That is why I am telling you not to worry about your life and what you are to eat, nor about your body and how you are to clothe it. Surely life means more than food, and the body more than clothing… So do not worry about tomorrow. (Matthew 6:25, 33)
What faithful Catholic isn’t still flabbergasted by Monday’s startling announcement that Pope Benedict XVI is renouncing the papacy? While the secular pundits offer conjecture as to why the Holy Father is resigning, along with their hopes that the next pope will radically depart from Church teaching, I propose we take a few minutes to consider God’s mysterious actions in this historical moment.
On April 19, 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected as the 265th Vicar of Christ and successor of John Paul the Great. As Pope Benedict stepped onto the loggia of Saint Peter’s Basilica to greet the hundreds of thousands gathered in the square and the millions around the world, he expressed these profound remarks, “I am comforted by the fact that the Lord knows how to work and how to act. In the joy of the resurrected Lord, he is going to help us and Mary will be at our side.”
These humble and poignant words demonstrate our Holy Father’s trust in God’s fatherly providence, a trust that has been evident throughout his pontificate. Nearly eight years later, he again is reminding us of the depth of trust required in this pilgrimage of faith. Consider a short passage from his announcement of resignation, “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.” In his honest admission of weakness, he shows incredible strength, initiative, trust, humility, conviction and courage. It is an act made in complete freedom, indicating his mind is still sharp as he gazes upon the needs of the Church entrusted to his care. He surely understood that his decision would be twisted and turned by those opposed to his pontificate, and to the Church, but this didn’t deter him. We should admire his humility and consider his act an act of love for each us.
Some are using the example of Blessed John Paul II’s decision not to renounce the papacy because of age or illness to criticize Pope Benedict. The comparison is perhaps inevitable, and even understandable, but it is too easy to overlook important distinctions. Both shepherds answered God’s call, and responded to the needs of the Church with everything they had. John Paul II taught us the value of human life through his illness and death. He courageously fought throughout his life for the dignity of every person; his body’s decay did not hinder this proclamation but became another opportunity to teach. He let us accompany him through every stage of his journey, from a man, in his prime, elected to the Chair of Peter until his last breath at the age of 85.
In many ways, John Paul’s vigorous embrace of the world stage was the exact opposite of Benedict’s desire for obscurity in a classroom. These are two brilliant, selfless and humble men, with very different gifts. Benedict famously tried to step down more than once even as head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, so one can imagine how he felt when he was asked to assume the Chair of Saint Peter. He probably didn’t go around high-fiving his brother cardinals. Yet, without complaining, he did what he was called to do, with a servant’s heart and a professor’s mind, and gave the Church timeless gifts of teaching and recovery of the beauty of the Holy Mass.
We should not compare them but see the uniqueness of their contribution to the life and vitality of the Church. Both recognized the threat of the Culture of Death — disregard for human life and the cancer of relativism — and without fear proclaimed the truth of the Gospel of Life. They considered all things as loss except knowing and having Jesus Christ, and they wanted us to know Him as well. We draw inspiration from them and owe them our heartfelt gratitude.
Do not allow the temporal sphere to confuse the message Pope Benedict is giving us. He is not abandoning us, but rather is leading us. He sees a greater need for the Church and in humility he recognizes he must decrease so that another may increase. Pope Benedict succeeded a great spiritual leader and father; he had some large shoes to fill. I believe his successor will also be challenged and will have large shoes to fill. So in prayer and gratitude we lift up our Holy Father and the Church he has served, asking the Holy Spirit to guide the cardinals of the Church in their task of choosing Pope Benedict’s successor.
Please join me in a spiritual bouquet on their behalf by praying the Lord’s Prayer once each day until the election of our new Holy Father.