Today is Pope Benedict’s last day on the job and I thought it would be a wise reflection to think about his Papacy this morning and to think about the legacy he has left the church.
In doing so, I’d like to humbly recall my own negativity upon the day of his election, when I thought his election signaled not just a more conservative church, but a much more conservative church for the future. In fact, we saw some of that, but we also saw signs of change as well.
His biggest legacy I think will be the fact that he retired, reminding us that the Pope is an administrator at times and that this takes energy on top of being the “face and the presence of global Catholicism.” To be a good administrator at the Vatican one would better be on top of his game. It reminds me of how John Paul II couldn’t have been running the day to day operations probably for some time. My thought is that Pope Benedict remembers those days and would rather not return to them.
One of the things that I think pains the Pope are divisions amongst Catholics. He worked hard for Christian Unity. When he tried to heal the divisions between the SSPX (Society of St. Pius X) and the church, things blew up in his face, despite good intentions, when one of the members of the SSPX denied the holocaust. He also tried to maintain good interfaith relations entering a synagogue on the day that Catholics pray for our relationship with our Jewish brothers and sisters. It was something that John Paul II started and that he continued. Bringing Anglican priests into the fold, despite their marriage, because of their divisions in their denomination with those who favored gay marriage and women’s ordination was again, a move towards unity among Christians, but it also confused many of the faithful. Especially, those of us who would favor optional celibacy, for clergy, at a time when our priests have decreased by 30%.
I was in Sydney for World Youth Day and even then the Pope was tired (me too!) but he loved being with the young people and although introverted by nature, he reveled in the large crowds.
My friend Fr. Steven Bell spoke of his graciousness, when he served as a cantor at the Papal Mass in Washington, D.C. The folks on EWTN claimed that “the Pope doesn’t like this music” but Fr. Bell noted that The Pope passed him by while he was leading the crowds in song and smiled at him and said “Thank you, it’s lovely.”
One thing that I will remember is his graciousness. I have never met Pope Benedict in person, but I know many who have and they all report one consistent finding: The Pope is a quiet and humble man when you meet him. A married couple I know met him twice, once when he was the head of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith and a second time when he was Pope and they told me that both times his closing words to them were: “Please pray for me. I have a very hard job.”
Several gaffes often happened with the media, be it Vatileaks, clergy sex abuse and failing to reform the Vatican administration, Pope Benedict, like many of his bishops, was not a strong administrator. The truth is that many of these men were not trained to be administrators, they were trained to be pastors. That’s not an excuse or a cop out, but rather, something that perhaps will be looked at in this conclave.
The thing that I will recall again today, that whoever the Pope is and perhaps despite who the new Pope will be, we are all still individually called to live lives of holiness. More importantly, the Pope needs our prayers and he prays for all of us. Pope Benedict retires to a life a prayer and I pray that he enjoys a post-Papal life of introversion and quiet. I’m sure he’ll have some public life as well from time to time and I do wonder about his health (he has a pacemaker, so who knows how healthy he is).
Perhaps we have reason for us to pray twice as hard—and that is reason for us to reflect and to pray that we all may be changed by that—to be people of peace and justice, men and women for others and to lead lives of inspiration so that we might bring Christ to others.
Pope Benedict, pray for us. And happy retirement.