I’ve managed to avoid almost all “professional” commentary on Benedict XVI’s resignation, which I think is just as well, considering that what I saw on both the left (Andrew Sullivan) and the right (a blogger from the National Catholic Register who was FREAKING OUT) just made me roll my eyes. But I’ve been mulling over his announcement, and, well, what are blogs for if not adding one more opinion to the Internet.
As proud as I was to be Catholic when John Paul II died; as much love as I felt for him in those final weeks, when the commentators retold the heroics of his life and it finally dawned on me just what a great man this frail, elderly pope had been — I felt like I’d come late to the party. I was a freshman in college and had been jogging with a friend when we heard there was white smoke at the Vatican — we literally ran into the nearest building with a TV just as the words habemus papam were announced. Yet we, and the cheering crowd of Catholic students with us, were the tail end of the JPII Generation — those who’d known only him as our Shepherd, but at the same time, barely knew him.
When he came to Toronto for his last World Youth Day, I was running around with my circle of evangelical friends, oblivious to why Pope John Paul II mattered, what he was saying to our generation, what he had done. In highschool, I’d seen him in person three or four times, once on Christmas Eve at his second-to-last Midnight Mass. We’d gotten amazing seats, just a few rows from the altar, yet even then as he rolled slowly through the basilica on his moving platform, it was hard for me to see past the bent-down, palsied state of a man whose multilingual prowess meant little when all his speech was slurred. I wondered at him — and I knew it was special to be in his presence — but I couldn’t tell you why.
But now with Benedict, it’s different. Since my first year at Franciscan, when I realized I had to relearn pretty much everything I knew about history and theology (thank you Protestant homeschool texts), I’ve “gotten to know” both John Paul II and his successor, especially through their writings. I’ve barely made a dent in either of their total works, but I think I can sum it up this way: John Paul II challenges me (and that’s when I can understand him). Benedict XVI gives me peace. Not that the two qualities are mutually exclusive, of course, but — when I read Benedict’s descriptions of the life of faith, they are my cure for doubt. When I read his gentle exhortations to live out one’s calling, they give me much-needed courage. I’ve never come across another writer — or pastor, at that — whose gentleness, humility, authority and understanding of what it is to be human so beautifully combine as if to take the reader by the hand and say, Come…let me show you Who has made all the difference for me. (If you feel unfamiliar with Pope Benedict’s main themes in his writing, Amy Welborn’s perfectly titled — but sadly out of print — book Come Meet Jesus is a fantastic introduction). (Oh hey — you can download it for free!)
I feel it’s like watching a beloved, old professor deliver his last lecture — he’ll still be around, somewhere, maybe quietly writing at a desk with a cat nearby, but it’ll be different, and he’ll stay in the background — in a monastery — and even there … who knows for how long.
One more story: A couple Thanksgivings ago, we were with some of my relatives in New Jersey, and one of the guests was a (second? third?) cousin by marriage, a young woman who’s a news producer for one of the major TV networks. As is probably inevitable at a Filipino get together, the topic turned to the Church, and finally to Pope Benedict, and this cousin offhandedly commented about Benedict the authoritarian, the out of touch German, etc. etc. I hadn’t been saying much beforehand (because she’d just finished talking about her latest trip to Afghanistan, and her cocktail party with the Clintons, and, well, I’ve got nothing to add to that), but I had just started reading Salt of the Earth, and all of a sudden my mouth was open and I started going on about his humility and gentleness and pleading that she give his writings a chance. And then I ran out of things to say, and there was an awkward silence for a couple seconds before my apparition-seeking aunt started the classic family story of how she literally threw herself at John Paul II when he came to the UN, and how she was SO CLOSE to touching him (I think she would’ve tackled him if she could) if only those security guards didn’t stop her. Not even exaggerating, folks.
In my long-neglected journal, I have a photocopied passage from Jesus of Nazareth, where Ratzinger discusses the Sermon on the Mount. It’s writing like this that I would point out to my cousin, or to anyone who ever doubts that Christianity is anything but an assent to Love:
In a word, the true morality of Christianity is love. And love does admittedly run counter to self-seeking — it is an exodus out of oneself, and yet this is precisely the way in which man comes to himself. Compared with the tempting luster of Nietzsche’s image of man, this way seems at first wretched, and thoroughly unreasonable. But it is the real high road of life; it is only on the way of love, whose paths are described in the Sermon on the Mount, that the richness of life and the greatness of man’s calling are opened up.
That’s why I love Benedict. Because I can feel, and am moved by, his conviction that Love is at the bottom of all the theology ever delved by even the greatest masters. I believe him when he says that that Love is a Person, and that whether we’re popes or stay-at-home moms, He is waiting for us all.