I was speaking with my father over the phone last night. At one point in our conversation, he asked me what do I make of Pope Benedict’s decision to resign from his office. My reply was simple.
“He’s a very holy man, with a sincere and serious prayer life. Therefore, if he made such a humble decision it was, no doubt, driven by strong discernment with the Lord.”
There was nothing else to say.
Pundits, left and right, have commented on the monumental decision of Benedict XVI and will continue to do so. Speculation surrounding the Holy Father’s decision has ranged from the reasonable to the sympathetic to the exploitative and even the absurd. Some have even been pleasantly unexpected. For example, consider this unexpected reply from a liberal Catholic writer.
Michael O’Loughlin, who I knew at Yale Divinity School, commented thus in a piece for America Magazine:
“As the news broke and pundits typed away on their keyboards, each evaluating Benedict’s legacy and impact on the church and world, it would seem natural that I would shout ‘amen!’ with those who slammed the Pontiff for his draconian views on women, gays, theological dissent, birth control, and so on and so on. But strangely, I found myself not filled with righteous indignation, but moved, instead, to defend Benedict against these attacks.”
Michael continues: “It’s not that I think these observations are wrong, necessarily; in fact, I’ve written similar posts myself. But it’s the recognition that the Catholic faith has formed me perhaps more than I sometimes realize, that I look to a spiritual shepherd, that I give the Pope the benefit of the doubt, and allow myself to be moved by his deeply effective theological writing and spiritual guidance.”
A most humble observation about how deeply the sincerity of the Pope’s character and actions can move a Catholic, even one who disagrees with so much of official Church teaching. I myself don’t agree with Michael on the hot-button issues, when it comes to the Holy Father’s teachings on matters like homosexuality, birth-control, and “theological dissent,” I have nothing but admiration and respect for Benedict’s courageous (and often counter-cultural) positions. Christ said in the Gospels, after all, that He would be a “sign of contradiction.” We should expect nothing less from the successor to His Church.
As the Shepherd of the Church, it is his responsibility to guide the Church of Jesus Christ with teachings of moral truth—and truth can, so often, be controversial and hard to accept by popular cultural trends, especially those so prominent in Western culture. Yet, when one reads the writings of this great Pope it becomes evident that his teachings are filled with the goodness, humanity, and at times, even mystical manifestations of the sublime, in guiding and articulating the beauty of the faith and the reasons why following this beauty can lead our souls to a fulfillment that nothing else in the world can satisfy.
For it is only the deep encounter with Jesus Christ that leads to such fulfillment, and once we establish that relationship with Him, we no longer have a legalistic understanding of Church teaching because we realize that it is our love that drives our loyalty to the Lord; there is an interior dimension in play here that involves spirituality. In the Gospels, the Lord says, “If you love me, follow my commandments.” Once that love is present — and once it is a true love — then His commandments become a joy, not an external obligation, for by loving the Truth we give our souls to be transformed by the Truth.
In the process, our egos become smaller, as we empty ourselves and allow the Lord and His “ego” — His mentality, His point-of-view, His humble but supernatural framework — to fill our minds and expand them to an appreciation for sacred truths; even those truths that too much of Western society has fallen away from in drastic (and unfortunate) ways.
I’m digressing…..this post was meant to be on certain reflections to the Pope’s resignation.
Let me finish with the best reflection I have read thus far.
The other day, I was having lunch with a doctoral student from the English department of the Catholic University of America. She told me what a great, humble and sincere, reflection John Garvey, the president of the Catholic University, wrote about the Holy Father’s resignation. Garvey’s reflection was published in National Review. Garvey first speculated on the way that critics of the Pope will try to exploit the situation.
“They will imply there might be other reasons for the resignation. They will claim he’s playing politics, or hunt for a scandal to tie the resignation to. In fact, commentators were making the suggestion almost as soon as the news broke.”
Garvey continued that there is a holier (and more honest) explanation to the decision, and to discern it we need to turn to the person of Benedict XVI and his relationship with Jesus Christ: for that is the key to his entire life.
I completely agree with this. After all, to understand such a life-altering decision, one needs to understand the interior life, the inner dimensions of the man making the decision. That is something that our secular media ignores, at times having no understanding of a spiritual leader’s interior life beyond seeing nothing but the political in all his actions, lacking a proper grasp of the supernatural dimensions that are in play.
Garvey thus writes:
“The creative and life-changing living out of the Catholic faith that Benedict XVI has called for does not find its source in an ethical system or code, but rather in a deep friendship with God nourished by the Church. That is the message the Pope offered at his inaugural Mass as Pope in April 2005. He said on that day, “If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation . . . open wide the doors to Christ — and you will find true life.
“The Pope offered the very same message yesterday by the humble act of resignation. For nearly eight years the Pope has been the supreme leader of the Church, guarding her against evil, teaching her by his words, proclaiming her truth to a world in need of it. He closes this chapter of his life with a single, humble act. In doing so he leads by example, leaving us with two powerful reminders. The first is that our successes are really gifts of God, to be used for his greater glory and for the benefit of his creation. These gifts do not belong to us. They are, as the Gospel’s parable of the talents teaches, entrusted to us for a time so we can do our very best to use them well.
“The second reminder is about loving God. Pope Benedict XVI has shown the world that friendship with Jesus Christ — the source of his strength as theologian and Pope — is what really matters. The friendship with which Benedict accepted the papacy is the same friendship that led him to give it up. It is a friendship that has found a welcome home in the heart of this humble Pope. His magnificent contributions to the Catholic Church will not be forgotten. Nor will his example.”