At Mass this week, I asked God to give Pope Benedict additional strength for the arduous Lenten season, which begins today. Few people realize the physical demands the papacy requires, particularly during Lent and Easter. And if ever there were a person who carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, it’s the pope – particularly this one.
Monday morning, I got the answer to my prayer when Pope Benedict announced he is stepping off St Peter’s throne. Advanced age has sapped the strength needed to carry out his ministry. It wasn’t the answer I wanted, but as a child of God, I don’t get to pick the answers.
I also don’t get to pick the next pope, and as Raleigh Bishop Michael Burbidge reminded me, neither will the 125 cardinals tasked with the job. They are merely God’s instruments. So whether the next pontiff is fat or thin, young or old, from Europe, the Third World or North America, I will be grateful for his selection.
I’ve learned not to second-guess God.
When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was selected after Pope John Paul II’s death, I was downright disappointed. As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger was the rules guy. I thought he wasn’t the man to follow John Paul II, a papal rock star who attracted untold numbers into the faith – and men into the priesthood, including some who are now bishops. The cardinals, I remember thinking in 2005, had picked the Catholic version of Judge Judy.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Ratzinger was just what the church needed. John Paul II made it cool again to be Catholic, but Pope Benedict has taught us what it really means to be Catholic.
Benedict has stood firm on theology and teaching. Priests still can’t marry, and church teachings on sexual practices and birth control remain unchanged. What he has done better than any other modern pope is to tell us why. Being a person of faith, any faith, is not a matter of agreement or popularity. It’s a matter of doctrine. Benedict’s gift has been to provide doctrinal clarity, meaning and context in a time of moral relativity.
Catholicism is not easy. It requires prayer, study, faith and reason. When people ask me about Catholic teaching, either because they want to explore conversion or because they think I’m a spiritual idiot, I refer them to Benedict’s first encyclical, “On Christian Love – God is Love” and his last encyclical, “Charity in Truth.” The former addresses, in part, human relationships, while the latter, issues of life.
Both are understandable as encyclicals go, but Benedict’s words are not quick reads. Every sentence inspires thought, and every paragraph, reflection. These encyclicals won’t change the mind of every person who reads them, but they do provide insight into what Catholics believe and the reasons for those beliefs.
I’ve been both amused and irritated at the flash judgments of Benedict’s papacy since his announcement. Most writers can’t get past the second paragraph without bringing up the church’s sex scandals. Some have criticized Benedict for not ending the debate on homosexuality and the admission of women to the priesthood. The same can be written of every pope going back to Peter. Chances are, the same will be written about every pope from Benedict XVI going forward.
Benedict’s impact can’t be fully gauged because his influence is greater than his papacy. His work at the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith will be studied for centuries. His popular writings, such as his multi-volume biography of Jesus and his books on St. Paul, the apostles and the doctors of the church, just to name a few, have become spiritual textbooks for every Catholic who sits in a pew.
So tonight, at Ash Wednesday Mass, I will say a prayer of thanksgiving for Pope Benedict, a man who has used every bit of his strength to serve God and his children.
Contributing columnist Rick Martinez (firstname.lastname@example.org) is news director at WPTF, NC News Network and SGRToday.com