The benign and serene dignity with which Pope Benedict XVI retired from his office, pledged “obedience and cooperation” to his successor, urged the cardinal electors to behave as coherently as an “orchestra,” and departed for the “last phase of my pilgrimage on earth” to his books, piano, domestic cats, and a contemplative life can scarcely have left any reasonable observer unmoved. He thus joined the ranks of those who captivate the world by their voluntary departure from exalted positions generally held for life, from Diocletian to Charles V to Greta Garbo. As with his visit to Britain that caused the atheistic British media to sharpen their knives for a year in advance, predicting the final debunking of Roman impudence and flummery, and of this pope as indulgent of clerical sexual abuse, Benedict XVI left everyone in deep admiration for the depth of his faith and intellect and spiritual integrity. How fatuous and unjust now seem all the snide comments about him being God’s Rottweiler.
From this unspectacular man of immense intelligence, it was a spectacular and brilliant end to his papacy. While it is beyond my competence to judge, his retirement seemed an act both saintly and expedient. The Roman Catholic Church is at a turning point and the course should be set by someone young and energetic enough to see it through. This was an event that might have struck silent, like Zechariah in the Temple, even the pope’s noisiest accuser, the late Christopher Hitchens. Assuming the conclave is conducted with the customary dignity and discretion, the process will vastly transcend the malicious gossip with which the most scurrilous elements of the Italian media greeted it, faithfully amplified in vapid echo chambers such as CNN.
In that network’s coverage of the funeral of John Paul II eight years ago, as the announcers jubilantly reassured themselves of the proportions of the crisis in which the Roman Catholic Church was immersed, a guest pointed out that the population of Rome had swollen by 2 million for the funeral, that there were nearly twice as many Roman Catholics in the world as there had been when John Paul II was elected 27 years before, and that there were 74 heads of state or government at his funeral, which was more than attended the funerals of Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy and Charles de Gaulle combined. The contrast between the unhistrionic selflessness of the departure of this pope and the infantilistic absurdity and moral, if not pecuniary, corruption of most secular governments in the world, including the mockery of public service being acted out in Washington (and the unmitigated electoral farce across town with Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo), could not be clearer.
There is a crisis, but there is almost always a crisis in the Roman Catholic Church. It could not be otherwise, as it tries to be the ark of continuity of Christian faith, despite powerful and permanent forces of antagonism, apostasy, paganism, schism, and venality. Jesus Christ allegedly gave the first pope, St. Peter, a terribly difficult mission statement: a divinely inspired project to be carried out in the teeth of overwhelming disbelief, a heavenly task for terrestrial sinners, among the skeptical, hostile, and ungrateful. The chronic crisis-mongers should brush up their Church history. Two hundred years ago, Pius VII was incarcerated by Napoleon, as Pius VI had been by the Directory (and Pius VI had died in captivity in France). In 1848, Pius IX was chased by mobs out of Rome. Three archbishops of Paris were murdered and one fled for his life between 1792 and 1871; this in the country that traditionally styled itself “the eldest daughter of the Church,” whose monarch was officially “His Most Catholic Majesty.” Today’s doom-laden and wishful media philistines seem to think that Rome glided serenely forward for 15 centuries after the early Christian martyrs, apart from a bit of Borgia skullduggery, on a magic carpet of flimflam and superstition.