Sunday, February 24, 2013

Pope Benedict XVI

Two weeks ago, Pope Benedict XVI's resignation sent shockwaves around the world.

I have only known two popes (Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI) even though there were four since I was born (Pope John Paul I and Pope Paul VI). I was too young to get to know these two earlier popes who both passed away in 1978. I’m a product of a Catholic education. My pre-school, elementary, high school and university formal education were all from Catholic institutions – Benedictine and Dominican, specifically. All throughout my formative years, I’ve gotten to know the very popular JPII and I even got to see him on the two occasions he came to the Philippines. I’ve read his encyclicals, letters and book: Crossing the Threshold of Hope.

When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in April 2005, I was two months shy of my thesis submission and I remember in the few readings I did on the new Holy Father that he affirms traditional Catholic doctrine much like JPII, was an academic, a supporter of science and is fond of cats. But beyond these few readings, I regret that I never made the effort to get to know the new pope. Hence, two weeks ago, when the news of his resignation came on as breaking news on the late night TV news, my initial reaction was it was not befitting for the Holy Father to resign due to health issues. I even compared Benedict XVI to JPII. I guess much of my initial reaction stemmed from the fact that I did not know the Holy Father. However, on reading his full resignation address the following day, I must say I saw his decision from the perspective of courage, humility and dignity. I should have gotten to know this man and accorded him the same effort I did with his predecessor by reading his encyclicals and works. I would have then understood his humble decision.

Pope Benedict XVI as Cardinal Ratzinger
via Flickr|Christus Vincit

The following are two articles from The Tablet, 16 February 2013 which provide strong, balanced and positive statements about the Holy Father’s decision and insights on the humble leader of the Catholic Church:

Extracts from the Editorial, The Tablet, 16 February 2016, p2

The papacy has become invested with a mysticism of its own, as if to become pope was to be elevated to a higher level of ordained ministry than that of bishop, like a unique fourth rank above the threefold sacramental ministry. By that logic, he had to die in office, precisely as his predecessor John Paul II had done so agonisingly in 2005. But if one can resign from it, it is not a sacramental status. Sacraments are indelible and irreversible.

Popular mythology
But [Benedict XVI], at a stroke, reduced the burden of the popular mythology surrounding the office that he has held with such grace and distinction, and no doubt at times with great distress and sorrow, since 19 April 2005.

Pope Benedict’s legacy is largely spiritual and intellectual rather than public and spectacular, like that of his predecessor.

Possibly his greatest achievement as a teacher of the faith was his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, a profound and devastating critique of the economic theories and business practices that led to the 2008 global financial crisis. Behind all his thinking lay a deep conviction that the Catholic faith, centred on Jesus Christ, was essential to the success of the whole human enterprise. Hence all attempts to design a civilisation without faith – and the Catholic faith in particular – were ultimately doomed. So faith was never something merely to be added on, to make civilisation a little more civilised.

Cliques and factions
That must lie at the door of his predecessor, who allowed the growth of cliques and factions and relied too much on charisma, not enough on management skills. Pope Benedict’s abdication indicates that he knew the task of reform had become too immense and forbidding for one of his declining energy.

… with John Paul II, [the Church] saw a Pope who seemed to imagine himself as parish priest of the whole world, and a Polish parish priest at that. There was not much room for partnership in such a vision, which had its own strengths and suited the interests of the evolving global media. But this was palpably not quite what the bishops had had in mind in the Second Vatican Council. It was scarcely collegiality, more super-ultramontanism.

With Pope Benedict this was less so, and he was more the world’s spiritual director than its parish priest. He has asked the Church to rediscover the message of the council by returning to the texts…

Extracts from A radical last act, Eamon Duffy, The Tablet, 16 February 2013, p7

…Monday’s startling abdication demonstrated that Benedict’s understanding of papacy is radically different not only from that of [Pope John Paul II], but of most of this twentieth-century predecessors. Joseph Ratzinger has of course a more different temperament than the extrovert Wojtyla, though he stepped with surprising effectiveness into the celebrity mould which the Polish Pope pioneered. Benedict’s visit to Britain in 2010 was the sort of personal triumph no one would have predicted for this shy and austerely cerebral professor.

But Benedict’s resignation speech carefully and all but explicitly distances him from a crucial aspect of John Paul II’s vision. Catholics have always believed the popes to be, by divine institution, first among bishops, the visible centre of Catholic unity, and the court of final appeal in disputes about doctrine and morals. But since the mid-nineteenth century the popes themselves have become the focus of heightened religious emotion and sometimes dubious doctrinal speculation. Papal infallibility has been (mistakenly) understood as a personal quality, giving the pope unique access to the mind of God. The office of pope has been imagined as different in kid from that of all other bishops. Pope Paul VI wrote in his journal soon after his election, “the post is unique. It brings great solitude. I was solitary before, but now my solitude becomes complete and awesome. Jesus was alone on the Cross .. my duty is to plan, decide, assume every responsibility for guiding others … and to suffer alone.”

In his agonising final years of physical and mental decline, Karol Wojtyla acted out that quasi-mystical understanding of the papacy in the full glare of the world’s media. As illness and age robbed his of his titanic energy and focus, he no longer inhabited the papacy in any meaningful sense as the chief executive of the Catholic Church (whose functions were in fact discharged by the Curia), but instead as a living icon of Christ-like suffering. The heroic endurance and religious grandeur of Wojtyla’s last days made any suggestion that a gravely ill and not always lucid pope ought perhaps to have resigned long since seem mean-spirited and small-minded.

But if decency silenced it, the question did not go away. Monday’s announcement makes clear that, much as he revered John Paul, Joseph Ratzinger for one recognised its force. His resignation statement made an unmistakable allusion to Wojtyla’s last years. He was aware, he said, that due to its “spiritual nature”, the papacy, “must be carried out not only with world and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering”. But he went on to insist that for the adequate discharge of the Petrine ministry both “strength of mind and body are necessary.”

That simple, rational and at one level unchallengeable statement is a momentous game-changer. In articulating it, Benedict has parted, tacitly but decisively, with two centuries of ultramontane spiritualisation of the papal office and its responsibilities. From this apparently most conservative of popes comes a radical insistence that the pope is a functionary, and when he ceases to be able to discharge his function, then he must consider his position. Pope Benedict prefaced his resignation with a declaration that he acted “having repeatedly examined my conscience before God”. His retirement is no mere matter of personal convenience, an old man’s surrender of an unbearable burden: it had become for him a demand of conscience.

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