by Father Mark Goldasich
Let me start by saying that I was not at all surprised by Pope Benedict’s announcement of his resignation on Monday.
He hinted that something might be up during our recent chat on the phone. We’ve been talking for a few years now on Sundays, about every other week. We visited about this week’s Leaven and he suggested that I “might” want to reconsider the front page story and hold it open for a little bit of Vatican news. When I laughed, all he said was, “Don’t say I didn’t warn you!”
OK, if you believed anything in that above paragraph, then you must be new to this column! I’ve never in my life chatted with the pope and would probably die of fright if I ever received a call from him. Since everyone — and their brother or sister — expressed shock and surprise at the pope’s announcement, I decided to say something different just to get your attention. And, for the record, I was as stunned as everyone else. By now, you’ve probably read or heard many comments on the pope’s resignation — words more eloquent and interesting than anything that I’d have to say here.
So, I’m not going to comment. Instead, I’ll begin with an image that maybe the pope would ask us to reflect upon:
Ever heard of tree-skiing? Apparently, some skiers love the risk of skiing the undisturbed powder lying in a stand of aspen or spruce trees. The key is, obviously, not to hit the trees.
In Outside magazine, writer and skier Tim Etchells explains: Even more so than in deep snow or moguls, what you focus your eyes on becomes critical in the woods. Look at the spaces between the trees — the exits where you hope to be traveling. “Don’t stare at what you don’t want to hit,” says [extreme-skiing world champion Kim] Reichelm matter-of-factly. (From “Visions for Life,” in “Perfect Illustrations for Every Topic and Occasion,” by Craig Brian Larson and Drew Zahn.)
So, why might the pope suggest this image to us? I think that he would gently remind us to focus on what is most important in these days. As interesting and newsy as we’ll all find the resignation and the coming conclave, those are the “trees” — not what we should stare at. Please don’t forget, Benedict might counsel, that it’s the season of Lent. Focus on it and the renewal it offers.
It’s so easy, isn’t it, to lose our focus nowadays? Probably most Catholics made it to church on Ash Wednesday and resolved to make Lent a holy time. But the next day was Valentine’s Day. Did you keep your Lenten resolutions that day (perhaps to give up chocolate or alcohol) or did you give yourself a free pass? Will you find time to pray more . . . or will March Madness derail you? Will you make financial sacrifices to assist those in need . . . or will a Spring Break trip eat up those funds?
I bring these things up not to make anyone feel guilty, but to highlight how many distractions are in our lives, obstacles to our Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. And the resignation of the pope (with all its questions and interesting consequences) and the upcoming conclave can act as yet one more distraction, albeit a “religious” one.
This Lent, it will be more of a challenge than usual to keep our spiritual focus. Given these important happenings in the church, we may be tempted to sacrifice time with the Scriptures or in spiritual reading in order to follow the latest Vatican news or the seemingly endless commentary that will come with it. We may be tempted to spend hours speculating on who the new pope will be, instead of spending time volunteering at a fish fry or in a literacy program or in helping an elderly neighbor.
Let’s leave the electing of the pope up to the cardinals. Instead, let’s spend our valuable time on what we can do something about: growing in holiness through our Lenten disciplines.
By all means, don’t be uninterested in the happenings of our church in these days. But don’t focus exclusively on them. Otherwise, you run the risk of missing the season for the trees.