Pope Benedict XVI ends his eight-year pontificate on February 28. The decision by the Holy Father to step aside has resulted in a range of responses. Some recollections reflect high admiration for a humble man. As the day has drawn nearer, other reports share in the silly speculation about who is the odds-on favorite cardinal to replace him.
Understandably the decision draws attention. No Holy Father has resigned in some 600 years. But as important as the event assuredly is within the view of yesterday, the final official act by Benedict XVI teaches us just as much for today and tomorrow. Early 21st century culture celebrates an individuality that rejects tradition, favors no limits while exploring the full sensual spectrum, and calls to accomplish all in the here-and-now. The pontificate of Benedict XVI, from its beginning to the end, teaches a new kind of individuality.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger emerged before a world audience as Benedict XVI in 2005. For the millions of Catholics born during the dusk of the Cold War, the word “pope” had only one face – and one known the world over at that – in their lifetime. John Paul II had reigned for nearly 28 years. The old adage about filling big shoes seemed appropriate as people heard words from the new pope about simple service in the Lord’s vineyard. If the shoes of the fisherman had been boats, John Paul II, in the minds of many, had left Benedict XVI two huge yachts to fill. No simple task and certainly no easy position to ever really “be yourself,” to be sure.
Yet Benedict found ways to do it “his way” and, importantly, in ways that never wavered in genuine testimony to “the way, the truth, and the life” of Christ (John 14:6). The Holy Father endured with rugged love criticisms thrown at him. For example, he acted like a white-clad John Wayne following his Regensburg Lecture in September 2006 on the origins of Islamic jihadism. Rather than combat hateful replies quickly and with wounded bitterness, Benedict offered opportunities to join him in long conversation, deep prayer and genuine civility moving forward.
His deep intellect attracted faithful admirers, too. Benedict loved to write and wrote a lot of works out of that love. Good luck trying to find a book that doesn’t have the name Joseph Ratzinger or Benedict XVI as the author the next time you look for Catholic books at any noteworthy bookstore or online bookseller. One could make a similar remark about John Paul II. Such prolific production, however, yielded unique styles. The Polish romantic discussed every dimension of the question before answering. The German technician answered the question directly before explaining all the supporting evidence. Both men and their works rightfully share a place in the echelon of great theologians and, perhaps in time, the pantheon of great popes.
Benedict XVI steps aside not at the hour of his death but by a choice made during the twilight of his life. The current captain of the bark of St. Peter stands down willingly. A new successor of St. Peter will assume the helm in the weeks ahead. But whoever it is does so informed by Benedictine individuality, where terms respect traditions, limits lead to evangelization and new life, and accomplishments are measured in centuries.
Jason Godin teaches United States history at Blinn College in Bryan, Texas.