Defending Benedict

shutterstock_127063034 2This morning I was feeling pretty close to a native here in my new land. Eschewing a lukewarm/cold shower for a spritz of perfume and a leopard-print scarf, I left my 2 little terrors in the capable hands of my foreign nanny (aka my little sister) and made my way downstairs and out the front doors of our apartment building, umbrella in hand.

I headed out the street into a beautiful Roman spring day, complete with hurricane force winds and horizontal rain. Feeling confirmed in my decision to spend no more than 2 Euro on any umbrella ever again, I watched with detached resignation as the cheery red number I’d chosen this morning flipped inside out, spines snapping with the force of the wind. Never mind that, a little rain never hurt anything, and I only had to drop off dry cleaning, grab coffee, and grocery shop for a family of 5, without a car. But I digress.

After successfully negotiating the cost of removing cafe e cioccolato from most of my husband’s dress shirts, I decided to duck into the bar down the street for a quick espresso to fortify my grocery shopping muscles. After slamming my coffee with near-Roman speed, I stepped back out into the elements, only to be greeted and waved over to a table filled with acquaintances. One of the plus sides to city living is how very small a neighborhood becomes, and thus, despite the language barrier and enormous age difference, I’ve made ‘friends’ with several regular faces at the surrounding shops and cafes.

I held up a cigarette with a questioning gesture and 4 lighters were promptly brandished, confirming my suspicion that indeed, everyone in Italy smokes. As we puffed away and caught up on the weekend’s happenings, I put my infantile Italian to work and started soliciting opinions on our nouvo Papa, Francesco. Immediately eyes lit up and hands started flying as a consensus of approval was voiced in enthusiastic Italian.

“Molto simplice, molto piccante…uno bello Papa”

I agreed wholeheartedly, thoroughly relishing this phenomenon of being openly and unabashedly Catholic in public. Italy does some things better than America does, and public displays of religious affection are most definitely high on that list. From the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus hanging over the fishmonger’s stall in the market to the conspicuous images of the Madonna and Child adorning buildings and walls throughout the city, it is evident that we are living in a Catholic country. At least in appearance.

No sooner had the cries of adulation over Pope Francis’ election subsided than one of my companion’s face darkened as she spat the name ‘Ratzinger,’ shaking her head and asking me what I thought of the man. I was somewhat taken aback by the change of mood – weren’t we just celebrating the Pope? I smiled and admitted I’d loved that Pope, too. And Giovanni Paulo II, the one before him. Pushing my luck with the past tense, I awkwardly explained my love for ‘all the Popes,’ attempting to convey my esteem for the Office of Peter.

I must not have succeeded, for the unfavorable ratings for Pope Benedict continued on.

“Si, si,” said my Italian friend, “Papa JP was magnifico…” but Papa Benedetto, or ‘Ratzinger,’ as they insisted on calling him, had apparently not won their favor.
This was an almost entirely foreign idea to me, contrasting the personalities of different Popes and proclaiming preference or dislike of one or the other. Coming from somewhat farther away than down the street from St. Peter’s, I’d grown up knowing the Pope as a leader, a father, and a tangible representation of Christ’s leadership here on earth. These people had known him as the guy down the street in the Big White House, and they had very definite opinions on his personality, his management style, and even his accent.

The contrast was especially striking when I realized that I, too, have been guilty of a little bit of this ‘cult of personality’ business these past few days. I stumbled in my poor Italian to convey my love for both Pope Benedict, now Bishop Emeritus of Rome, and for Pope Francis, his successor. I tried explaining the courage I thought Benedict had demonstrated in his resignation of the papacy; they parried with charges of corruption at the Vatican bank. Certo, I agreed, but he was a holy man, and he was our Pope, and there is some real work to be done in cleaning up the Curia.

They begrudgingly admitted that perhaps not all Benedict’s legacy was scandal and excess, but it was apparent they far preferred their new Papa to their former.
I made my way to the grocery store wondering what this all means for the Catholicism, that in our media-saturated age, a person’s personality can make or break another person’s opinion of the very nature of God and His Church. There was no mention by these friends of mine if they planned to attend Mass on Sundays again…or indeed if they had ever stopped. But there did seem to be a renewed hopefulness and excitement in their eyes when they spoke of Papa Francesco. And I agree! I love him, I really do. I have lapped up eagerly every story of humility, every endearing image to hit the web these past 5 days, and every homily he has preached since his election last Wednesday night.

But I loved Pope Benedict, too. And while he might not have had the same magnetic attraction that this new Servant of the Servants possesses, I think it’s important to keep in mind that very much of public opinion is shaped and deliberately cultivated by a media trying to tell a story. Do you think Pope Francesco is a humble man filled with charity and simplicity? I think so, too. But it doesn’t hurt that the media seems to agree with that narrative, at least for now.

Did you think Pope Benedict was an aloof, power-tripping, money-hungry aristocrat with an inflexible view of the human person and a profound incomprehension of the state of modern man? Well I didn’t…but if I were letting CNN or MSNBC shape my view of him, I sure might have.

The point is, they’re both only human. And their different humans, at that. Different personalities, different strengths, different backgrounds, different struggles…what united them, and what unites those of us who follow them, is love of Christ and His Church. And if we love Him, then we must obey Him, for love without obedience is lip service. And if He saw fit to appoint a broken, humble, and even sinful man (self-admittedly!) from Galilee to take the first watch, then who are we to question it?

Popes don’t have to be particularly likeable. They don’t even have to be holy, actually. They just have to keep the Ship on course. That’s the whole idea of papal infallibility, in a nutshell. In matters of faith and morals, the Pope cannot err…because he does not deviate from the appointed course, namely, the Sacred Tradition and the Dogma of the Faith.

This is the only possible explanation for a 2,000 year old roster including saints like Peter, Gregory and maybe one day even JPII…and more than a few bad apples, too. But thanks be to God, the Church doesn’t need a celebrity or even a great saint to keep Her upright…she just needs someone who is willing to go to the Cross in Her defense.

And even if the Holy Father isn’t a guy you’d want to have to dinner, that isn’t really what counts in the end; and we shouldn’t let the media fool us into thinking otherwise, even when they’re giving two thumbs way up for the new guy.

In the end, for all of us, there’s only one Guy whose approval we ought to be seeking. And the Pope is really just the Mr. Carson to His Downton Abbey. Which is why he really doesn’t have the authority to authorize menu changes or other major household restructurings, if you catch my drift.

He’s only the butler, after all.


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Jenny Uebbing is a freelance editor and writer for Catholic News Agency. She lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband Dave and their growing army of toddlers. She writes about marriage, life issues, politics, sociological trends, and traveling with kids here.

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