Pope Benedict XVI will be 85 years old next April and, while the pontiff is fully in his wits, we can see a loss of weight; it is reported that he feels a quite understandable fatigue born of pain, age, and heavy responsibility. A few days ago the Associated Press, noting “a decline” in the Holy Father, immediately focused on “. . .questions about the future of the papacy given that Benedict himself has said popes should resign if they can’t do the job.”
One gets the impression that the drama-hungry press would love to see Benedict step down, both for the sheer novelty of it (the last pope to resign was Gregory XII, in 1415) and for the narrative reinforcement such a move would lend to utilitarian philosophies lately in vogue, especially among those medical and economic planners for whom a person’s usefulness is a primary measure by which both cash and care are dispensed.
In the Catholic press, there is less guessing about a pending retirement; some Vatican-watchers instead wonder whether Benedict has been too retiring and disengaged all along? Last week–responding to observations of a papal “governance gap” made by the Holy Father’s supporters and critics alike–Vatican analyst John Allen pondered “The Perils of a Part-Time Pope”:
The governance gap occasionally erupts in the form of a public meltdown, such as the cause célèbre over a Holocaust-denying bishop, or explosive public commentary from some Vatican officials on the sex abuse crisis. More routinely, the gap registers in a quiet lack of direction and disengagement from the issues of the day. Declining media interest in the Vatican and the papacy over the last six years reflects this reality; in effect, the Vatican has become largely a Catholic insider story, a stark contrast with the John Paul years. [...] The key lies in grasping that Benedict XVI sees himself as a teaching pope, not (at least, not primarily) a governing pope.
Political action is perceived as glamorous. It has about it an illusory aura of perpetual primacy; to the world, political engagement is the ultimate vehicle of utility. Benedict’s predecessor, Blessed Pope John Paul II, was happy to practice political messaging both subtle and subversive; his colossal global presence helped enlarge the very definition of a “governing pope.” Not particularly interested in acting as a manager and Vatican overseer, John Paul steered the papacy toward the geopolitical stage, and it is clear from Allen’s piece that some believe a pope who lacks the interest, or the calling, toward such engagement is somehow only half on the job.
One would be mistaken to think of the papacy as, first of all, a political or governing entity. It is that, but only in the minor. In the main, the papacy is a priesthood writ large: a calling to sacramental service and clear, unambiguous instruction. John Paul’s broad focus served a time and purpose unto heaven. Times have changed. Our faith in the Holy Spirit should reassure us that Benedict’s Christological fixation, which can seem narrow and provincial to some, indeed suits heaven’s purposes, today.
There is a story, possibly true, from the memoirs of Günter Grass that I like very much. The future novelist writes that he was held in an American prisoner of war camp during World War II, along with a sixteen-year old seminarian named Joseph Ratzinger. They would shoot craps together, the younger man reciting Saint Augustine as they played: “I said, ‘there are many truths;’” Grass wrote, “he said, ‘there is only one.’”
Pope Benedict has served Christ and the Church for very nearly his whole life, and it seems that even in the infancy of his ministry he was called to deliver a clear and unambiguous message against relativism, which he many decades later famously (and rightly) referred to as a “dictatorship.”
Perhaps the Holy Spirit understands more than those worrying about a “governance gap” that while we watch governments and nations founder and fail in the fogs of their own contrived and faulty gospels, the pope we need right now is the one who will keep reminding us that there is only one truth, and one constant reality.
. . .the Word of God is the foundation of everything, it is the true reality . . . We must change our idea that matter, solid things, things we can touch, are the more solid, the more certain reality. . . .The one who builds on sand builds only on visible and tangible things, on success, on career, on money . . [But W]e can see this now with the fall of large banks: this money disappears, it is nothing. And thus all things, which seem to be the true realities we can count on, are only realities of a secondary order . . . Only the Word of God is the foundation of all reality, it is as stable as the heavens and more than the heavens, it is reality. Therefore, we must change our concept of realism. The realist is the one who recognizes the Word of God, in this apparently weak reality, as the foundation of all things [and] builds his life on this foundation, which is permanent.
During World War II, two middle-aged sisters from the Netherlands were arrested for hiding Jews; they were sent to the notorious concentration camp at Ravensbrück, where brutality was doled out by deliberate design and also in the casual cruelties of a moment. In her book The Hiding Place Corrie Ten Boom recounts one of those moments: A guard mocks her frail sister Betsie; when Betsie laughs at herself in acknowledgement, the guard–clearly furious that her contempt has not stung its target–slashes her face and neck with leather crop.
. . .A red stain appeared on Betsie’s collar; a welt began to swell on her neck. Betsie saw where I was looking and laid a bird-thin hand over the whip mark. “Don’t look at it, Corrie. Look at Jesus, only.”
We live in a brutal and mocking age, one full of utilitarian instincts and content to shrug off the dignity of the human person. The sands are shifting all about us. The pope we need today is the one who will say to a world distracted and clinging to whatever looks safe of a moment, “look at Jesus only.”
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.
Pope Heads into Busy Christmas Season Tired, Weak
The Perils of a Part-Time Pope
The Reality of Pope Benedict
Meditation of His Holiness Benedict XVI at the Opening of the 12 Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, 2008
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