Catholics across the world learned of Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to resign just two days before Ash Wednesday.
In an unexpected way, the 2013 Lenten season will be remembered as a time of sadness, yet it will also be one of gratitude for the legacy of a spiritual father who courageously defended the Catholic faith and the dignity of the human person across all cultures and political systems.
Pope Benedict presented his decision as the fruit of deep prayer and a prolonged examination of "conscience before God." He said he was "well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering."
However, he wrote that his declining strength of mind and body forced him "to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me."
During his last public homily, he told the congregation at St. Peter’s Basilica on Ash Wednesday that he would pray with other Church leaders at "the tomb of the Apostle Peter, to also ask him to pray for the path of the Church going forward at this particular moment in time, to renew our faith in the Supreme Pastor, Christ the Lord."
Thus, while the College of Cardinals prepares for a conclave to elect a successor, the present Pope will leave the Vatican on Feb. 28 for his summer residence — and eventually a Vatican monastery, where he will "devotedly serve the holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer."
There will be time enough for speculation regarding Pope Benedict’s successor and even more attention given for thoughtful reflection of the greatest contributions of his papacy.
For now, let us begin the liturgical season with prayers of gratitude for his service to the Church — and with a mind and heart prepared to receive the guidance he offered in his message for Lent 2013.
"The celebration of Lent, in the context of the Year of Faith, offers us a valuable opportunity to meditate on the relationship between faith and charity: between believing in God — the God of Jesus Christ — and love, which is the fruit of the Holy Spirit and which guides us on the path of devotion to God and others," stated Pope Benedict in his message for this season.
The Holy Father asked us to meditate on the bond between faith and love, even as our cultural beliefs and pastimes seem to wrench them apart.
In the West, we reside in what some call a "post-Christian" world. As religious witness is marginalized, a code of self-assertion has filled the vacuum. Men and women are encouraged to construct their own visions of reality — whom to love and what to believe. It’s all up to them.
Many Catholics, too, have bought into the ethos of personal autonomy, and even when they reach out to others in need, they often look for strength only from within themselves, not from God.
Pope Benedict draws us toward another path that perceives both the beautiful and difficult elements of reality through the eyes of faith. This faith is not the stuff of delusion, but "a response to the love of God," rooted in his laws.
In his Lenten message, the Pope cited a passage from his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love):
"Acknowledgement of the living God is one path towards love, and the ‘Yes’ of our will to his will unites our intellect, will and sentiments in the all-embracing act of love. But this process is always open-ended; love is never ‘finished’ and complete."
This is his message for Catholics during a period of transition and anxiety both for the Church and for the world.
Charity is not our individual "project," as Pope Benedict reminds us, but a response to the gratuitous gift of God’s self-sacrificing love. We need not fear the limits of our capacity to love and serve, because our friendship with God will give us the grace to love without ceasing.
God "wants to draw us to himself, to transform us in such a profound way as to bring us to say, with St. Paul: ‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,’" stated the Pope, citing Galatians 2:20.
During Lent and throughout this Year of Faith, let us affirm Pope Benedict’s call to "make room for the love of God; then we become like him, sharing in his own charity."
We need never choose between faith and love, and we need never fear that the time reserved for prayer, contemplation and reception of the sacraments will impede the rest of our lives, including our service to others.
The Pope writes that the "Christian life consists in continuously scaling the mountain to meet God and then coming back down, bearing the love and strength drawn from him, so as to serve our brothers and sisters with God’s own love."
In the wake of his momentous decision to resign from his office, these words offer Catholics a glimpse of Pope Benedict’s own "friendship" with God and the fruits it has already yielded in this life.
To all those anxious about the future of the Church, to all those who question the place of charity in a world that has forgotten God, let us find reassurance and strength in the Pope’s words: "Love is never finished."