home page links quotes statistics mission statement success stories resources Lighter Side Authors! Search Page

February 17, 2013

A pope resigns - Overlooked themes of Pope Benedict's pontificate - Ash Wednesday 2013 in Rome - The pope looks back to Vatican II

In this edition:
1. A 21st century pope resigns.
2. Why resign? Setting a precedent.
3. The pope's Lenten theme: credible faith.
4. Quoting the pope on Ash Wednesday:
a) The church as community.
b) Returning to the Lord is possible.
c) On hypocrisy and seeking personal glory.
5. Benedict XVI: The church, a community of friends.
6. The pope looks back at Vatican Council II.
7. Marriage and family as a papal theme.

1. A 21st Century Pope Resigns

If the start-up of Lent felt different this year, perhaps it was because Pope Benedict XVI announced just two days before Ash Wednesday that he would resign as pope Feb. 28. Elected in April 2005, his will be a pontificate of slightly less than eight years. It is expected a new pope will succeed him before Easter.

The announcement barely had settled in as Lent arrived.

Even some who predicted that the pope, now 85 years old, would resign at some point were caught off guard by the announcement. They expected it, but not yet. Nonetheless, it seemed to me the pope's decision was accepted readily by most Catholics who wrote and spoke on it, and even was judged a courageous action.

Immediately it was recognized, of course, that the church soon will have not only a new pope, but a former pope. That will be something new indeed! Many asked what unforeseen or complicated implications that might have. I assume it is a question that will be discussed by some for a long time to come. After all, it is the sort of question that makes the work of church historians such a challenge.

Still, the Vatican's spokesman was quick to assure questioners that the former pope will not become a co-pope of any kind when the new papacy commences and will not inject himself into the new pope's unique responsibilities.

2. Why Resign? Setting a Precedent

Announcing his resignation to a gathering of cardinals in Rome Feb. 11, Pope Benedict said he leaves for reasons related to age and the waning of his energies. "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," he said.

Pope Benedict added that he is "well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering." Yet, he said:

"In today's world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me."

He wants, Pope Benedict said, to serve the church "in the future through a life dedicated to prayer." He will live in a convent in the Vatican gardens. A Reuters news report quoting an unnamed Vatican source said concerns related to the pope's privacy, security and legal immunity made it essential that he remain at the Vatican.

It is possible that something more will be heard in the future about the thinking and motivation underlying this decision to resign. Whatever of that, the pope's resignation statement clearly left room for the conclusion reached by many that not only is he leaving for reasons of age and strength, but that in doing so he is setting a precedent for future popes - attempting, that is, to pave the way for them to resign from office if they feel the need to do so.

Perhaps, for example, at a time of considerably longer lifespans than earlier generations expected and when the field of medicine can accomplish so much to extend the time of life in this world, the pope considered it valuable to establish a precedent for future popes. His precedent could prove invaluable for those experiencing long-lasting illnesses or who learn they are entering into a debilitating infirmity of old age.

With those considerations in mind, I cannot help but wonder if future historians will look back upon this resignation as a bold, inspired move by Benedict XVI.

3. Pope's Lenten Theme: Credible Faith

Despite the tumult surrounding the pope's resignation announcement, Lent indeed got under way Feb. 13. As popes generally do, Pope Benedict earlier had issued a Lenten statement attempting to set a tone and to spark meditation and conversation on its theme: the essential relationship of faith and charity.

"Faith without works is like a tree without fruit: the two virtues imply one another," Pope Benedict's 2013 Lenten statement said. He located "the principal distinguishing mark of Christians" in love that is "grounded in and shaped by faith."

I sometimes was surprised over the years of this papacy at the frequency with which Pope Benedict underscored the link of faith with actions of charity. He held that Christians will have no credibility in the eyes of the world and the new evangelization will not succeed if Christians are not known for putting faith into action and serving others.

I wonder how many were surprised at this emphasis. Perhaps, thinking we already knew him well from his years as a cardinal in Rome, we were not expecting this pope to speak quite this way.

In the many mentions of his key concerns that I have read and heard in the days since he announced his resignation, few suggested that his strong, ongoing statements on putting faith into action and bearing the poor in mind represent, in any sense, a theme of his pontificate.

An example of this emphasis is found in the pope's fall 2011 apostolic letter announcing the current Year of Faith, which concludes next November. In it Pope Benedict said:

"Faith and charity each require the other. . . . Many Christians dedicate their lives with love to those who are lonely, marginalized or excluded, as to those who are the first with a claim on our attention and the most important for us to support, because it is in them that the reflection of Christ's own face is seen. Through faith, we can recognize the face of the risen Lord in those who ask for our love. . . .

"It is faith that enables us to recognize Christ, and it is his love that impels us to assist him whenever he becomes our neighbor along the journey of life."

As this year's Lenten statement insists, "faith precedes charity, but faith is genuine only if crowned by charity."

Christian life, it says, "consists in continuously scaling the mountain to meet God and then coming back down, bearing the love and strength drawn from him so as to serve our brothers and sisters with God's own love."

It is notable that as this pontificate reaches its end, Pope Benedict's long-awaited encyclical on faith has not been issued. It was to complete a trilogy on the theological virtues of charity, hope and faith. Much earlier, of course, he issued encyclicals on charity and on hope.

No one seems to know for certain what will become of the planned encyclical on faith. The Vatican announced in December that the encyclical would be released during the first half of 2013. At this writing, close Vatican observers appear certain the encyclical will not be released before the pope's resignation takes effect.

4. Current Quotes: Ash Wednesday in Rome

(In an Ash Wednesday homily at the Vatican, two days after announcing his resignation, Pope Benedict XVI examined goals of Lent. Three significant quotations from his homily appear below.)

The Church as Community. "The dimension of community is an essential part of Christian faith and life. Christ came 'to gather into one the dispersed children of God' (cf. Jn 11:52). The 'we' of the church is a community in which Jesus draws us together to himself (cf. Jn 12:32). Faith is necessarily ecclesial. It is important to keep this in mind and to experience it throughout this Lenten season: Everyone should realize that we do not take up the path of repentance alone, but together with our many brothers and sisters in the church."

Returning to the Lord Is Possible: "The church repeats to us the powerful appeal which the prophet Joel addressed to the people of Israel: 'Even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping and with mourning' (2:12). The expression 'with all your heart' is important. It means from the core of our thoughts and feelings, from the wellspring of our free decisions, choices and actions, in an act of complete and radical freedom. But is such a return to God possible? Yes, because there is a power which does not reside in our own hearts, but springs from God's own heart. It is the power of his mercy."

On Hypocrisy and Seeking Personal Glory: "In . . . the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus mentions three basic practices found in the law of Moses: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. These are also traditional signposts along the journey of Lent, pointing out how to respond to the call to 'return to God with all your heart.' But Jesus makes clear that it is the quality and the truthfulness of our relationship with God which reveals the authenticity of any religious practice. Consequently, he denounces religious hypocrisy, ways of acting meant to impress others and to garner applause and approval. The true disciple serves not himself or the 'public,' but his Lord, simply and generously: 'And your Father who sees in secret will reward you' (Mt 6:4, 6, 18). Our witness, then, will always be more effective the less we seek our own glory and the more we realize that the reward of the just is God himself: being one with him here below on the journey of faith and, at life's end, in the luminous peace of seeing him face to face forever (cf. 1 Cor 13:12)."

5. Benedict: Church, a Community of Friends

I won't belabor particular aspects of Pope Benedict's way of speaking about faith that caught my attention. But I want to note that he described the church very early in his pontificate in an inviting way that I still quote routinely in baptism classes in my parish.

It happened in January 2006 when the pope baptized 10 babies in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican. I thought it was clear at the time that the pope spoke extemporaneously or at least in his own words. For, a prepared text of his homily quickly was posted online by the Vatican, yet a couple of days later that text disappeared, replaced by the pope's actual words for the occasion.

If you are a church member, do you think of yourself as the friend and companion of the other baptized members of your community? Are you mandated never to abandon those people? Listen to what Pope Benedict said.

"What happens in baptism?" Pope Benedict posed that question in his 2006 Sistine Chapel homily.

To put it simply, he suggested to the children's parents, "we might say we hope for a good life, the true life, for these children of ours; and also for happiness in a future that is still unknown."

But "how will this happen?" he asked. Part of his response to that question is what I call to the attention of parents participating in the baptism classes because of the warm image of the church it conveys. He said:

"Through baptism each child is inserted into a gathering of friends who never abandon him in life or in death because these companions are God's family, which in itself bears the promise of eternity."

Continuing, Pope Benedict insisted that "this group of friends, this family of God, into which the child is now admitted, will always accompany him, even on days of suffering and in life's dark nights; it will give him consolation, comfort and light."

Next the pope said: "This companionship, this family, will give him words of eternal life, words of light in response to the great challenges of life, and will point out to him the right path to take. This group will also offer the child consolation and comfort, and God's love when death is at hand. . . .

"It will give him friendship, it will give him life. And these totally trustworthy companions will never disappear."

6. Pope Looks Back at Vatican II

In a speech to the priests of Rome just three days after announcing his resignation, Pope Benedict reflected on the Second Vatican Council, where he served as a personal adviser to Cardinal Josef Frings of Cologne, Germany. The Vatican Information Service promptly issued a translation of extracts from the speech.

Pointing out that the council's first document was its 1963 Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the pope said: "In retrospect, I think that it was very good to begin with the liturgy, showing God's primacy, the primacy of adoration."

In other words, he continued, this was the council's "first act -- speaking of God and opening everything to the people, opening the adoration of God to the entire holy people, in the common celebration of the liturgy of the body and blood of Christ."

The pope commented that "the great texts of the liturgy -- even when they are, thanks be to God, in one's mother tongue -- are not easily understandable." Therefore, he said, "ongoing formation is necessary for Christians to grow and enter more deeply into the mystery so they might understand."

Vatican Council II also focused on the church. The council "wanted to say and to understand that the church is not an organization, not just some structural, legal or institutional thing -- which it also is -- but an organism, a living reality that enters into my soul, and that I myself, with my very soul, as a believer, am a constitutive element of the church as such," Pope Benedict said.

He added: "We ourselves, Christians together, we are the living body of the church. Of course, this is true in the sense that we, the true 'we' of believers, together with the 'I' of Christ, are the church; each one of us is not 'a we' but a group that calls itself church."

In his speech Pope Benedict noted many aspects of this ecumenical council, for example it discussion of the collegiality of the church's bishops. He said:

"The word 'collegiality' was very intensely debated, somewhat exaggeratedly I would say. But it was the word . . . to express that the bishops, together, are the continuation of the Twelve, of the group of apostles. We said:

"Only one bishop, the bishop of Rome, is the successor of the particular apostle, Peter. . . . Thus, the group of bishops, the college, is the continuation of the Twelve and has its needs, its role, its rights and its duties."

7. Benedict on Marriage and Family

In what I have been reading and hearing about his pontificate since Pope Benedict announced his resignation, I have not heard anything about his numerous speeches and writings esteeming the "immense dignity" of marriage.

Part of the married couple's vocation, he thought, was to serve the world as a sign that marital commitment still is possible.

In addition to my writing for jknirp.com, I am a writer on marriage. In that capacity I have written a number of times on this theme of Pope Benedict's pontificate. It seems to me his views on marriage and family are important for pastoral ministers, particularly those helping to prepare couples for marriage or leading adult education groups in parishes and dioceses.

Young people were encouraged by this pope to discover "the greatness and beauty of marriage." In a spring 2010 message to young people participating in the International Youth Forum, held in Italy, the pope said that "the relationship between the man and the woman reflects divine love in a quite special way; therefore the conjugal bond acquires an immense dignity."

In a June 2012 homily to the World Meeting of Families, held in Milan, Italy, he told married couples and families that their "vocation is not easy to live, especially today." However, he added, "the vocation to love is a wonderful thing, it is the only force that can truly transform the cosmos, the world."

In the same homily, the pope offered a detailed list of the building blocks of family life. "Elements that build up the family" include dialogue and respect for each other's points of view, a readiness for service and patience "with the failings of others," he said.

A family grows in love, he stressed, when it maintains "a constant relationship with God," participates in the church's life and tries to be a true domestic church. It grows, too, when its members are "able to forgive and to seek forgiveness," and when they attempt intelligently and humbly to overcome "conflicts that may arise."

Among other building blocks proposed by the pope to families were agreement by the parents "on principles of upbringing," openness "to other families" and attentiveness "toward the poor," as well as responsibility "within civil society."

This pope's esteem for the sacrament of marriage was heard during the opening Mass for the October 2012 world Synod of Bishops on the new evangelization. "Matrimony is a Gospel in itself, a good news for the world of today, especially the de-Christianized world," he said.

And his esteem for the family was heard in his 2012 apostolic exhortation on the church in the Middle East. "Called to live a Christlike love each day, the Christian family is a privileged expression of the church's presence and mission in the world," he said.