The world revels in the pomp and spectacle of the papacy, but it’s rare that the soul of the vicar of Christ is laid bare, revealing something of the mystery of the Petrine office and the successor of St. Peter’s close personal bond with God.
Pope Benedict’s last Wednesday audience on Feb. 27 was such a moment. His personal testimony offered us a glimpse into the conscience of a pope, a man who served and revered his predecessor, Blessed John Paul II, before his own election in 2005.
Benedict offered his reflections to an estimated crowd of 200,000 people, who feared they might never see him again, even as he promised to “gather up the whole Church in prayer.”
“When, on April 19, nearly eight years ago, I accepted to assume the Petrine ministry, I had the firm certainty that has always accompanied me. In that moment the words that resounded in my heart were: ‘Lord, what are you asking of me? This is a great burden that you place on my shoulders, but if you ask it of me, on your word, I will throw out the nets, sure that you will guide me,’” Pope Benedict told the crowd, gathered in St. Peter’s Square for his final catechesis.
“And the Lord has truly guided me; he has been close to me. I have been able to perceive his presence daily. It has been a piece of the path of the Church that has had moments of joy and light, but also moments that were not easy,” he said.
No, not easy. “The Lord made Simon alone, whom he named Peter, the ‘rock’ of his Church. He gave him the keys of his Church and instituted him shepherd of the whole flock,” states the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “The Pope, bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful" (881-882).
While it is not possible to fully understand what it means to be the ‘rock’ of the Church, Benedict sought to put it in human terms: “He, who assumes the Petrine ministry … belongs always and totally to everyone, to the whole Church. His life is, so to speak, totally deprived of the private sphere. I have felt, and I feel even in this very moment, that one receives one’s life precisely when he offers it as a gift.”
In 2005, when then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger delivered the homily for the funeral Mass of Pope John Paul II, his reflections acknowledged the joyful, unique and, at times, harrowing responsibilities of the Petrine office.
Cardinal Ratzinger remarked that when John Paul was still a relatively young priest and was appointed a bishop, he had to give up his fruitful pastoral and intellectual work, a demand that “must have seemed to him like losing his very self, losing what had become the very human identity of this young priest.” But in dialogue with God, he accepted the sacrifice and later discovered that his work continued to bear fruit in new and unexpected ways, noted Cardinal Ratzinger. He saw a parallel between Karol Wojtyla’s acceptance of the Lord’s will and the Gospel accounts of Peter’s struggles to follow Jesus. Wojtyla’s “Yes” brought him to the Chair of Peter.
In the funeral homily, Cardinal Ratzinger noted passages in the Gospels that document similar “dialogues” between Jesus and Peter, who is warned that he will be martyred and that Jesus will leave him.
“By shepherding the flock of Christ, Peter enters into the Paschal mystery; he goes toward the cross and the Resurrection. The Lord says this in these words: ‘... When you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go (John 21:18),’” said the cardinal, just days before he would become the next Peter.
Toward the end of John Paul II’s pontificate, as Parkinson’s disease took hold of his body, he “increasingly entered into the communion of Christ’s sufferings; increasingly, he understood the truth of the words: ‘Someone else will fasten a belt around you,’” said Cardinal Ratzinger.
During his last Wednesday catechesis, Benedict reflected on his own “dialogue” with God. As Dominican Father Peter Cameron has noted elsewhere in these pages, Benedict “writes [and speaks] as a bona fide witness. And through a witness, by his ‘actions, words and way of being, Another makes himself present.” Jesus Christ stands before us, and Benedict testifies to the love of God that “passes all understanding,” the Incarnate Word who made himself a helpless infant for the salvation of the world, a Savior who chose a fisherman to be the fisher of men for him.
Benedict’s intimate dialogue with Jesus led the elderly scholar where he did “not want to go.” And during his final catechesis, the Pope acknowledged that he often “felt like St. Peter and the apostles in the boat on the Sea of Galilee. The Lord has given us so many days of sun and light wind, days in which the catch was abundant; there have also been moments in which the waters were agitated, and the wind blew contrary, as in all of the history of the Church, and the Lord appeared to be sleeping,” he said.
“But I have always known that in that boat there was the Lord, and I have always known that the barque of the Church is not mine; it is not ours; but it is his [Christ’s]. And he does not let it sink. It is him who steers it, certainly also through the men he has chosen, because he has wanted it this way.”
With the example of Christ’s steadfast love before him, Benedict vowed that he would never “abandon” the Church, but guard it through his chosen life of prayer and reflection. “I do not abandon the cross, but remain in a new way near to the crucified Lord. I no longer wield the power of the office for the government of the Church, but in the service of prayer, I remain, so to speak, within St. Peter’s bounds. St. Benedict, whose name I bear as Pope, shall be a great example in this for me. He showed us the way to a life which, active or passive, belongs wholly to the work of God.”
Our beloved Benedict’s eight years of service as St. Peter’s successor have demonstrated to all of us, in a most extraordinary way, a life that has been dedicated wholly to performing the work of God. And while we grieve profoundly over his departure, we are consoled that so great a friend of Christ will continue to intercede on our behalf with the Lord.