15 Feb 2013

The Papal Abdication - some personal thoughts

To say it has been a dramatic week is probably an understatement in the context of historical moments that will be noted in history, although I am sure for the vast majority of the planet, the decision by Pope Benedict XVI to abdicate from the See of St Peter will probably pass many of them by. I know here it hardly warranted a mention and didn’t seem to impact on the general consciousness of the people around me.

Personally I have to honestly say I was in shock for some of the day after getting the word via the joys of social media that something had happened. And I struck me as something strange thinking back on it after. Why would it affect me so much? It is not as if I knew the man personally, I have only encountered him via his writings and public persona and even then only in a partial way. Unlike John Paul II who I had seen and listened to personally in Rome in 2000, I had never been to any public gathering with this man. In some ways the historical nature of the event itself may have been what threw me. We are creatures of habit, having ways and means to deal with the events of life; if he had died there is a tradition and a historic procedure to deal with the event, rite and ritual to lead us through the process of grieving and transition. But this is novel, strange, something which we (as in a church) haven’t had to deal with in 600 years and while the common saying is that the church deals in centuries not years, I am sure it has caused a little consternation in the corridors of power within the Apostolic Palace in Rome as well! But it also may have had something to do with how Roman Catholics define themselves. However much we may not want to recognise it, the divisions of Christendom are still alive and well where we understands in opposition to others within the Christian family with the papacy serving as a lightening rod of much of that division and conflict as opposed to the fact that the role of Peter is to unify the Body of Christ. Even the very name, Roman Catholic (which is a very Anglo-Saxon term) defines us by our relationship to the man sitting on the seat of the apostle in Rome.
But going back to the question of our understanding of the Pope and who he is and what he does. For many people particularly with the images of the last years of John Paul II’s life replaying in their minds the general belief was that the Pope died in office with his boots on. Not everyone is an anorak, interested in the minute of the Western Schism which was resolved by the last papal abdication or the intricate details of canon 325 which deals with how a Pope may step aside and declare the “sede vacante”. But perhaps this may be one the last teaching gifts of this teaching Pope?  I think the general agreement can be that managerially this papacy - aside from the beginnings of financial reform and some decisions that were finally made about the handling of the sexual abuse crisis - has been a disaster if you want to focus on the church as a multinational organisation continuing to lurch from crisis to crisis – but that is if you look at in human terms. If you understand the church in its own sense as God’s own bride perhaps the last fifteen years of inertia and bad management from the leadership have been a necessary purgatory for the institution to remind us all that ultimately the control of time and events is in God’s hand? Ever since the papal states were seized in 1870 we have seen a gradual dismantling of the caesaropapism which engulfed the papacy almost making the assumption of the office of the papacy as a sacrament in itself rather than recognising it for what it is, an office of service something which Pope Benedict XVI reminded us this week. The Pope has many titles but perhaps the most important one of all is Servant of the Servants of God. As Rowan Williams the former archbishop of Canterbury note, perhaps Benedict’s abdication may help to demystify the papacy, [reminding us  that]the pope is not like a sort of God King who goes on to the very end. The ministry of service that the Bishop of Rome exercises is just that, a ministry of service and it’s therefore reasonable to ask if there is a moment when somebody else should take that baton in hand. So yes, I’d call it demystifying and in that sense reminding us that the position of the bishop of Rome, the primitive position of the bishop of Rome as the servant of the unity of the Church, of the bishop who convenes, mediates between, manages the fellowship of the bishops, that slightly more functional, slightly less theologically top heavy picture, that may be one of the things that emerges from this”.[1]

Again and again Benedict XV has sought to remind us that the role of the supreme pontiff is not to be a human leader but rather a guide, like John the Baptist, like Mary, pointing the way to the Way, the Truth and the Life. Br Alois of Taize noted that, During this prayer [in Rome on December 29th 2013], we were all turned together towards the Cross of Christ, and this was like an image of [Pope Benedict’s] whole ministry: to try and make Christians aware of what lies at the heart of the faith. He told me one day how much he appreciated that, in Taizé, young people are turned towards what is essential. And when I asked him what that essential was, he replied: a personal relationship with God. At a time of deep-seated changes in the world, it is not easy to discern what the face of the Church of tomorrow will be. Pope Benedict XVI wanted, through his encyclical letters and his teaching, to focus his entire ministry on the foundations of faith. It is from there alone that the Church can discover how to live in the contemporary world.[2]

While that process of returning the papacy to a more benevolent office was supported by the second Vatican Council, it will fall to the current generation of Catholics - many of us under the age of thirty five - to interpret what the Holy Spirit wants for the future of the church as set out in that historic gathering of the college of bishops. After all it is only fifty years since the council was held, too soon, too near to be seen in its proper context and in continuity with the history of our faith and tradition. Historians usually say it takes a hundred years or more for the ideas of the current age to be really understood, rooted and faithful[3]. Perhaps as one commentator discussed during the week in doing what he has done, Benedict XVI has once more shown that the dynamic radical theologian that was at the council is still inside this elderly man in white by showing us that while God is the God of surprises, perhaps God’s bride should also be full of surprises as well!

In some ways this must have been the loneliest time of his life as he prepared to make this decision – truly an example of being alone in the midst of a crowd. While we rely on faith, there are very few of us that have locutions and direct conversations with the Holy Spirit upstairs and for this you have to admire the bravery and also the humility of the man in making this decision. Of all people, you could say the Joseph Ratzinger truly knows the weight and impact of the decision he has made but from what we know of the man, it can be said it was made out of love of God and of his church. Fr James Martin SJ described the decision as one of immense spiritual freedom – true freedom.
Pope Benedict's resignation shows immense spiritual freedom. Rare is the person who can, and will, relinquish such power voluntarily. It is an example of what St. Ignatius Loyola meant by being "disponible," available, free of any disordered attachments, in order to be able to follow the will of God. Pope John Paul II was free enough to carry on in the midst of a difficult illness, and in the face of having to show to the public his obvious infirmities; Pope Benedict is free enough to accept his inability to carry on as he believes God would want him to. Spiritual freedom is on display today.”
It also struck me as being a true manifestation of obedience. Obedience is often seen as a dirty word, a malevolent expression in a world which seems to prize individual human rights and freedoms above all else. But to be truly free is to be obedient. To obey (from the Latin ob-audire, to ‘hear or listen to’) in faith is to submit freely to the word that has been heard, because its truth is guaranteed by God, who is Truth itself[4]. Obedience sounds much less harsh when we realize its meaning is to “hear” or “listen” and does not demand our participation but allows us to “submit freely.” It is not, therefore, some external code of conduct forced upon us, but rather a choice that grows organically out of our personal and internal relationship with God. In that context, obedience becomes less about following specific rules and more about following the Word. As St Benedict reminds us - in the prologue to the rule of life which bears his name – we are called to “listen with the ear of our hearts.” Listening is an underlying part of obedience. How can we heed another unless we have truly listened to what they have stated?” “To be truly obedient, one must be fully aware of God’s word and how it touches your own life and the lives of others. There is no room for blindness. One must be able to see the Light and to acknowledge that Light,””[5] and looking at what Benedict XVI has said we can only trust that he has listened prayerfully and After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry”.

In this Lenten season, the teaching Pope is reminding us through this act of faith that we are called to trust in God. Like Jesus in the desert, we are called to remember that we rely on God, on God’s gifts to us. That despite the power games we try to play, ultimately we need to fall on our knees and say “Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief”.  It is also perhaps an act of deepest faith – truly a sign, a symbol in the Year of Faith which we are marking at the moment. For only a man of faith could turn around and echoing Pope John XXIII almost say “Well, Lord, it's your church. You take care of it. I'm going...”. Reflecting on his papal coat of arms, one blogger[6] made the point that “A shell of water can never transfer the entire sea. Pope Benedict is not frustrated by such limitations. He does what is possible. The rest is up to God. Similarly, he is the bear that has carried the heavy pack of the pastoral office of Pope. If this pack is now too heavy for his weary body, then the Holy Father is able with a joyful freedom to entrust that pack to another”.

It seemed somewhat appropriate that for Vespers on Monday the day of the announcement, that the psalmist seemed to echo this reliance on God Psalm 10(11)In the Lord I put my trust. The desire and the need to truly listen to the will of God was reflected in Paul’s letter to the Colossians (1:9b-13) “May you attain full knowledge of God's will through perfect wisdom and spiritual insight. Then you will lead a life worthy of the Lord and pleasing to him in every way. You will multiply good works of every sort and grow in the knowledge of God. By the might of his glory you will be endowed with the strength needed to stand fast, even to endure joyfully whatever may come, giving thanks to the Father, who has made us worthy to share in the lot of the saints in light. He rescued us from the power of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.
I have grown up with two incumbents on the See of St Peter, each of them in their own way a giant of a man. Each of them has inspired me in some way in my own faith journey. For me, each of them can be summed up in two respective quotes that I have reflected on many times. Back at Tor Vergata in Rome in 2000[7] during WYD, the theme of the Pope John Paul II’s homily was on “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”. But the line that has stood out for me was the quote from Catherine of Siena  If you are what you should be, you will set the whole world ablaze!”.A ringing cry of encouragement and affirmation, a challenge to us all in our lives. Benedict XVI at the beginning of his pontificate reminded us that “Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know him and to speak to others of our friendship with him”. A reminder that no matter what each of us is unique in the eyes of God and that despite the days when we feel lost, abandoned, alone and unsure of where we are going and what we are doing that ultimately we are held in the palm of His hand.

As Benedict enters into the solitude of his retirement in the weeks ahead, perhaps it will be a reminder to us all that in the end we too must enter the deserts of our lives at some stage. But remembering that “The flight to the desert is not an effort to spurn the "world" and its secular inhabitants. Instead the desert is a school of love, a school of prayer, where we can learn to enter more deeply into the mystery of God who, out of love, entered so intimately into our humanity”

God does not hurry over things; time is his, not mine. And I have been called to be transformed into God by sharing his life...Love transforms me slowly into God....Living in our selfishness means stopping at human limits and preventing our transformation into Divine Love. What is the use of saying the Divine Office well, of sharing the Eucharist, if one is not impelled by love? What's the use of giving up everything and coming here to the desert and the heat, if only to resist love? What's the good of defending the truth, fighting over dogmas with the theologians, getting shocked at those who haven't the same faith and then living in purgatory for geological epochs? ...........You will be judged according to your ability to love.....

- Shane Ambrose

[1] http://www.news.va/en/news/former-anglican-leader-not-surprised-by-papal-resi
[2] http://www.taize.fr/en_article15316.html
[4] http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p1s1c3a1.htm
[5] http://www.osv.com/tabid/7621/itemid/7668/The-freedom-to-obey.aspx
[6] http://shepherdspost.blogspot.com/2013/02/pope-benedict-xvi-shell-and-bear.html
[7] http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/homilies/2000/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_20000820_gmg_en.html