Benedict XVI's abdication is a blessing in disguise
Now that the Church is in the rare position of “sede vacante” as we await the election of a new Pope, is good to ponder the final speeches of His Holiness, Pope Benedict. As his last public legacy they contain a great deal to remember. In particular, his final address of Wednesday February 27 was full of faith, hope and love – the three supernatural virtues. It is very heartening for all believers to know that throughout his Petrine ministry the Holy Father was sustained by his closeness to God who “has truly guided me, he has been close to me, I have been able to perceive his presence every day.” Only a person with a very deep inner spiritual life could say this.
Pope Benedict also put the trials of the Church – with which we are all familiar – into their divine context: likening the Church to the boat on the Sea of Galilee, weathering storms in which “the Lord seemed to be sleeping”. Pope Benedict strongly affirmed that “he [Christ] does not let it sink”. Indeed, despite all the burdens of his office here referred to, Benedict’s message was one of great Christian hope: “My heart is full of thanksgiving to God that he has never deprived the whole Church and me as well of his consolation, his light, his love.”
Reminding his audience that we are still in the Year of Faith, initiated by him, the Pope called on them – and all of us hanging onto his words throughout the world – to “renew our firm trust in the Lord” adding a glimpse of his own faith: “I would like that each one should feel the joy of being Christian.” Over these past days, ever since he revealed his plan to renounce his office, we have seen an outpouring of sadness from around the world, and keenly felt a sense of bereavement on the part of Catholics. The Holy Father knows this – and he points us back to Christ from whom his own gaze has never wavered.
Implicitly teaching us the right response in our own lives when our own powers diminish, Benedict showed his own trust in God and “serenity of spirit”, despite his clearly indicated increasing human weakness. Well aware of the “gravity” and the “novelty” of his decision to resign, he stated – as we knew, despite the wilder media commentary – that he had been motivated solely by his love of the Church. My own thought on reading this was the Gospel text: “He must increase, I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). The Holy Father, as ever, concedes to the activity of the Holy Spirit in renewing the Church; in this case by acknowledging the need for a new incumbent of the chair of St Peter.
Again, although the Pope defined more exactly his new role as one of serving the Church “though a life dedicated to prayer,” he made it clear that he would not be “abandoning the Cross.” Perhaps this was an allusion to the Archbishop of Krakow’s comment, referring to the late John Paul II’s last years, that one “does not come down from the Cross.” The Holy Father will not be returning to a private life, that of an elderly clerical scholar, with conferences, travelling and meetings. Whatever speculation there may be in the secular press on this, Catholics will have known this instinctively: Benedict’s life will now take the form of a permanent, prayerful retreat, interceding for the Church even as he visibly withdraws from it. Instead of regarding this as a loss, we should see it as an unsought blessing at the heart of the Vatican, a place where plots and intrigues are not, alas, unusual.
In his farewell address to the cardinals yesterday, the last day of his pontificate, the Pope delicately reminded them that they are meant to be “like an orchestra” – full of “harmony”; rather than the disparate group of discordant voices that the world would like to imagine. Quoting his own intellectual and spiritual mentor, the liturgist Romano Guardini, he reminded them that the Church is not “an institution” but a “living reality [whose] nature remains the same. At Her heart is Christ.”
It’s important to quote these passages above, and to draw attention to them in our discourse, because the internet – inevitably – is currently swamped with a very different message. Its general drift is that the world is ending: lightning has struck St Peter’s, the prophecies of Malachy are about to be fulfilled, the Anti-Christ is waiting to take over the Church and so on.
Thus it was reassuring to watch Michael Voris of ChurchMilitant.tv in his latest YouTube broadcast. “Knock it off with all the Pope prophecies!” he tells us in his typically trenchant style, reminding us that no-one knows when the end of the world will come – but that we will all have to face our personal end time when we die. Everything else, he says, is “spiritual pornography” and Catholics have “no business dabbling in it”. It is “speculative nonsense” and it is “not the job of ordinary lay people to discern prophecies.”
I think I might print out the text of what he says for the good of my own parish.