As Pope Benedict XVI resigns from his office it seems fitting to reflect on what he taught us. An adequate appreciation of his contribution cannot be put forth in a blog, nor by me in any venue, for that matter. But I do want to offer to Catholic Vote readers a few words from our departing Pope that I think are valuable and truly reflective of the man and pastor. They come from the most recent book length interview with German journalist Peter Seewald: Light of the World (2010).
When I think of Benedict I think of humility. As I said in this space earlier I believe his decision to resign the papacy can be understood as an act of humility. I also have found his humility often reflected in the way he defends the faith. In his first encyclical he took notice of Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the most anti-Christian of philosophers, not to condemn him, but to acknowledge his position and offer a reasoned response to it. Similarly, at the end of his first homily as pope, Benedict sympathetically acknowledged the modern — and all too human — sense that we must keep the doors closed to Christ. After all, if we let him in, he will want to take away the things we love! Benedict articulated this view not to condemn those who think that way, but to reassure them that this is not the way God is. On the contrary, He takes away nothing, but gives us everything, said the Pope.
This humility can also be seen in Light of the World, when Benedict responds to Seewald’s question about how the pope prays. Said Benedict:
As far as the pope is concerned, he too is a simple beggar before God — even more than all other people. Naturally I always pray first and foremost to our Lord, with whom I am united simply by old acquaintance, so to speak. But I also invoke the Saints. I am friends with Augustine and Bonaventure, with Thomas Aquinas. Then one says to such saints also: Help me! And the Mother of God is, in any case, always a major point of reference. In this sense I commend myself to the communion of saints. With them, strengthened by them, I then talk with the dear Lord also, begging for the most part, but also in thanksgiving — or quite simply being joyful.
“A simple beggar before God.” These are evidently the words of a humble man, one who does not make the mistake of thinking that his great office makes him more holy than any other believer.
It is also interesting that in this very interview Seewald broached the issue of resignation, and Benedict responded in a way that we can now see, in retrospect, left the door open to resignation in the correct circumstances — which are not, Benedict emphatically asserts, just the circumstances in which the pope does not feel like continuing the work. Seewald raised the issue in light of the scandal of the many cases of priestly abuse of minors, which mostly happened before Benedict even became pope, but which certainly burdened him. He responded:
When the danger is great one must not run away. For that reason, now is certainly not the time to resign. Precisely at a time like this one must stand fast and endure the difficult situation. That is my view. One can resign at a peaceful moment or when one simply cannot go on. But one must not run away from danger and say that someone else should do it.
Finally, although Benedict wrote a great deal, his message was in some respects a simple one of the need humbly to submit to God, a reminder that modern man with all his power is still in need of God. In response to another of Seewald’s questions the pope said:
The important thing today is to see that God exists, that God matters to us, and that he answers us. And, conversely, that if he is omitted, everything else might be as clever as can be — yet man then loses his dignity and his authentic humanity and, thus, the essential thing breaks down.
There is Benedict’s message in a nutshell, which is essentially the message of John Paul II, and will no doubt be carried forward by the new Holy Father.