Photo: Aides assist Pope Benedict XVI as he walks in procession from the portico of St. Peter’s Basilica for Ash Wednesday Mass at the Vatican Feb. 13.  (CNS photo/Donatella Giagnori, pool)

A poignant image of Pope Benedict being assisted down some steps at a recent General Audience after the announcement of his retirement captured my attention. He looks old and frail, dependent upon others. Is this an image of the Church today – a Church that is tired and frail?

It all depends upon one’s perspective. There are some who will see this as an image of the Church in decline. Since our culture values independence and since most of us are control freaks, this picture of Pope Benedict can be jarring. Of course, whether we are believers or non-believers, it is an illusion to think that we are in control of life, no matter how large our bank account or how much power we yield. The aging process takes its toll, even if is delayed by cosmetic surgery. We are only kidding ourselves. Recently, someone pointed out that she had seen an old Telecare clip of me and pronounced that it is not true that I have not aged. After thanking her for this unnecessary slam, I pointed out that I have never made this claim; others have. The only thing I am guilty of is gloating when they say it. I look in the mirror each day; I know I do not look the same!
There is also a prejudice in our culture to put oneself first – just look at the driving habits of people on the highway. The sense that there is only the present moment and that it is all about me runs counter to the way of Christ. The attempt to soak everything out of this life because “that’s all there is” is doomed to disappointment if not despair.
Pope Benedict has given us a very powerful and prescient example in relinquishing his leadership of the Catholic Church. It is first of all an act of humility. He recognizes that he does not have the energy to carry such heavy responsibilities. He knows that indeed there is a God and he is not god. He takes his responsibilities seriously but he knows he is not indispensible. His example can be instructive for all of us – believers and non-believers alike. He sees another path worth taking – a path of study and prayer.
I do see this picture of the Holy Father being assisted down the steps as an image of the Church today but it is not of the Church in decline. It is an image of a Church as envisioned by Jesus in the Gospels: characterized by mutual care of one another, a community of faith that moves forward together toward the Kingdom of God. The Church thrives when all the members exercise their proper role – not in competition but in cooperation, not in grabbing for power but in serving one another, not by being lone rangers but by being disciples of a Master worth following.
Soon the Cardinals will elect a new Pope. There are some really gifted candidates who might succeed Pope Benedict. My own favorite is right nearby. Whoever is chosen need not have all the gifts. He will have enormous responsibilities and will face many challenges. As he exercises the Petrine ministry of unity in the Church, I hope he keeps in mind the image of Pope Benedict being assisted down some steps.