by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
What a unique moment in the life of the church! We have the first pope emeritus in 600 years. I heard one of the commentators on Catholic Radio observe: “We are popeless, but not hopeless!”
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was the consummate teacher right up to the conclusion of his papacy. The catechesis that he gave at his final audience on Feb. 27 was extraordinary, as he attempted to focus our attention on the fidelity of Jesus. The pope recalled the words in his heart on the day of his election:
“Lord, what do you ask of me? It is a great weight that you are placing on my shoulders but, if you ask it of me, I will cast my nets at your command, confident that you will guide me, even with all my weaknesses. And eight years later, I can say the Lord has guided me. He has been close to me.”
The pope remembered beautiful and exhilarating times, as well as difficult and stormy ones; but constant in every season, Jesus was faithfully beside him. The pope reminisced: “I felt like St. Peter and the apostles in the boat on the Sea of Galilee. The Lord has given us many days of sunshine and light breezes, days when the fishing was plentiful, but also times when the water was rough and the winds against us, just as throughout the whole history of the church, when the Lord seemed to be sleeping. But I always knew that the Lord is in that boat and I always knew that the boat of the church is not mine, not ours, but is his. And the Lord will not let her sink.”
The pope spoke candidly about how touched he was by the many kind expressions of prayerful support that he received from people around the world: “The pope belongs to everyone and many people feel very close to him. It’s true that I receive letters from the world’s notables — from heads of states, from religious leaders, from representatives of the world of culture, etc. But I also receive many letters from ordinary people who write to me simply from their hearts and make me feel their affection, which is born of our being together with Christ Jesus, in the church. These people do not write to me the way one would write, for example, to a prince or a dignitary that they don’t know. They write to me as brothers and sisters or as sons and daughters, with the sense of a very affectionate family tie. In this you can touch what the church is — not an organization, not an association for religious or humanitarian ends, but a living body, a communion of brothers and sisters in the body of Jesus Christ who unites us all.”
Pope Benedict confided that the decision to resign was one to which he had devoted much time and thought. The Holy Father said that he was fully aware of the seriousness as well as the newness of this step. He acknowledged that his strength had diminished. The now pope emeritus stated that leading the church sometimes involves difficult choices. Finally, in making this monumental decision, the pope said that he sought to be guided not by what was good for him, but what was good for the church.
Again, he recalled his thoughts eight years ago when he had just been elected: “The gravity of the decision lay precisely in the fact that, from that moment on, I was always and for always engaged by the Lord. Always — whoever assumes the Petrine ministry no longer has any privacy. He belongs always and entirely to everyone, to the whole church. His life, so to speak, is totally deprived of its private dimension.”
The Holy Father wanted to make clear that he did not view his resignation as a vehicle for him now to return to a private life. Pope Benedict told the attentive throng in St. Peter’s Square: “Always is also forever — there is no return to private life. My decision to renounce the active exercise of the ministry does not revoke this. I am not returning to private life, to a life of trips, meetings, receptions, conferences, etc. I am not abandoning the cross, but am remaining beside the crucified Lord in a new way.” Being pope is not primarily about exercising authority. Recall what Jesus said to the apostles when they got into an argument about who was most important: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20: 25-28).
It is interesting to listen to the secular media’s conversation about the pope’s abdication and who will be selected to succeed him. Their analysis is more suited to an American political election. They are always looking for different factions vying for control. They theorize as to whether the new pope will change fundamental moral and doctrinal teachings, as if he could.
The pope and bishops, for that matter, are not chosen to invent new doctrines or teachings or, even worse, to harmonize the Gospel with what is trendy with the popular culture. The pope and bishops are required to exercise an authority, but it is an authority to guard and protect the teachings of Jesus and his apostles as they have been faithfully handed down for 2,000 years.
While we can find much to admire and emulate in individual Protestant Christians regarding their personal prayer life, their fidelity to meditating on the Bible, and their striving to live the virtuous life, we see in the mainline Protestant churches an abandonment of clear biblical teaching when it does not coincide with the popular culture. Without a clear teaching authority, everyone becomes their own pope. Divisions continue to multiply and moral or doctrinal truths are subject to majority rule. Thank God for giving the church the successor of Peter to guard its doctrinal integrity and protect it from constant disunity.
Let us pray for the one soon to be chosen to be the next successor of Peter that he will have the generosity to accept the heavy responsibility of shepherding the universal church and the willingness to lose his life so that he can belong to everyone.