Pope Benedict’s resignation was his most radical decision
The Genius of Benedict XVI – he ‘saw sense’
The news broke on Monday morning (11th February) . A reporter (who knew some Latin) spread the story quickly. Some of the cardinals present either didn’t understand the Latin or were shell-shocked! (The bolt of lightning over St Peter’s added to the drama.)
Some church people used that word – shock. I didn’t understand their shock. Yes, it was a surprise but hardly a shock. The real shock was that John Paul II didn’t either have the sense, or gumption or even the depth of faith himself, to have done this. He probably wasn’t advised to do it either. Benedict surprised people. He often did. It was delightful that he has now broken that tradition of staying in post until death. This was possibly his most radical decision!
Benedict was an interesting man. Many were saddened in 2005 when he was elected. It seemed, we were to have continuity inflicted on us rather than any new energetic leadership. However Benedict was also misunderstood. He worked for John Paul II in the CDF office and was spoken of as John Paul’s Rottweiler which defined him.
I remember a time when Joseph Ratzinger was invited to give the Tablet Lecture in London. The journalists turned up to scrutinise him and to attack him. He charmed them. The discussion raged widely. He was then the real academic, at home in the banter of argument. He won them over completely.
I was asked by a Radio reporter about my views on his trip to the UK (prior to his visit). I said it would be a huge success. He would speak to the issues of the day; he would come across as a gentle man with a smile; he would listen; he would show his reflective mind. People would be won over by him. (And so it was). I was also asked how I felt he would be welcomed to Ireland. I was very dubious on this one. We can be more adolescent here. We can see only the immediate and the wrongs; we can miss the good.
I read also his letter to the People of Ireland after the Ryan and Murphy Reports. The core of the letter was very pastoral and warm. The best of the man came out in those words. When it came to recommendations, it didn’t sound like him at all; it fact it was ridiculous. But the ‘gentle’ man was there in the earlier words.
John XXIII to John Paul II
In some ways, this is a nostalgic moment. I go back to John XXIII. He was an old man. He was a warm and kindly grandfather for everyone. He showed the Church as living the Good News of Jesus Christ. He was an inspirational leader. Paul VI did try to carry on the spirit of John and the Council but came across as a worried and pained man who saw too many problems. If we look back in our history – we can see Humanae vitae as a pivotal moment where the Church lost the confidence of ordinary people. Paul too was focused on the chaos he saw emerging in the aftermath of the Council and didn’t harness the potential. He never managed to reform the bureaucracy of the Curia. That remains the damaging stranglehold in the present Church. The essential structures have not been reformed. The Synod of Bishops has never been given (1965) its proper role. Collegiality (Communion) wasn’t attempted. There is a mentality of protection and central control which then has suffocated the very heart of the Church.
John Paul II was a giant of a man on the world stage. He had a great presence; a man of influence who gave the Church a new place in world politics. However, he was a creature of his own past. He never managed to live the life of faith in the ‘free world.’ He was a very articulate battler. He spoke with great eloquence and his actor’s ability mesmerised people. But his words sounded better than they read or were. It was very sad that he remained as pope for too long. The Church needed someone better than he was and better than he could be. I was saddened by his lack of insight.
I also think that the process of his Beatification began with undue haste which disregarded the mistakes of his papacy and his rigidity. It follows too that many who were selected as leaders (bishops) throughout that long papacy then became clones of his outlook. They had an impossible task to do: They were chosen to be what Rome wanted but what their dioceses didn’t need. This was bound to be the case. However it doesn’t help our future. Sometimes it seems that the church being created is more like the Establishment that Christ came to replace!(The recent New Missal was an example of bad theology and bad English and also an indication of the weakness of our English-speaking hierarchies who allowed it to happen).
Benedict wasn’t a commanding media presence. However, he reflected deeply and did address the issues of the day. In many ways he came to the office much too late. His theological musings were deeply impressive and needed. Of course he was also snarled up in his own bureaucracy (the Curia) and fears. (Note Kung). He embraced retrenchment but he was an old man. He was tired. He couldn’t have the energy to celebrate the freedom of Jesus Christ. And he was wonderful in recognising that he must go.
A conservative conclave
What now? Who now? This assembly of old men (in the main) are very conservative who will gather in Conclave. Many are shattered by the collapse of the Church in the West. Some can only see one way forward – that is a retreat to the past. My hope is that they will listen to the wider church and to the wider world; that they will listen to what the recent Synod said and what was discussed; that they will search for some man who can be strong enough to have something to say in our world today and be a Leader of inspiration.
We want a big man who is not overwhelmed by problems and who shows that Christ is Good News. We need a man who isn’t afraid of the media;
- who can speak and really work with others; who can lift our spirits;
- who is young enough in mind and heart;
- who is humble enough;
- who is not afraid of change;
- who knows that God can deal with every question and every problem;
- who realises that not everything depends on him;
- who truly can call forth Leadership in our Church in people who aren’t safe and quiet and subservient and robotic and fearful.
The local Church (often) is a wonderful place to be, where Community and the joy of faith is experienced; however Central Government can be such an embarrassment. Our Church has to be outward looking and refreshing. We must show that Christ does make a difference and we aren’t afraid. It would be right and proper if women were given their say; that all our leaders retired at 70; that … (This list could go on and on!)
But we need above all a man of real faith who isn’t afraid of the world and knows that the Word is always becoming Flesh in our daily lives now.
Seamus Ahearne osa (Rivermount Parish, Dublin, Ireland)