Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to leave his office on Feb. 28 shocked the Catholic world and set off a firestorm of speculation on everything from why he is leaving to who will be his successor.
As the dust storm settles and the mainstream media moves on to other topics, cooler heads with thoughtful observations of what the Pope’s decision means to the Church now and in the future are beginning to emerge. One such thoughtful leader is author Andreas Widmer.
Widmer served Blessed John Paul II as a young Swiss Guard and, later, after becoming a successful businessman, wrote a book about the leadership lessons he learned from the Polish Pope, The Pope and the CEO.
During the time he lived in the Vatican, Widmer had an opportunity to meet and observe not only Blessed John Paul II, but also then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
He spends one week each year at the Vatican and has built friendships with a number of cardinals and bishops around the world.
In a Feb. 16 interview, Widmer discussed why Benedict XVI’s decision was not only sound leadership, but a humble act of love for the Church.
As someone who follows the papacy closely, what was your initial reaction to Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to leave his office?
My first reaction was disbelief. Then shock. Once I had some time to read his actual statement, pray and reflect on it, I came to see this decision as a positive moment for the Church.
Pope Benedict XVI finished what Blessed John Paul II started, or, to be more precise, he finished the basic implementation of Vatican II, which started under Paul VI. This now set the stage for the era of the New Evangelization.
I believe the Pope is aware of this shift, and, after assessing what abilities the Church needs in a pontiff, to embark on this new endeavor, he decided that he could not offer that to her. That is the reason he abdicated: to make space for a person who has the ability the Church needs.
From a leadership perspective, this is a most humble and selfless move. From a Church perspective, this is a most loving and prudent move. I really respect Pope Benedict for his thought process and decision.
As a former CEO, can you explain why being a pope is different from being a CEO?
The pope is primarily a bishop, particularly the successor in the See of the Apostle Peter; and, as such, he is the vicar of Christ. This is not so much a "job" as it is a mission and a responsibility. Being pope is the individual’s primary vocation — being a CEO is someone’s secondary vocation.
How is it similar to being a CEO?
The pope is a leader. One of the things he leads is the Church as an organization and administration. In that role, he makes decisions and manages people very much like a CEO would.
Does comparing him to a CEO detract from the spiritual and moral authority of the papacy?
I do not think so. As I said earlier, being pope is a person’s primary vocation. His work as an organizational leader is part of his secondary vocation. The two interplay, but are definitively separate.
In a recent article for the Huffington Post, you wrote that Pope Benedict XVI was completing the work begun by his predecessor. Is that work completed, in your opinion? Why or why not?
Yes, I believe it is. John Paul and Benedict are the last two popes who were actually present at Vatican II, and I believe that Providence granted them the opportunity to secure its intended implementation.
If you look at the overall situation in the Church, though there are people who do not agree with that implementation, it is pretty clear that the form of implementation [given by the last two popes] is the one that’ll remain.
The two pontificates corrected any of the misguided efforts, such as a trend in the marginalization of the Eucharist, the role of priests and the laity, the validity of the Tridentine Mass, the path of interreligious dialogue and the pursuit of Christian unity, etc. All these issues have been addressed. They’re not universally embraced, but it is now clear what the Church teaches.
As such, I see the task of the implementation of Vatican II complete and a new era for the Church to commence.
What will be the biggest challenge for Pope Benedict’s successor?
The New Evangelization. The issue has two aspects: First, how do we re-evangelize cultural Catholics? And, second, how do we evangelize non-Catholics? And the two are actually connected.
In reaction to my piece in the Huffington Post, some readers objected to the notion of evangelization. One reader in particular wrote: "The Church exists to evangelize! ... That phrase bothers me. Haven’t we gotten into enough trouble with the evangelical sects we already have? Those who are so sure of their faith that they wish to pass it to others are often the ones who are intolerant and unforgiving. Why can’t we have a pledge to follow Christ’s teachings?"
I’m thankful for that comment because it allows me to point out a possible misreading of my statement: Evangelization comes from the word "evangelion" (Good News). Evangelization thus means living the Good News. The New Evangelization consists of living out the Good News in one’s personal life, leading to a profound happiness and peace. This in turn will attract others to imitate us and to join us in following Christ.
From the early Church on, this is the only viable path to evangelization — and it is this approach that Vatican II asks every Catholic to put into practice. When we do not follow this path, we become examples of exactly what the reader of the Huffington Post pinpoints as her experience of that kind of misguided "evangelization."
What do you make of some pundits who speak of "major changes" that a new pope could bring about in terms of birth control, same-sex "marriage," abortion, etc.?
I think that people who make such predictions or project such changes do no one a favor. They are very misleading in two ways:
First, the papacy is not about the person, but the office, the ministry. I think it’s not so much "who" the pope is than "what" the pope represents. Telling people that "another" pope would change some of the fundamentals of the Catholic faith is akin to making the papacy into a personality cult — something very far away from what Catholics actually believe.
The pope doesn’t make up the faith — he defends it.
Second, someone making these predictions — or, as some phrase it, "holding out hope" for such "changes" — just does not understand the Catholic faith. Saying that the Church is going to change its view on abortion or birth control is akin to holding your breath for PETA to endorse seal clubbing. The change is in fundamental opposition to the creed of the organization.
The Catholic Church cannot condone abortion, birth control, same-sex "marriage," in vitro fertilization and designer babies as much as it will never change its view on transubstantiation, confession and the divinity of Christ. These are teachings that come out of the very essence of the Catholic belief, and they do not change from pope to pope.
Quite to the contrary, each pope is relied upon to protect and uphold these teachings.
How do you think Pope Benedict XVI will be remembered by the world?
For his thoughtful leadership. I think Benedict is one of the most outstanding thinkers, one of the most brilliant intellects of our time. His contribution to the Church’s theology will stand the test of time and only grow in importance. The three encyclicals on the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, together with the trilogy on the life of Jesus and his discourses on the [Church] Fathers and saints of the Church are going to serve as core tools in the coming era of the New Evangelization.
I believe Blessed John Paul II was a prophet for our times, and I see Pope Benedict XVI as a doctor of the Church. It is really quite amazing that we were blessed with so many exemplary popes during the last 100 years or so. That only reinforces my belief that the Church is indeed guided by the Holy Spirit.
We have the pope we need, not always the one we want.
Randy Hain writes from Atlanta.