The news of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation struck with the suddenness of grace.
Usually, a changing of the guard at the Vatican is preceded by a period where Catholics throughout the world grieve and the square of St. Peter’s overflows with pilgrims attending the Funeral Mass. But Catholics have come to expect the unexpected with Benedict and perhaps should have seen this coming.
Throughout his life, he has never been a prisoner to convention or stale ideas. He’s never feared scientific truth or engagement with modern culture. His three-volume “Jesus of Nazareth” is perhaps as fresh a take on the mystery of the person of the Christ as anything published in any age.
He is a theologian at heart, a teacher in every sense — and now he is teaching the Church Universal something about the papal office in the modern age, as well as his own limitations as shepherd.
Whereas John Paul II fearlessly lived his Parkinson’s infirmity in office to demonstrate that the great human dignity with which man is endowed is undiminished by disability, Benedict is teaching us about the need for clarity of mind and purity of heart in order to discern precisely what God is asking today of each of us.
That examination of conscience is required of popes and paupers alike, and his decision to resign was clearly the fruit of much prayer and contemplation.
His 26 years in academia prepared him for decisions like this by sharpening his appreciation for the pursuit of truth, excellence and beauty. That he would conclude on Sunday, at age 85, that he no longer has the strength and capacity to continue on the chair of St. Peter seems in hindsight to be utterly predictable.
Nonetheless, the news of Benedict’s resignation has a jarring quality to it as well as ample precedent.
The early Church was accustomed to the sudden departures of popes. In the third century, because of the cruel persecution of tyrants seeking to eradicate the Christian faith, there were five popes in the span of 10 years. Some were beheaded and all were elevated with the expectation of certain martyrdom.
Benedict’s announcement, in this context, seems far less dramatic. But it is no less momentous.
Those of us in Catholic education find ourselves already missing our beloved theologian-pope. He was a friend to us all.
I will never forget his remarks at a gathering of Catholic educators in Washington, DC: “A university or school’s Catholic identity is not simply a question of the number of Catholic students. It is a question of conviction — do we really believe that only in the mystery of the Word made flesh does the mystery of man truly become clear?”
He continued, “The church never tires of upholding the essential moral categories of right and wrong, without which hope could only wither, giving way to cold pragmatic calculations of utility which render the person little more than a pawn on some ideological chess-board.”
The truth of Benedict’s exhortation challenges all of us who labor at Catholic institutions of higher learning to shepherd our students toward a deeper understanding of what is asked of us, and what dangers are posed when society measures individuals based simply on their usefulness.
The pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI may be ending but the value of his teaching and the power of his witness to the Christian faithful will continue. His leaving the chair of St. Peter shocks us, and perhaps even saddens us, because we have grown accustomed to the lovely attraction of his words. He served with a fearlessness and gentleness that were evangelical. His formidable intellect and gift of expression were from God.
He soon will enter a new stage in his life, one of quiet prayer and ascendant weakness as he prepares to return to the Father. He has mentored the multitudes across the continents for this very moment, and now it is his turn to embark.
He goes with our prayers and profound gratitude.