On the news, they keep saying that Benedict XVI has been pope for "a mere eight years." Yes, and my eight-year-old has only known his father for a mere eight years. Doesn't seem that short to him.
I was about four years old when John Paul II was elected pope. My mother hung his smiling picture in our bedroom, and I half thought he was my grandfather -- he had the same round head, the same crinkled eyes and broad grin. I grew up knowing that this was our papa who loved us and who would always be there. Even when I wandered away from the Church, that kindly smile and strong shoulders reminded me that I was the one who was wrong -- that back home, back in the Church, was solid ground.
When John Paul II finally died, after years of being imprisoned in a body that was slowly turning to stone, I felt nothing but relief for him. Poor papa, finally able to breathe again. He carried so many burdens in his final years. I saw him in Rome five or six years before he died, and as he passed down the aisle of St. Peter's, thousands of cameras flashed in the gloom, lashing against his poor wooden face. A man of sorrows. I was ashamed, but I did it too, and added my flash to the thousands. He kept walking. I was so glad when he was finally able to rest in death. The tears didn't start until I heard what they were saying about him -- a traitor, a camera hog, a coward, a pervert. So many lies, so many lashes.
Not knowing anything about Ratzinger, I was almost relieved to see that the new pope they chose was stern and tough, an analytical German who would set things straight with no nonsense. I wouldn't be hanging his picture on the wall in my kids' rooms! A good man, but what a face! He will put things in order, I thought, and we will be grateful, but won't need to worry about losing our hearts to him.
Then I read Jesus of Nazareth -- I only read part of it -- and I lost my heart to him. A dear, good father, who just wants to explain things to us. Have you tried to read anything by John Paul II, and have you been scared off papal writings forever? Don't be! Take a look at the writings of Ratzinger, and be illuminated, simply and gently, by a man with a heart full of love.
Goodbye now, Papa Benedict. I feel a little like the lady in Perelandra when she meets Ransom and has to have things explained in a hurry: he's making me "older," wiser, a little faster than I want to be. He became pope right about when I realized that I was really, truly an adult, and that I needed to make some changes, take charge, do the hard things. And, as almost always happens when I look closer into what the Church has to offer, I found not rigidity and sternness, but joy and welcome. And so it was when I took a closer look at Benedict XVI.
He has a deep, abiding love for us. It's never been otherwise, and I know that his decision to step down comes from his heart, out of love for us.
What next? How will the Church grow with a new pope to lead us and teach us new things? I suppose that when we shed tears over the passing of a familiar and beloved pope, we're crying at least halfway for ourselves. It's so hard to change, and it's so hard to wait and be at peace when we know change is coming. The next few weeks will be awful. We'll hear so many lies, so many foolish, ridiculous ideas about our Church, our faith. It's going to hurt.
I suppose this is our little via dolorosa, with the jeering crowds lining the street on both sides. These tough, ancient men can keep on walking, and so can we.