Beloved Pope leaves the public stage
“Papa, say it isn’t so.”
This was my first reaction to the totally unexpected resignation of our great Holy Father. Yes, there had been some recent signs of weakness in him, clearly a result of old age and the understandable fatigue that comes with being the Father in Christ for over a billion souls. But we certainly did not expect by the end of February to be praying for the cardinals as they gather to elect a successor to a still-living ex-pontiff. What shoes he will have to fill, succeeding the best one-two punch in papal history! Start praying for him now.
Pope Benedict was not without his particular contributions to and for the Church during his nearly eight-year reign. When he was unexpectedly elevated to the papacy in April 2005, he had served under John Paul II for close to 25 years in arguably the most important position in the curia: the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He knew the state of the Church intimately and was excellently equipped to both provide continuity with his predecessor and also make his own special contributions.
One thing is sure: Both men furnished strong interpretations of the authentic teaching of the Second Vatican Council, whose golden anniversary we celebrate in this Year of Faith. Vatican II was essentially about holiness, evangelization, and the search for unity in Christianity. Wojtyła (as a bishop) and Ratzinger (as a peritus, or expert theologian) both attended the Council. They “were present at the Creation,” and their interpretation will be enduring.
In some ways, Benedict could be seen as an even better communicator than the more naturally charismatic John Paul II – he faced bigger crowds at World Youth Days and drew larger crowds at the Wednesday general audiences at the Vatican. Perhaps he was standing on Wojtyła’s shoulders, or maybe his theological style trumped John Paul’s somewhat abstract philosophical approach.
In another sense, Benedict was certainly not the world traveler John Paul was. But how could he have been, given that he was already in his late seventies in 2005, when he began his nearly eight-year reign. Nonetheless, his visits to many countries throughout the world were triumphs in their own right: for instance, in the United States, he used the opportunity to contrast freedom as the secular world understands it and freedom as the Church views its. This secular misunderstanding of freedom as license is key to understanding our society’s surrender to hedonism and to the culture of death.
Pope Benedict frankly and courageously addressed the sexual abuse crisis, which John Paul had at first simply found hard to believe as having existed on such a scale. Indeed, no other bishop has more forthrightly denounced the whole crisis of abuse and cover-up than he did just before his own election – “How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those in the priesthood who ought to belong entirely to [Christ]!”
John Paul wrote books during his tenure, but they tended more toward personal memoirs than serious theological or philosophical works; he saved theology and philosophy for his Wednesday addresses and his many and influential encyclicals. Benedict spent his summers writing his Jesus of Nazareth trilogy and meeting with former students to discuss various topics in theology.
Pope Benedict will certainly be remembered for his Regensburg lecture in 2006, in which he spoke about the danger of uncoupling religion from reason. The speech was widely misunderstood and denounced by many Muslims, but surely he was correct on this essential point for our era to reflect on: if reason is not united to faith, violence is inevitable. Benedict also insisted repeatedly on the perils of “the dictatorship of relativism and the abandonment of the search for truth.”
By far my favorite moment of Pope Benedict’s pontificate was his historic trip to Great Britain for the beatification of fellow theologian John Henry Newman – the only beatification at which he presided as Pope, except for John Paul’s. All the prognosticators of the British press predicted small crowds or even violent demonstrations. Instead, Benedict’s humility and holiness charmed everybody from the Queen on down. What a scene it was to see him giving an address in the Hall where St. Thomas More was put to judgment, and then the crowds waving goodbye with love as the pope departed for Rome.
I will miss you, Holy Father, and so will millions of many admirers.
Fr. C. John McCloskey is a Church Historian and a Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C.