writing, teaching, social communications, administration and meeting with people from around the world – it’s an amazingly challenging role and a heavy burden requiring an utter gift of self, made in and through the grace of God.
Inevitably commentary on Pope Benedict’s nearly eight years as our Holy Father abounds, but one or two things are hard to miss. First, is that Pope Benedict accepted his election in a spirit of sacrificial love and devoted his remaining strength and energy to teaching, sanctifying and guiding the Church throughout the world. He traveled far more than many predicted, including to World Youth Days, where he won the hearts of so many young people by his gentle demeanor and his words of faith-filled challenge. He drew large crowds at his weekly Wednesday audience where he unfolded the riches of the Church’s Tradition, and presided over a thorough updating of the Vatican’s communications.
Pope Benedict sought to address some of the most neuralgic problems the Church faces and was embroiled, as leaders often are from time to time, in more than few crises. He gave all he could to the papacy and now he will give us one more gift: a life of prayer for our Church, his successor and all of us.
There is another facet of Pope Benedict’s life that no one, not even his harshest critics, can miss: his devotion to the truth. Few people have sought knowledge and truth as avidly as Pope Benedict XVI. Even before his priestly ordination in 1951, his immense talents were recognized. As a young priest, he was immersed in the world of biblical and patristic studies and in the history of theology. In his fertile mind and heart, the renewal of theology in the middle of the 20th century found a home. He became a leading expert in the thought of St. Augustine and St. Bonaventure. He came to see how the voice of Tradition, when allowed to speak full-throated, resonates in the hearts of contemporary men and women in search of meaning and truth.
As a young priest, Father Joseph Ratzinger played an important role as an expert at the Second Vatican Council, contributing to his expertise to the development of several of its most important documents, including the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church and the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. He was among the world-class scholars who wrote landmark commentaries on these documents, commentaries which still serve as reliable guides to conciliar teaching. All the while he continued a very productive life of scholarship and teaching. His literary output is striking, not just for its volume, but its scholarship which is hardly narrow and specialized but rather broadly informed by his knowledge of art, music, history and modern scientific inquiry, coupled with his amazing knowledge of languages both ancient and modern.
Called to be Archbishop of Munich in 1977 and then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1982, then-Cardinal Ratzinger had to grapple with difficult doctrinal and disciplinary questions. Although he was sometimes portrayed as a Vatican bureaucrat who aggressively sought to quell every inconvenient theological question, nothing is further from the truth. He engaged, explored and examined those questions with the same thoroughness and thoughtfulness ingrained in his character. In every case, he saw himself not as the master but rather as the servant of a Truth that is larger than every speculation and dissenting opinion – the Truth that is the person of Christ. Throughout his life as teacher and pastor, he explained the faith not as a set of abstract principles or as an ideology but as a relationship with the person of Christ who truly “reveals us to ourselves.”
Some have opined that Pope Benedict’s pontificate was merely a bridge between that of his predecessor and successor. I would suggest, however, that this pontificate has been transitional in a more profound sense: during these past eight years, Pope Benedict has moved the Church to focus as never before on the new evangelization, not as a temporary project, but as the Church’s deepest identity and mission. A fresh proclamation of the person of Christ, a deepened understanding of the faith, a more confident faith that is shared near and far – this is the authentic fruit of the Second Vatican Council and the way of the Church as she journeys full of hope into the future.
Let us pray for Pope Benedict XVI as he begins a life of prayer for all of us. And let us pray for the College of Cardinals, that the Holy Spirit may overshadow and guide its deliberations in electing the successor of Peter and the Vicar of Christ.
Copyright (c) Feb. 22, 2013 CatholicReview.org