I suppose almost everyone expects that bishops will “fall into line” and always praise popes. As I have mentioned before in this space, if I had a serious difference of opinion, I am certain that I would not rush to publicize it. When a subordinate criticizes his leader, he or she almost always weakens their own authority. Additionally, as I have mentioned here before, prior to our ordination as bishops we take a special oath of fidelity to the Holy Father and his successors in office. Usually papal transitions take place in the context of death, conclave, election and the beginning of a new chapter in the two thousand years plus of Church history. After the funeral and its concomitant outpouring of affection for the deceased Holy Father, all the critics come out to analyze his performance in office and the state of the Church which he left. We have no experience of how to behave when a pope resigns his office, remains alive, recedes into the shadows for prayer, meditation and reflection, and leaves everything to his elected successor. I hope the Church will be kind to Pope Benedict who on Thursday at 2pm EST will cease being the bishop of Rome and successor of St. Peter. He did not wish the job in the first place but humbly accepted it, probably not expecting to live long enough to watch his physical stamina take its slow leave of him.
But assume the position he did and he exercised his office with far more patience, love and tenderness than his critics eight years ago expected of him. I would say that he should be well-remembered for his work in bridging the gap between the long pontificate of Blessed John Paul II and whomever the Holy Spirit and the Cardinal-electors choose to succeed Benedict. His two encyclical letters are stunning, not just because of their theological insight, but because they address convincingly issues of charity and justice and peace. Eight years and a few weeks ago when the Catholic world was thinking still of the pontificate of Blessed John Paul II, his written legacy was one of long, most of the time challenging to comprehend encyclical letters. Benedict’s encyclicals were shorter, much easier applied to life and living, and challenging to one who wishes to live a fuller Christian life. In this case, the theologian probably bested the philosopher though Pope Benedict would be too humble to claim such. Think for a moment on the long series of Wednesday audience talks on what would come to be called Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body.” In Benedict’s first encyclical letter, he succinctly and clearly spoke of human love in a few pages.
As I have said many times since the announcement of his resignation, his three volume series on Jesus of Nazareth will be on the bookshelves of preachers for a long time to come. His treatment of the “resurrected body” of Jesus opened my mind and answered questions which I have long thought of, like how does one enter a locked room by coming through the walls. That insight alone makes death even less to be feared. His talks in the United States and England during pastoral visits were very clear, well-done and educational and instructive. He managed to weave the thread of both faith and reason in a manner in which the secular world was largely unable to challenge. So what was the difference between the two popes: one was a phenomenologist by education who had the time to think and write while the other was a professor who had only so many minutes to teach his class in a manner in which the students could “get it.” There is room in the Church and the world for both.
Pope Benedict was neither grim nor humorless as some would have us believe. I remember one occasion when Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk was president of our Conference and Archbishop Keeler was Vice-President. We had our standard one hour meeting with the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith to raise issues of concern to the bishops of the United States and to listen to the concerns of the Congregation about something that they understood was happening or had happened in the U.S. At the end of the agenda, Cardinal Ratzinger noting the time and the fact that we had completed our working agenda asked if there was anything else which anyone wished to bring up before adjourning. The Secretary of the Congregation at the time, Archbishop Alberto Bovone, asked for the floor and asked this question of our President, Archbishop Pilarczyk. “Excuse me, Your Excellency, but would you know how many internal forum solutions to marriage are given in the United States?” Looking unusually perplexed, Archbishop Pilarczyk responded, “By their very nature, Archbishop, there should be no way of knowing how many internal forum solutions are given in our country!” The room broke into laughter, led by Cardinal Ratzinger who quickly said, “Basta” or Italian for “enough.” If an internal forum solution to a marriage is given by a priest to a penitent, it is done within the seal of confession and is afforded the same level of secrecy as the confession of a sin.
The Cardinal lived in the same apartment building outside Vatican City as Cardinal Pio Laghi, formerly Apostolic Nuncio to the United States of America. On one occasion I entered the building elevator with Cardinal Ratzinger, who was returning from lunch to the office wearing his black beret and simple black cassock. “How is your visit to the Holy See progressing, Monsignor?” he asked, beginning a short but delightful conversation. Even as Pope, his humility was always evident.
So the history book on the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI ends tomorrow at two p.m. I think history will be kinder to him than some contemporary commentators. He did more than keep the chair of Peter warm for a successor, he gave it his all. I see that the PEW Research people have found that more than three-quarters of American Catholics have generally good feelings about him, not as high as his predecessor’s 90% plus approval rating, but then Benedict never set out to win a popularity contest, just to be a good shepherd of God’s people. I likely shall not write about him again, but if I were at the heliport tomorrow night at 5pm Rome time, I would be crying, I am sure. Nobody is perfect but Pope Benedict XVI in my eyes is about as good as it gets.