Pope Benedict’s news — that he will step aside as pontiff — is still being processed by a shocked world as prayers commence for the future shepherd of the world’s Catholics. Priests, scholars, and lay men and women assess what this all means.
Father ROGER J. LANDRY
When he was elected, on April 19, 2005, Pope Benedict introduced himself to the Church as a “simple and humble worker in the Lord’s vineyard,” and his genuine humility before the duties of his office remains striking today.
While many of us were more than satisfied with the level at which he was continuing to serve the whole Church at 85 — most especially in his teaching office — it’s clear he believes that the ministry of the successor of St. Peter requires more than he thinks he is physically capable of giving.
It’s easy to understand his conclusion. Very few octogenarians would have the stamina to fulfill the Pope’s daily schedule of continuous high-level meetings and speeches, not to mention grueling international travel and a liturgical schedule awaiting him during Holy Week that has been known to wipe out priests half his age.
Having repeatedly examined his conscience before God, he believes that this is what the Lord is asking of him at this time. So his decision today is fundamentally not a “no” to the burdens of the papacy but one more “yes” in a lifetime of faithful yeses to what the Lord is asking of him.
He himself has taught us repeatedly that the most important thing we do is prayer, and so he is prioritizing that work in the years he has left, even above the supremely important ministry of the papacy.
I’m grateful for his eight years of service, in which he pushed himself to the limit, and I ask the Supreme Pastor — who, Pope Benedict reminds us, is the one who guides the Church, and who will never have an interregnum — to bless him with the reward given to all good and faithful servants.
— Father Roger J. Landry is chaplain of Catholic Voices USA and pastor of St. Bernadette’s Parish in Fall River, Mass.
Father DWIGHT LONGENECKER
Pope Benedict XVI’s legacy is one of authentic humility and service. Joseph Ratzinger was portrayed by the media as the Vatican’s bully boy, mocked as “Ratzi the Nazi” or “God’s Rottweiler.” As Pope he proved to be more grandfather than Mafia Godfather — more Old English sheepdog than junkyard dog. His gentle, scholarly, and reclusive nature dispelled his harsh former image almost overnight.
His personal humility and simple spirituality radiated from his encyclicals: God Is Love, Saved by Hope, and Truth in Love. His scholarly writings, homilies, and religious instruction all overflowed not simply with an intellectual presentation of the Catholic faith, but with a genuine, human warmth and immediacy. He constantly spoke of the Catholic faith in Evangelical terms as being first and foremost a “great adventure” and “a living encounter with Jesus Christ.”
I believe he will continue on as a senior adviser for his successor — keeping in the background, as he did for Pope John Paul II. By retiring, Benedict XVI will create a new kind of papacy — one in which a younger man can become a kind of global evangelist in the style that John Paul II pioneered, while the “pope emeritus” holds the fort and is available as an adviser, counselor, and elder statesman. Joseph Ratzinger will step off the stage and play second fiddle again, and in so doing will help create a newer, stronger papacy to serve the ever-growing Catholic Church.
— Fr Dwight Longenecker is parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in Greenville, S.C. He is author of 15 books on the Catholic faith, including The Gargoyle Code, a Screwtape Letters book for Lent. His website is dwightlongenecker.com.
STEPHEN D. MINNIS
Pope Benedict XVI was a true academic and a great Pope. If you look at his life, you see that he was a fighter, not a quitter, so I have to believe that his decision to resign is of a piece with the rest of his decisions: He is doing what’s best for the people in his care.
He began his career as a university professor, but before that he was a university student. He and other students struggled in the aftermath of the war, which had laid waste to Munich’s university buildings, and the aftermath of Nazism, which had laid waste to his school’s faculty.
Ratzinger saw firsthand the sacrifices of academic freedom — his favorite professor had to flee the country because he wouldn’t stop teaching what the Church teaches. Ratzinger also saw what a real Catholic college looks like. After the war, students and professors had to bunk together in second-rate lodgings. They lived, prayed, and ate together, and together sifted through the rubble to rebuild their school.
It is no wonder then that when he met with Catholic university professors in America in 2008, he told us that our job was to “love our students.” He knew what he was talking about — and I, for one, was inspired by what he said to understand my job differently.
Those of us who met with him to discuss Ecclesia in America last December saw a man determined to keep building the Church, and to keep teaching the truth. We saw him send his first tweet. We got to hear him at Mass and at his audience. But we also saw him give a bouquet of flowers to Our Lady on the feast of the Immaculate Conception and pray to Our Lady of Guadalupe on her feast day.
It was as if the “professor pope” was teaching us something new. The Church isn’t in his hands, ultimately. It is in the hands of God and the saints. We have no reason to fear for its future.
— Stephen D. Minnis is president of Benedictine College.
Several aspects of Benedict XVI’s pontificate caught the attention of observers from the outset. People were immediately struck by his radical humility, his theological depth and sophistication, and his remarkable courage in confronting hostilities. Yet, during these packed eight years, Benedict planted another, less evident yet equally important seed: a thirst for beauty. In a world distracted by the superficially attractive and seduced into looking for truth in the ugliness of human sinfulness, Benedict has insisted that we must learn to demand authentic beauty. This beauty, he has declared, is not merely for an elite band of connoisseurs, but speaks a universal language open to all.
Reprising an oft-repeated theme of his, Benedict said in 2008 that “art and the Saints are the greatest apologetic for our faith,” greater in fact that the cleverest arguments for Christian belief. Not only does this thought cast further light on the many canonizations of Blessed John Paul II, but it also furthers the work begun by his predecessor in restoring the beautiful art of the Vatican to the world. As a lover of music and devotee of the majesty of the liturgy, Benedict XVI has expanded our understanding of art as conveyor of both beauty and truth.
Benedict has used art as a “platform of dialogue,” from the glorious Mass he celebrated on the first day after his election in the Sistine Chapel, to sending the Raphael tapestries to England in 2010 to hang beside the drawings conserved in London, to lending Raphael’s Madonna of Foligno to complement the Sistine Madonna kept in Dresden before his visit to Germany in 2011.
Beauty has proven to be a successful ambassador of faith in Benedict’s pontificate, and he has laid the groundwork for its continued centrality in the Church’s outreach to culture.
— Elizabeth Lev is an America art historian in Rome and author of The Tigress of Forli: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici.
How short it was! I knew it would be short from the start, when Joseph Ratzinger was first heralded as the next Pontiff across St. Peter’s Square. He was old and frail already. So, knowing this, I vowed to savor each day: I took as my goal to become as “Roman” as possible in mind and heart. Like a son accompanying his elderly father, I would read and think about whatever he said in the day’s homily or instruction.
But however long it was, it would be too short; and now that it is nearly over, I am reminded with sadness of those other great goods in my life that have passed by and are no more, nothing at all now, except that they live in God’s memory.
Although they are not linked through a name, Benedict’s papacy is inextricably bound up with John Paul II’s and cannot be appreciated apart from it. They are both Popes of the Council: John Paul II was granted the years necessary to become the Council’s definitive and irrefragable interpreter; Benedict needed and was granted the time to place that same Council in proportion in the entire tradition of the Church.
They both showed a too-rare kind of modern man, highly public and fully up to date, but bringing to light thoughts and sentiments that obviously have no other origin than long prayer in the presence of God. They were both “scientists” who showed others how to master a body of knowledge and represent it — one wants to say, “at last” — as sober and sound and integrated with humanity and faith: John Paul II doing so with the psychology of love and marriage, and Benedict with the science of Scripture scholarship.
They are models of a new civilization. The time of the Council seems in retrospect to be the beginning of the sudden collapse of an old civilization. Yet John Paul and Benedict gave two visions of the new. John Paul was optimistic and seemed to expect a new springtime of faith to blossom from all the blood of Christians poured out by Nazi and Communist violence against man. Benedict has been more pessimistic, perhaps, suggesting that Christianity for the near future might perhaps live authentically only in small countercultural communities. Right now Benedict’s vision is looking more accurate to many of us.
The one was as true a philosopher as any who ever lived, the other as true a theologian. The Church thinks in centuries; these Popes thought for centuries, as it will take many years of prayerful reflection for us to profit from all that they said. It seems fitting now to me at least that, in the years to come, the Church will be led by heroic and great men, who, in contrast, are distinguished mainly for being men of action — whose task it is not to propose but to implement the New Evangelization and the Gospel of Life. And if this truly is fitting, then I suspect it will be so.
— Michael Pakaluk is professor of philosophy and chair of the philosophy department at Ave Maria University.
REBECCA RYSKIND TETI
I wept when I heard the news early this morning — not for the Church, but because I will miss him. Benedict XVI’s writing and teaching have been such a solace to me that I’ve often identified with the late Oriana Fallaci’s remark, “I feel less alone when I read the books of Ratzinger.”
Legacy is a thing it takes time and dispassion to understand, so I make no claims. I am grateful that one of the few genuinely open minds of our time has been in the See of Peter these eight years. In an age of punch-pulling and misdirection, I admire his intellectual fearlessness, born of the conviction that the God he hopes in is Truth itself, and that anyone seeking truth is on the path to God.
In his famed Regensburg lecture, the Pope drew the ire of certain Muslims for daring to quote a scholar asking what Mohammed brought that was new. No one among the commentators seemed to notice that Benedict XVI routinely poses the same question to Christianity: What does Jesus bring that is new? Gentle Benedict never insults anyone — but he does believe in getting to the heart of the matter. Else why bother?
“Joy” is unquestionably the word and topic that comes up most in anything he writes, and I thank him for his remarkable witness of joy and serenity in an anxious and angry time.
In an age when popular Catholicism is quick to conflate eloquence or energy in the apostolate with personal sanctity, Benedict’s disarming ability to take his duties — but never himself — seriously is refreshing. The answer he gave some years ago to a priest complaining his ministerial duties were too onerous for him to find time for serious prayer sprang to my mind this morning. It was something on the order of, “Whenever we think we are indispensable, we exaggerate.”
As an Evangelical Christian in 2008, I was worried by “God’s Rottweiler.” From what I knew, he was a cold and stodgy disciplinarian with a hyper-traditionalist streak, more likely to crack a whip than save a soul.
But then I became Catholic. After devouring his books and studying his addresses, I discovered a much different man. Three traits particularly stuck out, and they remain keys to understanding his legacy:
First, his commitment to reason. In the Pope’s important Regensburg lecture in 2006, he noted, “Even in the face of such radical skepticism it is still necessary . . . to raise the question of God through the use of reason.” Throughout his pontificate Pope Benedict affirmed that faith and reason are not enemies; they’re friends. He’s shown that the mind is a road to God.
Second, his evangelical focus. In a recent speech to Filipino prelates, Pope Benedict summed up the Church’s mission: “to propose a personal relationship with Christ.” That’s what Catholicism is all about — friendship with the Risen Lord. And it’s why Pope Benedict has poured himself into the New Evangelization, an effort to repropose this relationship to a distant world.
Third, his embrace of the new media. From launching a new Vatican website, to using an iPad, to tweeting to millions of people in eight languages, the Pope was no stranger to technology. “Without fear,” he told a group of bloggers, the Church “must set sail on the digital sea.” Yet who pictured an octogenarian Pope leading the way? Over the years, the Pope has keenly recognized that most people are online, so that’s where he’s steered the Church.
We don’t know whom the Holy Spirit will choose as his successor. We don’t know what travails lie ahead. But we do know that Pope Benedict has charted a sure future for the Church, one that is eminently reasonable, deeply evangelical, and firmly committed to new methods of evangelization.
STEPHEN P. WHITE
Joseph Ratzinger is a Christian by baptism, an adopted son of God. He is a bishop by ordination, a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. These two sacraments have each left an indelible mark upon his soul — they bring about an ontological change, as the theologians say. They last for eternity. Benedict XVI is Pope by election. And he will cease to be Pope by choice.
There is no doubt that the news comes as a surprise — it has been centuries since a Pope last resigned. What is not a surprise — or should not be a surprise — are the reasons Pope Benedict has given for his decision. He lacks the physical strength to be the shepherd his flock needs him to be. And so, recognizing that the Office of Peter exists for the sake for the Church, not the other way round, he will do what is best for the Church.
In yesterday’s Gospel reading, Catholics around the world heard Jesus say to Peter, “Put out into the deep.” The confidence of Peter in the word of Christ made him the apostle he was. Today, Peter’s successor is showing the same confidence, trusting not in his own abilities, but in the love of God for his Church.
Humility is not a modern virtue, in part because humility — not slavishness, but real humility — requires the kind of self-knowledge of which our culture is all but incapable. Pope Benedict XVI is resigning, not just because he knows his own physical and mental limits (though that is surely part of it), but because he has the confidence that comes from true humility.
— Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.