|01-02-2013 - Traces, n. 2
the resignation of the pope
Kind of Reason
In his eight years of pontificate, every word spoken by him was intended to take us beyond what is immediate, beyond ourselves and the world. This is the way we have to look at Benedict XVI’s decision to leave the Petrine ministry: a gesture of gratuitousness and certainty, in which we saw a father following something greater than himself–for love of his children.
by John Waters
A father teaches us to adhere, to understand more deeply, to postpone, to forgo, to obey in all the deepest senses. A great father is always surprising to his children. He does things that they do not expect, but with a clarity that, strangely, never surprises them. Sometimes with a truly great father, it becomes clear that the missions of fatherhood are more important to him than even the entirely basic human desire to be loved by his fellow human beings. The meaning of this–of the father’s intention–is that there is something beyond that must be proceeded to, even at the loss of what is present, available, and greatly desired. It is a hard lesson, for both the teacher and the pupil, the father and his children, but it is the most important one of all.
Such a father has been, for the past eight years, Pope Benedict XVI. How he has moved us, with his words that go beyond words! How he has accompanied us, with his gentle certainty! How he has held us close to him, so that we might become closer to Him!
This love had at first left me bereft, on hearing of his decision to step down as Pope. But then I was blessed to read the words of another father, Julián Carrón, who spoke of the Holy Father’s “unprecedented act of freedom that puts the good of the Church before all else. Thus he shows everyone that he is completely entrusted to the mysterious design of an Other. Who would not want a freedom like this? The Pope’s gesture is a powerful reminder to renounce every human security, trusting exclusively in the strength of the Holy Spirit.” Ah. Even we who have been taught to live such thoughts can forget this. It opens up another possibility: that the very gesture of the Pope is swaddled in its own significance, that yet again the Holy Father is reminding us that there is a different form of reason, and different kinds of reasons, informing everything.
Has this not been the constant theme of Benedict XVI’s papacy? Has it not emerged from his every gesture, his every intervention, his every visitation? “Through the Pope’s announcement,” says Carrón, “the Lord asks us to pierce through all appearances, going back through all of the human enthusiasm with which we greeted Benedict XVI’s election and with which we have followed him in these eight years, grateful for every word of his.” In the embrace of these words of Fr. Carrón, our sadness dissolves. Suddenly, we are part of another adventure! The Pope is not leaving us, but accompanying us deeper into the question. In this gesture he has illuminated, in a new way, everything that had preceded it, showing that the words are not merely words, but signs of a different kind of reality. In this gesture, this most radical of men has reminded us that the ultimate radicalism does not rest in he who exhibits it, but in Another, and that this radicalism is transcendent and eternal. The Pope has kept the best wine until the end!
Stronger than the rain. Eight years ago, we were saddened and then buoyed up by the manner of the departure of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. Having spent a quarter of a century teaching us how to live, the Pope called us to his bedside and taught us how to die. In this way, he forcibly brought us face-to-face with the question that underpinned everything he had told us: Is it true that Christ lives on in us, with us? And through the rain of our tears, the sun broke out all over. It is true!
Now, his friend and successor has taken us further into the question, even as this appeared to be impossible. But really? How can any man take us further than his own death? Benedict has done exactly this. He has taught us that the Presence we speak of transcends not merely death, but also life. It is greater and different than both of these phenomena. It is something beyond not merely earthly office, but earthliness itself.
I recall a friend describing to me the extraordinary events at Cuatro Vientus, Madrid, in the summer of 2011, where Pope Benedict XVI said Mass in front of two million young people for World Youth Day. All that day, despite temperatures of nearly 100 degrees, hordes of young people had sang and danced as they waited for the Pope. On his arrival, they greeted him with great torrents of affection. Later, as Benedict XVI began his homily, there was a sudden change in the weather. All day, firemen had been spraying water over the growing crowds to keep the young people cool. Now, the rain came in great horizontal sheets that left nothing or nobody unsaturated. For a short time there was confusion. The Pope abandoned his homily and it became unclear whether the event could continue. Then he began to speak again. He said that the Lord had sent the rain as a gift. He told the young people that they would encounter trials in their lives much worse than this rain, but should not be fearful because they would be accompanied always. “Your faith is stronger than the rain,” he said. Then, with the storm still raging, the Pope knelt before the Blessed Sacrament and the two million young people assembled in Cuatro Vientus lapsed into silence.
Seasoned policemen afterwards said they had never seen anything like it. Had a storm like this hit a rock concert or
a soccer football match, they agreed, there might have been a major catastrophe. Here, there was silence, stillness, before something immense and seemingly immeasurably attractive. For seven years, Spain had been in the clutches of a regime that sought to squeeze the mysteriousness out of civic reality, not merely resisting God but seeking to usurp His place in reality. Still, what we saw that weekend in Madrid was that the children of that era, and their contemporaries from around the world, could recognize something more hopeful than what politicians call progress and more beautiful than what journalists call freedom.
This has been the tenor of the time of Benedict XVI, and the timbre of his voice in the world. Every word spoken by him was intended to take us beyond what is immediate, what seems obvious, beyond our own first impressions and responses, beyond ourselves and the world, to a new way of seeing and reasoning. He has taken his position most seriously: remembering always that the job of the pope is to stand at the edge of human reality and point outwards. Thus, he has constantly reminded us, even the Church is ultimately a sign rather than an institution. And now he reminds us again. Because the Church is “not our institution but is the breakthrough of something different,” he wrote as Cardinal Ratzinger in Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith (2002), it follows that “we cannot ever simply constitute her ourselves.” Instead, we pray and bend and wait and become willing.
Something that strikes me most resoundingly about this apparently sudden decision of the Pope is its gratuitousness. There are “reasons” for it–reasons the religious correspondents can grapple with in their commentaries–but they do not really amount to a convincing “explanation.” Yes, we know the Pope is frail, but his heart is strong and his spirit invincible. So there is something more that he is following than mere personal circumstance. The gesture of departure is so immense as to make it unthinkable in and of itself. And yet, he has not merely thought it, but put the process in motion. In this there is an unmistakable sensation of watching the father following something greater than himself. In 2010, in the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Benedict XVI looked around and said that beauty is “one of mankind’s greatest needs... a visible sign of the invisible God... who is Light, Height, and Beauty Itself.” Beauty, he said, reveals God because, “like Him, a work of beauty is pure gratuity; it calls us to freedom and draws us away from selfishness.”
Beauty and gratuitousness. In this sense, the decision of the Pope is, yes, a very beautiful thing. Its beauty lies in its gratuitousness, in the fact that, as far as we can see, it is not absolutely necessary–at least not right now. It is disproportionate. By the existing conventions and standards it is premature. But it should not really have surprised us. “When decisions are left solely to the domain of the will, whether particular or collective,” Cardinal Ratzinger told Peter Seewald for his book Salt of the Earth (1997), “man is debased.” In the same interview, he pointed out that the word “hierarchy” in its origin probably does not refer to “sacred rule” but rather to “sacred origin.” As such, hierarchy is a “conduit” for Christ as origin, and hierarchy’s “true meaning” is “to keep something present that doesn’t come from the individual.” In this insight we see the deep meaning of Benedict XVI’s “abdication.” He told Seewald: “The Church is not simply a copy of something else; she is not even a state. She must be aware of her quite specific mission: to be the world’s escape from itself into the light of God and to keep open this possibility so that the air we breathe can penetrate the world.”
In purely procedural terms, the Pope has presented us with what is for us an unprecedented idea: that at one moment there might coexist two popes. It is, in its way, a comical idea, making us smile in fascination at its curiousness. But behind the smile it induces in us is another dizzying thought: that this too may become a device for demonstrating what is more real than anything.
For all intents and purposes, this will be the first time in history that two men will live in close proximity who have both been blessed with the burden of responsibility to be Christ’s supreme witness to His people. In this there can only grow a greater sense that the office of pope stands for something infinitely greater than itself. In a certain sense, the office will have been “diminished,” but voluntarily, as an act of submissiveness, of humility, of meekness. Two years ago, anticipating the occasion of the 46th World Communications Day, the Pope asked us to consider the importance of silence. Words need silence, he said–the two phenomena not being opposites but different elements of the same mechanism, “two aspects of communication which need to be kept in balance, to alternate and to be integrated with one another if authentic dialogue and deep closeness between people are to be achieved.” He called it “God’s silence”–silence becoming contemplation, out of which a new Word, the redeeming Word, is born.
What awaits. Soon, then, this greatest of popes will repair to “God’s silence.” But it will not be a retreat, simply another phase in the different ways he has had of speaking to us. He will not go away from us, but accompany us in a new way. Whoever replaces Benedict XVI will be Pope–of course–and will become our new father, bringing new riches to our lives. And, of course, in a certain formal sense there will still be just one pope. But the sense we will continue to have, of the presence of our beloved Benedict XVI, on his knees somewhere in the vicinity, will change everything so as to remind us always of the newness that is promised. Not novelty for its own sake–of course not–but to make visible in an unexpected, miraculous way the meaning of all these things–of everything: that He Who Makes Us reigns supreme over every earthly thing, and every earthly being, and that the Father in Heaven speaks to us through the words and silences of men who are of and like us but have been charged with the heavy responsibility of leading us to what awaits.