A year after doing what no similarly situated pope had ever done, the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI now belongs to history. How history will judge that decision remains to be seen; it is too soon to tell. Benedict would be the first to acknowledge that utter novelties in the life of the Church are usually mistakes, which is why so many were unsettled that the grand master of the Catholic Tradition did something that, while permitted by that same tradition, could not in any sense be considered as belonging to it.
Benedict changed the papacy. With a vigorous and popular pope, it remains a change in theory more than practice. But should Pope Francis become less vigorous or less popular, the effects of Benedict’s abdication will be brought to bear.
It is not too soon to judge that Benedict’s decision, as Holy See spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said on the day of the Feb. 11 announcement, was indeed an act of “great spiritual freedom.” The pope emeritus’ conduct since he left office on Feb. 28 has certainly been a model of grace and humility.
In the current atmosphere of intense enthusiasm and even giddiness about Pope Francis, it is good to remember how Benedict began. Observers with modest powers of recall will remember that, in the spring and summer of 2006, there was great enthusiasm for Benedict. Record crowds were coming for his audiences, more than had come for John Paul II. That his first encyclical was about God’s love and not the obligations of the moral law was favorably commented upon and considered (by those who did know Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) a radical shift. Benedict moved decisively to banish the molester and fraudster Father Marcial Maciel from priestly ministry.
When Benedict chose Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone to be his secretary of state, it was hailed as a bold move, going outside the legal, bureaucratic world of the diplomatic corps to a theologian and residential bishop. By 2013, Cardinal Bertone was blamed for everything but bad weather, and it was not unusual to hear senior Churchmen saying that his poor performance was a critical factor in Benedict’s decision to step down. Those who have succumbed to giddiness over Pope Francis should cautiously note that all that begins well does not necessarily end well.
I was one of those deeply unsettled by Benedict’s resignation. When his final encyclical, Lumen Fidei, was released in July over the signature of his successor, it was an occasion to wonder what other treasures would be lost. That Pope Francis did not permit that treasure to be lost was itself a comfort and a testament to the continuity that the Pope desires to show with the pope emeritus.
During those uncertain days of February 2013, I returned often in my thoughts to something written by papal biographer George Weigel in God’s Choice, his book on Benedict’s election.
“Indeed, one reason why there was less concern than the world deemed appropriate over the possibility of a terminally incapacitated but still living [John Paul II] was the widespread sense that, if things came to a difficult pass, Cardinal Ratzinger would know what to do and how to do it,” he wrote.
There was much consolation in that — Benedict would know what to do and how to do it when things came to a difficult pass. He certainly did in 2005, and, in 2013, I came to trust that he did again. He saw a difficult pass ahead and judged that the Church would be better served by another shepherd to lead the flock through it.
It is impossible not to be excited by Pope Francis’ bold call to lead the Church through that pass out to the peripheries — what Benedict used to call the “spiritual deserts” of the modern world — as missionary disciples.
Permit the indulgence of a personal anecdote: On Christmas Eve, in between my own parish Masses, I usually watch the broadcast of the Pope’s midnight Mass. I was eager to see Pope Francis’ first Christmas, and so I watched the live stream from Vatican Radio. It was moving to be sure, but I was slightly disappointed to see that the Holy Father was wearing the same unremarkable white chasuble he wore for his inaugural Mass and for Easter and on other occasions. My liturgical preference is for special vestments for the solemn feasts. So after watching Francis, I turned to the recording of midnight Mass 2012, Benedict’s last.
The vestments were, of course, splendid. But even splendid vestments remain secondary. What struck me was the splendor of Benedict’s homily. It was magnificent, and he spoke in depth and in detail about our obligations to the poor, to refugees, to those at the margins. He preached on a similar theme to that which Francis would choose a year later, but did so with greater lucidity, greater theological depth and greater beauty than Francis did. That comparison is not invidious, for Benedict was the greatest papal preacher since the patristic age, and not even the great John Paul could match him.
Then it struck me: Joseph Ratzinger had been preaching and writing this way for more than 50 years. He had said what he had to say. He knew well that no one in the College of Cardinals could match his homilies, his writings, his understanding of the forces shaping the modern world. Yet he also knew that it is not enough for the shepherd to call the sheep; they have to hear his voice.
Perhaps Benedict realized that his voice was not being heard. And so it was time for another shepherd to come.
Francis came, and the sheep are listening again to his voice, and, moreover, he desires to have their odor about him. That must please Benedict. History will judge in due course, but that is blessing enough for one year.
Father Raymond de Souza is editor in chief of Convivium magazine.
He was the Register’s Rome correspondent from 1998-2003.