There is an ancient Jewish proverb that, “The world is a staircase; some are going up and some are coming down.”
This is especially true of men entrusted with great power. In the case of President Obama and soon-to-be Pope Emeritus Benedict, the contrast of the two men’s fortunes is especially instructive. Whereas the latter is descending the proverbial staircase with grace and self-control, the former is desperately clambering up from the bottom in a futile struggle to the top. The two men could not be more different.
As the heir to the Chair of St. Peter, Pope Benedict XVI possessed not only tremendous temporal power but indeed the keys to heaven itself. In the frailty and weakness of his old age, he knew that he could not adequately shepherd the souls of billions toward the gates of the eternal kingdom and so he has relinquished everything to better serve his people and his God in meditation and prayer.
In so doing, he demonstrates the greatest power of all, which is the willingness to give it up.
Meanwhile, faced with tough decisions to reduce government spending due to cuts that were enacted by his own party in the Senate, Obama’s naked display of raw power is as embarrassing as it is ugly. An elder journalist has received threats from the White House staff and the Secretary of Defense is reducing our naval presence in the most troubled part of the world, for instance.
Both men entered into their respective offices with great hope and adulation, but there the similarities end. In Rome yesterday, tens of thousands crowded into St. Peter’s Square to wish Benedict a fond farewell and express their continued joy and hope for the future of the Church.
On the other hand, any illusion that Obama still believes his 2008 campaign mantra of “Hope and Change” surely has been dispelled by the events of the past week. Hope has hardly made a comeback in Washington since the election.
King George III was reputed to have said of George Washington’s retirement as Commander-in-Chief, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” The same could be said of Benedict today. Meanwhile, Obama’s abilities as a leader were never equal to his ambitions and his pique in response to his failures is like the madness of George III instead of the grace and humility of George Washington or the outgoing Supreme Pontiff. Whereas Pope Emeritus Benedict is laying his life at the foot of the cross in obedience to a higher power, President Obama’s second term is shaping up to be a reprise of the worst abuses of the Nixon administration.
Napoleon Bonaparte, who was well-acquainted with earthly power, is supposed to have said, “Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.” Obama seems to share in this mentality, for he is desperate to avoid the obscurity which seems inevitable as his influence wanes. However, Benedict knows better, for he remembers well the words spoken at his inauguration–and which will be spoken again at the inauguration of his successor, “sic transit gloria mundi.”
All power is for naught. In the final accounting, only grace and obedience to God will be of any value.
Joshua Bowman (@prolixpatriot) joined in full communion with the Catholic Church in 2010 after many years in the spiritual wilderness. He recently moved from his beloved native Virginia to Columbus, Ohio with his growing family and writes on religion, politics, history, and geographical curiosities in these pages and on his personal blog, The Prolix Patriot.