Monday, February 11, 2013

Nunc dimittis

It's amazing that such a humble, almost diffident man, a man who was very good at staying out of the spotlight for most of his career, could manage such a dramatic finish to his papacy.

As Vatican spokesman Greg Burke reminded us on NBC's Today, Pope Benedict did hint in his book-length interview with Peter Seewald, Light of the World, that he viewed resignation as a possible end to his reign, though he gave no timetable for it.  At 85, Papa Ratzinger has given over sixty years' service to the Faith, contributing to the success of his blessed predecessor's reign when other men and women of his age group were spending their pensions golfing and chasing their grandchildren, and was called to succeed Bl. John Paul just when he was anticipating his own retirement.

To people on the outside, such as FOXNews' John Moody, in any comparison between Benedict and John Paul II, Papa Bene is bound to come up short.  Papa Wojtyła changed the papacy dramatically, as befit a poet and playwright, tearing apart the centuries of distance and formality, making the Vicar of Christ a familiar face as he roamed the world preaching the evangelium in as many languages as he could over twenty-seven years.  Even now, I must confess, when I call him up in my own memory, I see him big and broad-shouldered, carrying his crozier like an alpine staff or a halberd, looking almost as if someone had dressed a Steelers linebacker in the white cassock.  Even more impressive, though, were the last few years as John Paul forced his ailing, crippled body along in testimony to endurance in suffering, continuing to preach God's love until finally he could preach no more.

I swear, MSM photographers live for this kind of shot.
To those of us on the inside, however, there's no need to make comparisons any more than one must rate one's uncles or mentors.  For one thing, many of those who do compare Benedict unfavorably with Bl. John Paul were critics of the latter during his lifetime; by the end of JP2's life, the battle to tear him down and neutralize his voice was long lost.  Conceding Papa Jan Pawel's greatness is a terrific start to putting Papa Bene down as a poor substitute ... especially if you can tie your beatdown to one of the many unfortunate pictures in which poor Benedict ends up looking like Emperor Palpatine from Return of the Jedi.

For another, if Benedict's flesh is weak, he certainly showed that his spirit is willing, as he racked up quite a few frequent-flyer miles on his own.  His own encyclicals (Deus Caritas Est, Spe Salvi and Caritas in Veritate) are warm and remarkably engaging reads, not too tortuous or technical for the non-theologian, while his cycle on the Life of Christ forces you to rethink everything you thought you knew about Jesus.  And his own achievements in building bridges between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, plus the Anglican Ordinariate (which is also bringing in other mainline Protestants), remind us that the word pontifex, or "pontiff", referred originally to one who built bridges.  Most of all, though, he's shown that tradition, or orthodoxy if you prefer, isn't a dead thing of stone but a living, running stream from which we're constantly refreshed, something that remains itself even as it shapes itself to the terrain through which it runs.

After John Paul the Great, Benedict the Cool.
I think Cdl. Timothy Dolan had a great insight into what makes Papa Bene so charming: "He's winsome in his humble acknowledgment of his frailty and weakness."  Beneath the quiet, retiring, dry and slightly pedantic exterior is a wellspring of good humor: like most of his predecessors of the last century, Benedict takes the office seriously but doesn't take himself too seriously.  And I think it's partly that which underlies his decision to retire — unlike John Paul, there's no particular witness to be offered by his sitting in Peter's Chair until he falls out dead.  Other bishops retire when they feel they can't meet the demands of the office; why shouldn't he?

One final thought:  Given the age at which he was elected, many of the chattering class will feel bound to opine that Pope Benedict was elected to be a "caretaker pope"; that is, someone to keep the seat warm until a real pope comes along to reign for a couple decades.  This is unfair to him and to the College of Cardinals.  In essence, all popes are "caretaker popes", trying to hold fast to the traditions of the Church (cf. 2 Thess 2:15) as vicarii Christi, Christ's stand-ins, until Christ returns in glory.  By this measure, Joseph Ratzinger has done well indeed.

Nunc dimittis servum tuum Domine secundum verbum tuum in pace.