In April 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger gathered in Rome with his brother cardinals. With the world watching, he buried his friend, Blessed Pope John Paul II. A few days later, the cardinals were locked in the Sistine Chapel to choose the next Pope. They began with prayer, with the Mass, and Cardinal Ratzinger preached the homily.
Cardinal Ratzinger spoke to the Church's cardinals of Christ's friendship. "The Lord calls us friends, he makes us his friends, and he gives us his friendship. He entrusts our weak minds and our weak hands with his truth — the mystery of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; the mystery of God who 'so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son."
"He made us his friends," Cardinal Ratzinger preached, "and how do we respond?"
The next day, Cardinal Ratzinger was elected the church's 265th pope, Benedict XVI.
In earnest, he has invited the world to come to know Christ. His travel, his writings, and his leadership in the Church have been a response to his transformational friendship with Jesus Christ.
Pope Benedict's reign has not been without controversy. He has been the subject of criticism. The church's beliefs are offensive to some, are dismissed as outdated, irrelevant, bigoted, or unfair. These criticisms have been railed against the church since the time of Jesus Christ. The world hated Christ in his time; he is still often hated today.
Like Jesus Christ, Pope Benedict has encouraged Christians to respond to the world with love. A few months after he was elected, Benedict told the church that "we can love God whom we cannot see by loving our neighbor whom we can see. Loving our neighbor is loving God."
Few can deny the claim that loving humanity is a way to love its author. Few can deny that the world needs more love.
The church's claims are often judged by the mistakes and by the grave sins of its members. Pope Benedict XVI understands keenly the damage done to the church when its members live scandalously. Scandals and sinfulness hurt him, and he worked to eradicate them. He also worked to repair the damage they caused.
I won't forget the healing beauty of the Holy Father's visit with victims of sexual abuse in the United States. He could not make them whole. But he could offer them his friendship, compassion and his love, just as Christ offers the same.
Pope's Benedict's message for eight years has been that the Christian claim is made credible by our charity, and is rejected through our sinfulness. He has called for holier priests and bishops, holier mothers and fathers, holier families, and holier men and women. He's called the church to charity — to love which is rooted in love for Jesus Christ and made concrete in our friendship, kindness, support, and sacrifice for one another. He's called the church to pour out itself in love.
The task has been difficult. Pope Benedict XVI is 85. His daily schedule includes administrative and practical questions which would bewilder a man half his age. He is the leader of 1 billion Catholics. He has navigated the church through challenging times. Though the task is overwhelming, Pope Benedict says that his job "is beautiful and wonderful, because it is truly a service to joy, to God's joy which longs to break into the world."
After eight years of working to spread the love of God, Pope Benedict has decided that the church needs a leader with the vitality and enthusiasm to carry on its mission to the world. In humility and courage, he plans to retire to a monastery, where he'll pray, and likely study, and where he'll continue most importantly to pursue a friendship with Jesus Christ.
To the world, it's unsettling to imagine a man with global influence and practical power, moving to a small room, in a house of prayer, where he'll offer Mass and probably practice the piano. But Benedict XVI has never been interested in power or influence. He has been interested in friendship with Jesus Christ — his own, and mine, and yours.
This column originally appeared on The Denver Post.
The Most Rev. Samuel J. Aquila currently serves as the Archbishop of Denver, Colo. with the episcopal motto, “Do whatever he tells you. (Jn 2:5)”