Friday 15 February 2013

Pope Benedict: Freedom in orthodoxy

The following article by Leonie Caldecott appeared in the Catholic Herald dated 15 February 2013.

When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope on the 19th of April 2005, I rejoiced and was glad. I knew what a great theologian he was, and that he was the person who understood most profoundly the mission of his predecessor, who poured himself out to the bitter end for the Church they both loved.

I rejoiced too because I had happened, a few years earlier, to observe the new pontiff at fairly close quarters, at a liturgical conference he helped to convene in the Abbey of Fontgombault in France. My husband had been asked to give a paper, and I accompanied him as his interpreter. The proceedings were held in the guest-house. The trouble was, no one at this traditionalist monastery had told us that this was technically within the enclosure. As the dreadful realisation that I was distinctly de trop in this highly clerical setting hit me, I was ready to trade my soul for a cloak of invisibility, but it was too late to leave. 'Your Graces, Fathers, Brothers and... sister!' was how Cardinal Ratzinger opened the proceedings, with a kind, if amused, glance in my direction.

I was not the only recipient of the future Pope’s warm courtesy. When he first arrived, a group of families gathered shyly on the far side of the square outside the monastery. He immediately walked over to greet them, smiling, chatting and blessing the children, before turning back to greet the monastics waiting in a patient semi-circle outside the abbey church. But most remarkable of all, as the days of the conference unfolded, was the way the Cardinal led the discussions about the relevance of the old rite of the Mass, amidst a group of participants who were not at one on the issue. It was a foretaste of things to come: his wise sense that both liturgical extremes must give way to a historically informed sense of what the old could contribute to the new, if only they were given the space to co-exist as living forms.

In a homily on the feast of St Mary Magdalene (he insisted on keeping the date from the new calendar), the Cardinal pressed home his central point. It was all too easy, he warned, to become liturgical Marthas, preoccupied with one agenda or another. This happens when even legitimate concerns seep into the liturgy in an attempt to make it politically ‘relevant’. But it happens just as much when attempts to keep the liturgy beautiful and sacred give rise to a formalism that locks out the presence of God. The answer lies in a spirit of loving contemplation: Mary’s ‘better part’.

This nuanced way of reasoning about liturgy is characteristic of Pope Benedict’s theology. Even leaving aside his considerable writings from before he became Pope, his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, is a catechism in a nutshell. The social teaching of Caritas in Veritate flows on from it. Benedict is truly a model of how to do theology on your knees. His trilogy, Jesus of Nazareth, is a master-class in lectio divina, taking into account modern biblical criticism, whilst maintaining an authentic vision of faith in the God-made-man who does not fit into reductionist categories. The balance he has restored to biblical scholarship may be one of his most lasting legacies. Again and again, I have been blown away by the charity-infused clarity of the man who has steered the barque of Peter for the last eight years or so.

And yet this most ‘traditional’ of Popes has shaken the Church and the world to its roots by suddenly renouncing the papacy. Why has he done this? We can be sure that he has a very good reason, or he would never have broken with the precedent of nearly six centuries. He touched on this situation in The Light of the World in 2010, where he spoke of the Pope’s obligation to resign if he felt he was no longer capable of handling his duties. As it says in the Pastoral Rule of St Gregory the Great, the pontiff must be “a man whose aims are not thwarted by the frailty of his body.” Some have speculated that the present Pope’s decision implicitly criticises his predecessor. However, Benedict knows that the aim of Blessed John Paul II was allow the frailty of a once strong body to give witness to the value of weakness, in a culture which despises it. Like every Christian, each Pope has his own particular mission.

I would guess that this sensitive and humble man has finally felt his aging mind and body outrun by the sheer volume of issues needing the attention of the chief shepherd. The demands on the papacy in the age of the internet and fast-moving media, not to mention global travel, have vastly increased in the last few decades. Also, we should never forget that holy people are the subject of intense supernatural attack, which combined with physical frailty is exhausting. After years of contemplating betrayal by his own men, whether in past horrors now revealed, or present jostling for power (and the tragic case of the leaking butler is surely a consequence of this), Benedict XVI may have decided that the most radical, and thus the most faithful solution is the one that makes room for a man who has the strength to govern what is threatening to become an ungovernable body.

While some are jumping at the opportunity to make critical comments, those who know and love this Pope are wondering what will we do without him. The beauty of it is that we don’t have to - he will still be there. For his successor, it will be hugely comforting to know that this most fatherly of priests is on his knees somewhere nearby, praying for him, not interfering, knowing exactly what he is having to contend with. And the need for prayer is above all what this stepping down signifies. Only in a constant re-centering on Christ can the dead hand of the lust for power be defeated. This principle of freedom in orthodoxy is one of the remarkable traits of this papacy, as it was of the last. By doing what he has done, the Holy Father is preaching the most powerful homily he could possibly have given us as we enter Lent. 

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