Like everyone else I am still trying to assimilate the news of Pope Benedict’s resignation. I keep thinking of Tennyson’s lines, “The old order changeth, yielding place to new, and God fulfils himself in many ways, lest one good custom should corrupt the world.” I first read those lines aged twelve in an English lesson and had no idea what they meant. Now, after many years, they make more sense.
Everything the Holy Father has said or done since Monday has taken on the nature of a valediction; it cannot be otherwise. Everything concerning him is charged with a special significance as if the ordinary round of life has been suspended. Thus I have been reading again the entry for February 11 of a book given to me by friends at Christmas: “Benedictus: day by day with Pope Benedict XVI.” The extract begins: “It is clear that human beings alone cannot save themselves. Their innate error is precisely that they want to do this by themselves. We can only be saved – that is, be free and true – when we stop wanting to be God and when we renounce the madness of autonomy and self-sufficiency.”
The text for Pope Benedict’s address on Ash Wednesday makes the same point in a different way. He concludes, “Conversion means not closing in on ourselves in the pursuit of success, prestige, position, but making sure that each and every day, in the small things, truth, faith in God and love become most important.” He himself had to practise this in his life, just like any other Christian.
I was especially struck by the reference in this address to “the figure of Etty Hillesum, a young Dutch woman of Jewish origin who died in Auschwitz in 1943.” Etty, whose “Diary” I discovered in 1985 soon after it was published, is not the conventional saintly person the Holy Father might have chosen, such as Edith Stein, St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She was not a Christian at all but a secular Jew from a bohemian, cultured family in Amsterdam, and at the time she began her “Diary” she was living off and on with two different men. I wonder if the Pope alluded to her, not only because he is a man of wide sympathies and characteristically original ways of thinking, but also because, as a German boy brought up during the Nazi era, he felt a particular bond with her as coming from a race that was shamefully persecuted by his own people?
He quotes her as an illustration of the deep human need to search for God, even – or especially – in the most unpromising circumstances. Opening my own copy of her “Diary” I find this brave, attractive young woman writing in 1941, “Last night, shortly before going to bed, I suddenly went down on my knees in the middle of this large room, between the steel chairs and the matting. Almost automatically. Forced to the ground by something stronger than myself. Some time ago I said to myself, “I am a kneeler in training…” In another place she writes, “I am a girl learning to kneel” – the start of the conversion experience.
Two other thoughts about Pope Benedict come into my mind: 1.That he made his announcement on this particular day, the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, as perhaps indicative both of his love for Our Lady and an acknowledgement of his own growing weakness. 2. That a few years ago, when he heard of the Fisher House appeal for funds, so that the Catholic chaplaincy at Cambridge would be able to minister better to the Catholic students, he immediately gave £5,000 of his own money to start the fund. As someone who had spent many years teaching at German universities, he appreciated the spiritual needs of young men and women whose faith is perhaps being tested for the first time since they have left home. St Bernadette of Lourdes, the poor, young and uneducated French shepherdess who was granted the visions at Lourdes, is a far cry from the milieu of the Cambridge chaplaincy – but both are part of the overarching span of Pope Benedict’s charitable outlook.