Amid the universal outpouring of affection for our new Holy Father -– a humble, faith-filled “man of the people” with an abiding love for the poor and an unwavering fidelity to the church and its teachings -– let us take a moment to reflect, with gratitude, on the extraordinary witness to humility and fidelity that was Benedict XVI’s papacy, never more so than in his final days as pope and now in his continued commitment to a life of prayer and service.
Pope Benedict, notwithstanding critics who mischaracterized him as an aloof intellectual, has also been a man of the people. He demonstrated a remarkable ability to tailor his message to his audience, so that his teaching was equally accessible to philosophers and theologians, to priests and bishops, to the lay faithful and multitudes -— especially young people -— who flocked to him as he traveled the world to spread the Gospel. He has been equally at home with them -— and they with him -— as he has been among the most esteemed of scholarly thinkers, a reality evidenced by the outpouring of letters he described in his last general audience, “from ordinary people who write to me simply from their hearts and make me feel their affection.” They do not write to him, he said, “the way they would write, for example, to a prince or a dignitary that they don’t know. They write to me as brothers and sisters or as sons and daughters, with the sense of a very affectionate family tie.”
Clearly, these people did not find Benedict “a difficult pope to love,” as a Newsday writer recently opined — his column suggesting that he found Pope Benedict difficult to love because Pope Benedict did not do what he wanted … And to be honest, that is a difficulty — a weakness — many of us struggle with.
What a contrast to the witness Pope Benedict has given us — not just with his words, but with his own acts of submissive, faith-filled obedience to the will of God and the authority of the church.
“Lord, what do you ask of me?” he recalled praying eight years ago, at the time of his election. “It is a great weight that you are placing on my shoulders but, if you ask it of me, I will cast my nets at your command, confident that you will guide me, even with all my weaknesses.”
“The gravity of the decision,” he explained in his final general audience, “lay precisely in the fact that, from that moment on, I was always and for always engaged by the Lord. Always — whoever assumes the Petrine ministry no longer has any privacy. He belongs always and entirely to everyone, to the whole church. His life, so to speak, is totally deprived of its private dimension.”
And then he went on to explain how that total sacrifice of self must and will continue, even after his papacy ended.
“‘Always’ is also ‘forever’ — there is no return to private life. My decision to renounce the active exercise of the ministry does not revoke this. I am not returning to private life, to a life of trips, meetings, receptions, conferences, etc. I am not abandoning the cross, but am remaining beside the crucified Lord in a new way. I no longer bear the power of the office for the governance of the church, but I remain in the service of prayer, within St. Peter’s paddock, so to speak.”
He belongs still “entirely to everyone, to the whole church” — and he accepts this willingly, because, he explains, “I experienced, and I am experiencing it precisely now, that one receives life precisely when they give it.”
In that same spirit, addressing the College of Cardinals on his last day as pope, he gave us perhaps his most extraordinary witness of all, promising his as-yet-unchosen successor “my unconditional reverence and obedience.”
There is so much to admire in our pope emeritus, as there is and will be in Pope Francis. Our challenge is to move beyond admiration, to emulate them — in their humility, their love, and their fidelity and service to God, to his people and to his church.
Rick Hinshaw is the editor of The Long Island Catholic Magazine. This column is from the April issue. To subscribe to the magazine click here.