By PAUL LIKOUDIS
Pope Benedict XVI announced February 11 that he was renouncing the Chair of Peter, which he had held since April 2005, citing failing health and the mental and physical strength necessary to continue the work of heading the worldwide Catholic Church.
“In today’s world,” the Holy Father told a gathering of stunned cardinals at the Vatican, “subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary. Strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.” Benedict’s decision to step down is the first time a Pope has voluntarily relinquished the job since Pope Gregory XII in 1412, who abdicated as part of a solution to end the Avignon Schism. At 8 p.m. on February 28, the Pope said, he will formally cease the exercise of office and go into retirement, first at the papal summer retreat of Castelgandolfo, then to cloistered convent within the walls of Vatican City.
As the cardinals, attending a meeting to approve a list of new saints for canonization, left the meeting in stunned silence, the news spread around the world with lightning speed, dominating newspaper front pages and morning television news reports, with no end to speculation about the real reasons for the dramatic, unprecedented in modern times decision. Much of the reporting — and reactions from leaders of both Church and state — did, in fact, echo the sentiments of theTimes of London. “A noble resignation,” said the
Times, adding: “It is no personal failing that Benedict XVI is the first Pontiff in 600 years to resign his office. It is, rather, a manifestation of the immense demands imposed on the Pope by a worldwide Church and of his humility in resolving that he is too frail fully to meet them. It is a noble and selfless decision.”
But some of the reporting also asserted that the Holy Father had been worn down by the cares of the office and had failed miserably in governance, unable to cleanse the Church of the scandals related to Vatican finances, sex abuse by priests, and curial intrigue (exemplified by the theft of the Pope’s personal papers, and other items, by his butler and leaked to an Italian journalist).
Especially in the United States, but also in Western Europe, news reports claimed that Benedict was “out of touch” with much of his flock, who are eager to see a change in the Church’s teaching on birth control, abortion, homosexuality, new reproductive technologies, a married priesthood, women priests, and who also resent his efforts at liturgical reform, in purging the Church’s worship of long-entrenched abuses.
Typical of the criticism was Michael Valpy’s commentary for Canada’s national newspaper, the Globe and Mail.
Valpy observed: “Benedict XVI’s eight-year reign as Pope was a losing battle against perception — most tellingly the perception that, as absolute ruler of the Roman Catholic Church, he did far less than enough to rid it of the cancer of sexually abusive priests and may have been complicit in its spread.
“The 85-year-old German intellectual also vacates the Throne of St. Peter tarnished by accusations that he rejected all theological efforts to move Roman Catholicism toward a more progressive, contemporary morality and institutional comportment around feminism, sexual orientation, and sexual behavior, and ham-fistedly failed to reach out to those who seek God by other paths.
“As well, he’s been given failing grades on his great goals of reigniting Christianity as the bedrock of European life and halting the spread of secularism and moral relativism in a materialist world.”
In the Pope’s German homeland, the center-left dailySüddeutsche Zeitungeditorialized that Benedict was a Pope of the 20th century, unequipped to deal with the 21st: “In the face of all the problems facing the Church in the third millennium, he remained the Pope of the 20th century, a Pope who was at home in the theological wisdom of the second millennium, but who had no understanding for the third millennium. Benedict was and remains the last old-style Church patriarch.
“When Benedict was chosen eight years ago, he was seen as a transitional Pope. And he made many sacrifices in moderating that transition. He impressively faced up to the abuse scandal. But he remained a transitional Pope. As a bridge builder, he was never able to reach the other side of the bridge. As such, the question remains at the end of his papacy: transition to what? Nobody knows.
“This Church is no longer triumphant, nor is it combative. It is a questioning Church. The questions are knocking, are hammering, at the doors of the Vatican, but they have not been allowed to enter: the role of women in the Church, celibacy, sexual morality, and the role of the Church in the international community.”
The conservative daily Die Weltwrote that the Holy Father, despite his best efforts, had failed to strengthen the Catholic Church: “One doesn’t have to share his stubborn refusal to modernize the Church in the spirit of participatory democracy. One should, however, recognize that there are good reasons for strengthening the earthly institution of the Church as an antipode to the current zeitgeist and its unavoidable relativization of values. One should understand why he cannot say yes to gay marriage and why he cannot embrace Protestantism. The Church’s dilemma is simple: If it refuses to bend to the times, it will lose members; if it does bend, it will lose them anyway. . . .
“In one facet, Benedict is similar to his predecessor Pope John Paul II. Both had their difficulties in dealing with the Roman Curia and with the machinations of the cardinals. John Paul II escaped by traveling the world, Benedict XVI retired to the world of his books. But their successor will be un- able to avoid reforming the Vatican from the ground up.”
The left-leaning dailyDie Tageszeitung ran a front page with an oversized bold headline, “Gott Sei Dank,” or “Thank God,” and editorialized: “It is good that this Pope is gone, because nothing is good. Not in the Vatican and certainly not in the rest of the global Church. During his eight-year papacy, Pope Benedict XVI managed to outdo even the worst fears harbored by Catholics in Germany.
“ As God’s deputy, Benedict showed little interest in facing the numerous sexual abuse crimes within his own institution. Nor did he wish to confront the fascist organization Opus Dei. Whether the topic was women, homosexuals, rape, or human rights, it is hard to be more reactionary than this Pope proved to be. . . .
“It would be a good thing if Pope Benedict XVI were the last of his kind. And were history books to be able to write: ‘This papal resignation was the beginning of a new era. The Catholic Church finally understood that it couldn’t continue as before’.”
In the midst of much similar criticism, the UK’s Catholic Herald rushed to offer ten reasons to appreciate Benedict’s eight-year pontificate.
“His crystal-clear teaching: Even in his abdication Pope Benedict was teaching us. His lesson — that none of us should cling to power — was conveyed with characteristic force and clarity. He has left us with a rich body of teaching, contained not only within his homilies, encyclical, and trilogy of books on Jesus, but also in his actions.
“His reform of the liturgy: Pope Benedict’s decision to lift restrictions on the older form of the Mass was historic. As well as rescuing the Extraordinary Form from oblivion, he has renewed the celebration of the Ordinary Form of the Mass in our parishes through the new English translation.
“His program of purification: From the Legionaries of Christ to Vatican finances, Benedict XVI has attempted to purify the Church of corruption. This concerted effort has barely registered in the media, but the Church will benefit from it for years to come.
“His outreach to Islam: Pope Benedict did not shrink when his Regensburg lecture was violently misunderstood in parts of the Islamic world.
While apologizing for unintended offense, he stood by his address, which called for an alliance between Catholics and Muslims in our secular age.
As a result, Catholic-Islamic dialogue is arguably stronger today than it has ever been. This is a vital achievement on which his successor can build.
“His bravery: When Benedict XVI visited Turkey, at a time of intense Islamic anger after the Regensburg address, he refused to wear a bulletproof vest. His abdication showed an equally courageous trust in Providence.
“He defended conscience in London as eloquently as St. Thomas More, broke his own rule to beatify John Henry Cardinal Newman, and strengthened our resolve to resist aggressivesecularism. “His creation of the [Anglican] Ordinariate: The ordinariate for groups of former Anglicans is one of Benedict XVI’s greatest legacies. It is remarkable that he was able to create this new structure, bringing thousands of souls into full communion, without irreparably harming relations between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion.
“His balance: Pope Benedict was, at first, caricatured as an ‘arch-conservative.’ But it soon became clear that he had a daring and supple mind that confounded crude labels. In an age of unbalanced thinking, his thought stood out for its harmony and integrity. With his notion of ‘the hermeneutic of continuity’ he reconciled fidelity to tradition with the creativity needed to meet the challenges of our time.
“ His humility: Even within the Church it is hard for men to renounce power and status. Pope Benedict hasshown remarkable humility in sacrificing his own papal ministry for what he believes is the greater good of the Church. Let us pray for him, and for his successor, as we have never prayed before.”
If one were to look for “legacies,” left to the Church and the world by Pope Benedict XVI, his greatest — not to discount his encyclicals, his addresses to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, his interventions on behalf of peace, justice, care for the environment — might be the addresses he delivered in his Wednesday general audiences, to crowds that rivaled and even exceeded in numbers those of Pope John Paul II.
If only these addresses received the media attention that the Church’s sex abuse and financial scandals obtained.
He opened those weekly addresses after becoming Pope with a series of discourses on the Psalms, and then, over a three-year period, on the lives of the apostles, the fathers and doctors of the Church, and then the Church’s greatest saints from apostolic times through the Dark and Middle Ages, the Renaissance and Reformation and up to modern times.
In these addresses, he always emphasized the core qualities of a Catholic’s life: the love of Christ, Scripture, and the Petrine ministry.
In the general audience of February 18, 2009, the Holy Father spoke of the Venerable St. Bede, the great English monk and scholar.
“St. Bede,” the Holy Father explained, “saw the growth of the universal dimension of the Church which is not restricted to one specific culture but is comprised of all the cultures of the world that must be open to Christ and find in him their goal. . . .
“Realizing that the true reference point, the center of history, is the Birth of Christ, Bede gave us this calendar that interprets history starting from the Incarnation of the Lord. Bede records the first six ecumenical councils and their developments, faithfully presenting Christian doctrine, both Mariological and soteriological, and denouncing the Monophysite and Monothelite, Iconoclastic and Neo-Pelagian heresies.
“Lastly he compiled with documentary rigor and literary expertise theEcclesiastical History of the English Peoples…which earned him recognition as ‘the father of English historiography.’ “The characteristic features of the Church that Bede sought to emphasize are: “a) catholicity, seen as faithfulness to tradition while remaining open to historical developments, and as the quest for unity in multiplicity, in historical and cultural diversity according to the directives Pope Gregory the Great had given to Augustine of Canterbury, the Apostle of England; b) apostolicity and Roman traditions: in this regard he deemed it of prime importance to convince all the Irish, Celtic, and Pict churches to have one celebration for Easter in accordance with the Roman calendar.
“The Computo, which he worked out scientifically to establish the exact date of the Easter celebration, hence the entire cycle of the liturgical year, became the reference text for the whole Catholic Church.
“Bede was also an eminent teacher of liturgical theology. In hisHomilies on the Gospels for Sundays and feast days he achieves a true mystagogy, teaching the faithful to celebrate the mysteries of the faith joyfully and to reproduce them coherently in life, while awaiting their full manifestation with the return of Christ, when, with our glorified bodies, we shall be admitted to the offertory procession in the eternal liturgy of God in Heaven.
“Following the ‘realism’ of the catecheses of Cyril, Ambrose, and Augustine, Bede teaches that the sacraments of Christian initiation make everyfaithful person ‘not only a Christian but Christ.’ Indeed, every time that a faithful soul lovingly accepts and preserves the Word of God, in imitation of Mary, he conceives and generates Christ anew. And every time that a group of neophytes receives the Easter sacraments the Church ‘reproduces herself’ or, to use a more daring term, the Church becomes ‘ Mother of God,’ participating in the generation of her children through the action of the Holy Spirit.”
In a March 11, 2009 discourse on St. Boniface, the English Apostle to Germany, Benedict explained: “Boniface’s courageous witness is an invitation to us all to welcome God’s word into our lives as an essential reference point, to love the Church passionately, to feel co-responsible for her future, to seek her unity around the Successor of Peter. At the same time, he reminds us thatChristianity, by encouraging the dissemination of culture, furthers human progress. It is now up to us to be equal to such a prestigious patrimony and to make it fructify for the benefit of the generations to come.
“His ardent zeal for the Gospel never fails to impress me. At the age of 41 he left a beautiful and fruitful monastic life, the life of a monk and teacher, in order to proclaim the Gospel to the simple, to barbarians; once again, at the age of 80, he went to a region in which he foresaw his martyrdom. By comparing his ardent faith, this zeal for the Gospel, with our own often lukewarm and bureaucratized faith, we see what we must do and how to renew our faith, in order to give the precious pearl of the Gospel as a gift to our time.”
What Pope Benedict said of St. Boniface can surely be applied to him.
The Wanderer has been providing its readers with news and commentary from
an orthodox Catholic perspective for over 135 years. From vital issues
affecting the Catholic Church to the political events which threaten
our Catholic faith. The Wanderer is at the forefront every week
with its timely coverage and its cutting edge editorials.