Photo Credit: By Giuseppe Ruggirello [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Pope Benedict XVI is not resigning because of a decision he himself has made, but in compliance with the will of God as he has discerned it.
By F. K. Bartels
16 February 2013
There is little that more plainly uncovers a failure to see the Holy Father for who he is, to understand him and to grasp the magnitude and importance of the position to which he has been called by God, than hearing what people have to say about his plans to resign from the papacy, scheduled to take effect on the 28th of February.
The comments range from, “It must be political,” to bewilderment over all the hubbub concerning an “old guy with a soft voice who says nice things and waves at lots of people.” Others express shock over the fact that Benedict should do something that has not been done in a long while. Still others are convinced that this is it, their time has finally come: a new pope is on the horizon who will usher the Church into the era of modernity; then, they hope, the old dogmatic constants that have long plagued free intellectual discourse and free living can be cleared out by the prevailing winds of unbridled change.
Many of these remarks also betray a severe failure to understand the nature of the Catholic Church; and if one does not understand the Church, one cannot for a moment hope to understand the man at her helm who occupies the Chair of Peter.
If we can begin to grasp who the Church is (yes, not “what” but who), her mission and her nature and her purpose, her crucial importance in the grand scheme of things, and her role in the most beautiful and sublime plan ever conceived, then we can begin to see beyond the surface and into the depths of not only Pope Benedict but truth itself. It is no exaggeration to say that we are not living fully human lives if we misunderstand, disregard, reject or heedlessly ignore the Church.
That statement can be made in virtue of the nature of the Church. In reality, the Church is the plan for the world born in the Father’s heart from out of eternity. She is not “a plan” but the plan. Before the dawn of time, the Father desired to call together a holy people, a convocation of men and women in Christ. That convocation is the Catholic Church (see CCC 760). The Church is of such indescribable beauty and profound importance that the Son of God chose to die a horrifyingly brutal death on a Roman cross for her sake. From the Savior’s pierced side flowed forth the Church.
It is God’s plan that humanity be drawn into the arms of mother Church, receive her words of truth and sacraments of life in free and loving obedience to Christ, and enter into everlasting communion with himself. The Church brings to reality God’s wondrous plan to gift humankind with divine love. The Church is, then, the goal. The Church is the ultimate destiny and reality for humankind because as we enter into full communion with her, we become members of Christ’s one body. We are a people who were created for the Church because we are a people created in and through and with Christ to love and serve God within the Church; a people who are called to receive supernatural life through the sacraments of the Church that we may live forever in heaven in blessed communion with God.
Given the supreme importance and worth of the Church, it is both interesting and highly unfortunate how quickly and easily people will accept nearly any incorrect opinion about her, dismiss her, ignore her, reject her. Often, the most trivial daily events command far more attention than the Church God willed should exist. I am reminded of the Israelites in the desert. God had liberated them from Egyptian slavery and guided them through the Red Sea in order to bring them into the promised land and make them his holy people. You would think that they—and all of us—should want to be God’s chosen people. Nevertheless, the Israelites, in distrust, seemed unable to stop grumbling about their empty bellies.
In order to understand Pope Benedict, we must first understand the Church. If we want to see into the reality of his resignation, we must first see into the reality of holy mother Church. In order to do that, you must die to self. Christ and his Bride, the Catholic Church, must become the most important thing in your life. While the journey is not easy, it is filled with the fruits of the Spirit and the aroma of everlasting divine love. It is a new dimension of life, one that turns things around, illuminates them, unveils the true meaning of things and the purpose of life in brilliant color.
Here we arrive at the key to understanding why Pope Benedict would resign. To love Christ is to love his Church. The two cannot be separated because the Church cannot live apart from Christ and Christ chose to give his life on the cross for the Church. To love Jesus Christ is, then, to do what he did: it is to die to self for the love of the plan of the Father, which is the Church. Pope Benedict’s resignation can only be understood in that context. It can only be grasped through the sublime lens of authentic love for Christ, his Church, and the Father’s will. In fact, the reality of what our Holy Father is doing is unveiled through the cross of Christ. It is in contemplating the sacred crucified body of our Beloved that the light begins to flood in.
Pope Benedict is, then, not resigning because of a decision that he himself has made. Rather, he is complying with the will of God as he has discerned it. As the Vicar of Christ, as a faithful man of God and a man of the Church, the Holy Father is saying “yes” to God’s will, as did the sweet Virgin Mary at the Annunciation and unto the cross of her Son. Pope Benedict, in an act of humility that we would all do well to imitate, is doing exactly what he believes is best for the body of Christ—not, on the other hand, what he thinks is best for himself.
Perhaps this one sentence from Pope Benedict’s encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est sums it up: “Whoever loves Christ loves the Church, and desires the Church to be increasingly the image and instrument of the love which flows from Christ” (33). Pope Benedict is decreasing so that Christ may increase and his Church may continue to flourish.
Having said all that, I am compelled to say how much I will greatly miss Pope Benedict XVI. How his pearls of wisdom I have so often read and cherished in my heart, how his profound insight, the beauty of his words, the softness of his humble voice—a voice that issues forth from a razor sharp intellect—and his benevolent demeanor will be missed. Further, among all his words, I will always cherish his numerous wise and edifying messages tempered with hope:
“The life and work of all believers should bear constant witness to the transcendent, point to the invisible realities which lie beyond us, and embody the conviction that a loving, compassionate Providence guides the final outcome of history, no matter how difficult and threatening the journey along the way may sometimes appear.”
I am also compelled to say, and remind myself, that Pope Benedict is not leaving; he is resigning. As Christians, although we may lose sight of one another or no longer hear the voice of those we love, we are never apart for we live always together as Christ’s one body. As Pope Benedict embraces the sublime life of contemplative prayer and silence, he will be praying for me and for you, for the holy community of the Church and for the entire world, and we will be praying for him. We will be together. As one. Always.
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Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.