When Jesus established the papacy, the gospels report that he told St. Peter: “Amen I say to you: You are Peter, and upon this Rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” These words are emblazoned in Latin across the front of St. Peter’s Basilica. St. Peter’s successors have incorporated his name to describe their work, the Petrine ministry, and refer to themselves as Papa Petrus.
But the Petrine ministry is more than work. And being Papa Petrus is not a job; it is a calling in which a man has been chosen by the direct descendants of the 12 apostles as agents of God to be the Vicar of Christ on Earth. One becomes the pope not as one becomes the president, but as one becomes a Catholic priest or the father of a child. The papacy, like ordination and fatherhood, is a life-changing and irreversible imprint — and hence, my sadness at the abdication of Benedict XVI. It shook my soul to the core.
The present pope is cognizant of the burdens of office and the needs of his enormous flock. The present pope is also a brilliant theologian whose pre-papal and papal published works have instructed the faithful and others in a manner and with a level of confidence and erudition that surpass his modern predecessors. Surely, no modern pope, not even the rock star who preceded him, who opened the eyes of millions to the Catholic Church’s salvific mission, has written as many books, monographs and essays with the level of timeliness, encyclopedic knowledge, clarity and authority as Benedict.
When Benedict was elected to the papacy in 2005, I wept with joy that such a faithful custodian of the Church’s teachings and traditions and such a worthy bridge to Christ in heaven had been chosen by the cardinals. But it was not always so. Like many of us, the youthful Benedict evolved with the passage of the generations. Fifty years ago, as a young priest and scholar, he preferred wearing civilian clothes in public to a Roman collar — truly a statement in the mid-1960s — and he relished his role as an adviser to the less orthodox members of the Catholic hierarchy at Vatican II. He has said recently that at that time he was filled with hope, enthusiasm and good will.
But his papacy has been spent attempting to return to the level of Catholic orthodoxy that the somewhat misguided and largely misunderstood teachings of Vatican II have been used to assault. At some point in his career, the future pope recognized that Vatican II made the Church worse, not better, and that the Catholic teachings, traditions and liturgy that the world believed Vatican II had watered down needed to be restored. He knew that his public mission was to reverse the trivialization of the liturgy, the lax clerical discipline and the weakened sacramental safeguards from which the Church has been suffering since Vatican II. And he knew that Vatican II divided, rather than united, Christendom.
The Holy Spirit must have recognized all of this, as well, as He sent us Pope John Paul II, the rock star, to blaze a path where no pope had gone before — touching millions of youths with language they understood — and then He sent us Pope Benedict XVI, the lion of orthodoxy, to lay down the intellectual mechanisms for travels along that path. The path is the bridge to heaven. The way to travel upon it is personal sanctity. The first traveler is the Holy Father.
But some, like Benedict, are called to more than just personal sanctity. Benedict was called to carry a cross of personal sacrifice, as well. That cross consists of the weight of the world and the power with which to endure that weight. Jesus Himself carried that weight and possessed that power. Surely, as the Son of God, He could have stopped His executioners with the tiniest exercise of His divine will, but He freely chose not to exercise that will, no matter His personal gain. In a similar way, Benedict has freely chosen to surrender his power and forgo his temporal glory so one stronger than he can exercise it, no matter his personal loss.
The essence of Jesus’ suffering was His decision to eschew the exercise of power and submit to His Father’s will. The greatest restraint in human history was His conscious decision to permit His own crucifixion, knowing as He did that it would involve the termination of His temporal ministry, extreme human torment and certain human death. Even as His human body was suffering egregiously and as He was approaching the hour of death, Our Lord proclaimed that He would have preferred to live. Yet He submitted to the will — the plan — of His Father. This most unique act in human history represented both the affirmation of an informed conscience and the free submission to divine will.
When Benedict decided that the mystical body of Christ needed another bridge to heaven, he, too, gave up power and glory that he, too, could easily have exercised and retained. He, too, searched his conscience in a supreme effort to elevate submission to divine will above personal preference.
This is the essence of Benedict’s gift to us: He used his very existence on Earth near the end of his days to teach others to reach and correspond to a personal relationship with God, driven by conscience and consistent with Church teachings, via the sacraments and personal sacrifice, no matter what the world thought.
Such a quiet, personal, Christ-like submission of the will is not the essence of a rock star; it is the essence of a Rock. Human salvation has been advanced immeasurably because the Church had both popes at its helm — each to complement the other in ways we could not have imagined.