Amidst the huge amount of comment generated by the Pope’s decision to retire, two pieces stood out from the rest for me. They were both published in the Spectator, and are both worth reading. The first was by Melanie McDonagh and the second by John O’Donnell. Both of them seemed to understand what it was that Benedict XVI was trying to do, and both seem to see him as a great Pope. This is in happy contrast to much of the rest of the comment stream, which is too often not only simply ill-informed, but irrational and vitriolic. None of that requires a link from me.
Given that Benedict XVI is a scholar in the German tradition (as Melanie McDonagh pointed out), it seems especially ironic that so many of the reactions to him were completely devoid of the careful thoughtfulness of the German and scholarly approach. This Pope has perhaps been the target of more polemical abuse than any other. Consider the words of Claire Rayner, now deceased, who had this to say at the time of the papal visit: “I have no language with which to adequately describe Joseph Alois Ratzinger, AKA the Pope. In all my years as a campaigner I have never felt such animus against any individual as I do against this creature. His views are so disgusting, so repellent and so hugely damaging to the rest of us, that the only thing to do is to get rid of him.”
While Miss Rayner’s words leave us in no doubt about what she feels, they are hardly rational, for she does not engage with what the Pope has said on any matter. We can assume she disagrees with the Pope, but she has advanced no rational basis for this apart from vitriolic dislike. It is odd to think that she advocates getting rid of the Pope when one assumes that she believes in the founding values of a liberal society, such as free speech and freedom of expression and association.
What was it about Benedict XVI that so infuriated Miss Rayner and those who thought like her? A clue can perhaps be found in the last liturgy the Pope conducted in public which was the Ash Wednesday Mass. During the homily the Pope remarked that Jesus “denounced religious hypocrisy, behaviour that wants to show off, attitudes that seek applause and approval. The true disciple does not serve himself or his public, but his Lord, in simplicity and generosity.” The Holy Father was referring to the passage in the Gospel which had just been read, which speaks of people performing their religious devotions at street corners. Ironically, at the end of the Mass, Benedict received a one minute standing ovation, to which he said: “Thank you, but let us return to prayer.”
These words speak for themselves. For Benedict XVI the centre of everything has always been God and His Church; he has not sought the approval of the crowd and what he has said and taught has been done in the light of the universal revelation that comes from God. Because revelation represents a truth for all time, Benedict has not felt the need to “get with the programme” as represented by Claire Rayner and others. For him the programme has been set not by mankind but by God, and it is our job as human beings to meditate on what God has said to us and find the appropriate response. There is a huge difference between the Pope, a believer in the Almighty, and those who like Claire Rayner see problems as something that can be solved by human ingenuity unaided by grace. For these people the humility of Benedict XVI is something almost morbid. But for those who believe, it is clear that humility is the hallmark of authentic Christianity.
For the last eight years we have been lucky to have had a humble Pope, one who has listened to the Lord and followed where the Lord has led. His decision to retire is one made in conscience, before the Lord. The Pope’s humility underlines to us the grandeur and goodness of God, the God who calls us into question. In the end so much of the comment about the Pope’s retirement misses this essential point. All of this is about God, not about any of us, and not about Benedict himself. The process of losing one Pope, and the election of another, should serve to remind us all that it is God that reigns at the heart of the Church and to Him we must look. Pope Benedict XVI reminds us all about the centrality of God and that is comforting and perhaps disturbing in equal measure.