As shock has given way to acceptance, we hear more and more affirmations of the humility and courage of Pope Benedict XVI, who announced that he would renounce his office as the Supreme Pontiff today at 8:00 p.m. Rome time (2:00 p.m. EST). The 8-year papacy of Benedict is coming to an end, yet we cannot underestimate the gifts that the Church has been given through the wisdom of this seemingly short pontificate.
Like his predecessor, Benedict was a participant in the proceedings of the Second Vatican Council. Both pontiffs understood true reform and renewal and how to implement it. In complementary ways, John Paul and Benedict have focused on importance and centrality of Christ in understanding the dignity of the human person and the mission of the Church. The central theme of the Council according to John Paul and Benedict comes from Gaudium et spes: “It is Christ, the new Adam, who fully discloses humankind to itself and unfolds its noble calling” (22). This text along with article 24 of Gaudium et spes are the hermeneutical keys for understanding the true Spirit of Vatican II.
Blessed John Paul was a charismatic extrovert, while his successor was a shy and humble introvert. This did not deter crowds of people from gathering to listen to Pope Benedict, whose Wednesday audiences have drawn larger crowds than John Paul’s. It has been said that while people gathered to see John Paul, they came to listen to Benedict.
Despite the media’s caricature of Josef Cardinal Ratzinger as “God’s Rottweiler” or the “Panzer-Kardinal,” he came as a simple servant in God’s vineyard with an attractive and consistent message: The heart of the Christian faith is an intimate relationship with the person of Jesus Christ. In his first encyclical, Deus caritas est, Benedict writes: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (1). Again and again, Benedict has boldly proclaimed our need for this personal encounter with God’s Incarnate Love.
Faith, the gift given to us by God, helps the human person to enter into a personal and lasting relationship with Christ. Faith allows us to know the truth about Christ and His Church and to adhere to it. In his papal message for Lent 2013, Benedict reminds the Church about the relationship between faith and charity. According to Benedict:
Through faith we enter into friendship with the Lord, through charity this friendship is lived and cultivated. Faith causes us to embrace the commandment of our Lord and Master; charity gives us the happiness of putting it into practice. In faith we are begotten as children of God; charity causes us to persevere concretely in our divine sonship, bearing the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Faith enables us to recognize the gifts that the good and generous God has entrusted to us; charity makes them fruitful.
Faith and charity are never mutually exclusive. The extremes that Benedict warns against are “fideism” or “moral activism.” To avoid either one-sided tendency, one needs the balance of hope which affirms the priority of faith and the primacy of charity. Although faith is the first of the theological virtues, charity is clearly the greatest of them.
In his second encyclical, Spe salvi, Benedict reminds the faithful that hope is a transcendent virtue. Our ultimate hope for the Kingdom of God will not be realized here by working for some material progress or liberation. At the same time, hope is “performative” and not simply “informative.” Christ’s mercy can truly transform our lives here and now with the gift of His redemptive love. Hope is never simply an individualistic virtue because the lives of the faithful are mysteriously intertwined. Benedict writes:
Our lives are involved with one another, through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and for worse (Spe salvi, 48).
In the words of the poet John Dunne, “No man is an island unto himself.” Subsequently, there is a strong unity between our love of God and love of neighbor.
By becoming man in the Incarnation, Christ has united Himself to every person. Therefore Christians are called to love every person they encounter and through their words and deeds draw them into communion with God the Father in Christ through the Holy Spirit. This is why Benedict affirms in his Lenten message: “the greatest work of charity is evangelization.” God’s loving communion with humanity in Jesus Christ compels the faithful towards the mission of realizing this communion of God with every human person.
According to Benedict, one of the greatest apologies for the Christian faith is the saint. The saint, a person who has been fully transformed by God’s grace, is a living icon of the communion that God desires to have with each person. Benedict has given the Church the gift of this Year of Faith to remind the faithful of their need to answer the call to holiness.
Sanctity is the greatest argument that the faithful have at their disposal to respond to the “dictatorship of relativism” and the violence which is a result of the separation of faith and reason. Saints allow the truth of the Incarnate Logos to transform their lives. In communion with the truth, the saint will always seek charity above all.
Pope Benedict XVI has truly lived up to his name working tireless for the evangelization of the West in particular. On April 1, 2005, the then-Cardinal Ratzinger offered these words of wisdom in his addressed to the Covent of Saint Scholastica in Subicao, Italy: “Only through men who have been touched by God, can God come near to men. We need men like Benedict of Norcia, who at a time of dissipation and decadence, plunged into the most profound solitude.” The example of Pope Benedict exhorts us to draw nearer to God.
Although he renounces his office as the supreme Pontiff, Benedict embraces the Church in love through a life of solitude and prayer. Benedict is continuing his service to the Church choosing the better part (cf: Luke 10:41-42). We often forget that the foundation of the new evangelization is consistent contemplative prayer. The lasting legacy of his papacy has been to remind the Body of Christ: “So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). The life of virtue is an essential part of our friendship with God.