What is it that makes a man?
Pope Benedict XVI’s recent renunciation of the Petrine office, effective 28 February 2013, is a fascinating moment in world history.† Plainly, it’s big news. But it also is a moment to consider this man who, called up to the priesthood as a young man, became one of the most important theologians of the 20th century, and then was chosen by the Church he loved and served for so long to be the Bishop of Rome. Now he is leaving this office, presumably going into quiet seclusion and taking up a life of prayer until the end of his days.
I have never studied the life of Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger/Benedict XVI. Someday I may read one of his biographies. (I just started a biography of John Paul II.) What I know of his life is very limited. But I have read in numerous places that he is kind, thoughtful, brilliant, pastoral, and humble. I own several of his books and love them. I love the way he writes, the way his mind works (as far as I can tell), and his theological insights. I love his commitment to the truth and to Christ and to the Church. I know that he has weaknesses, flaws, and limitations, for we all do. He is human. I know that he is a sinner who is striving for holiness, striving to finish the race as St. Paul encouraged us all to do. But I also see a man who is a kind of model of virtue. Though his path and mine are wildly different, we are both called to the same goal, the same ultimate glory. We are both called to imitate Christ.‡
What I see in Benedict XVI is a soul devoted to our Lord. I also see a man with great gifts who has glorified God with those gifts. In that way he is an example for me. I also have gifts given to me by God. So do you. We should all seek to glorify God with out gifts. I know I fail miserably at this. But Benedict, and John Paul II, and the saints, and I pray the next pope, will continue to inspire us all to holiness and true glory.
As I raise up my children, teaching them in light of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, I look for role models. I seek out examples of men and women who can inspire us to be authentic followers of Christ. No man or woman is perfect, except Christ, but some rise above, as it were, and their lives are worth contemplating. I think Benedict XVI is one of those role models, as is John Paul II, as are numerous saints and great Christians throughout history. Slowly I am coming to realize the value of presenting heroes as archetypes of holiness to my children and to myself for the sake of our souls. That, I am beginning to see more and more, is at the heart of a Christian education.
God bless Pope Benedict XVI.
† I only just realized that the word “history” really means Christ’s story: “His story.” I used to think “history” was at minimum a borderline patriarchal and misogynist term that meant “man’s story,” excluding women from some implied supreme status of men. Not surprisingly I picked up this notion in college. Now I believe that if Christ is the very center-point of the story God is telling, the key figure, the main reason, the hero, then certainly the flow of time and events must be His story: history.
‡ I am aware of the many charges against Benedict XVI one finds in our popular media culture. I have yet to see any news story on the current pope without some reference to the sins (real and perceived) of the Church. Comments on blogs having to do with B16 and/or the Catholic Church almost always begin with harsh words referencing the sex abuse crisis, and then move on to references to the Nazis. Comments made on the pope’s twitter feed are mostly a torrent of slurs and bigotry. The Catholic Church is deeply hated in this world, and probably it deserves some of what it gets (the sex abuse crisis is very real and evil, but perhaps wildly overblown by the media as well for various reasons). Regardless, I am convinced that B16 does not deserve the garbage thrown at him. In fact, I think just the opposite.
However, I am also convinced that a small fraction of priests (less than one tenth of one percent of the total number of priests) committing horrible sins, and then those sins being systematically covered up, creates such an outpouring of anger (justifiably so) because the Catholic Church represents the fullness of the Body of Christ (or should) more so than any other group. In a sense, even coming from those who do not believe they need to be saved, one could say that if we cannot trust the Catholic Church then we truly are without hope. This is debatable of course, but it may get at some of the underlying pain of the issue. It may even get at the heart of the Protestant Reformation, which was a rebellion fueled largely by frustration and anger. Sin should never be tolerated in the Body of Christ. But then we all need to look at ourselves, our dark and sinful hearts, and wonder how anyone can be a Christian at all. For whatever reason it’s the way God “writes” history and our lives—good and evil in constant struggle, learning through failure (sometimes big failure), the constant need for repentance, the constant need of reform. But we know we must continue to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in us, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (see Phil 2:12b-13) Only by the grace of God do we have any hope.