In his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith), Pope Francis wrote, "The light of faith is unique, since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence. A light this powerful cannot come from ourselves, but from a more primordial source: In a word, it must come from God. Faith is born of an encounter with the living God, who calls us and reveals his love. ... Transformed by this love, we gain fresh vision, new eyes to see; we realize that it contains a great promise of fulfillment and that a vision of the future opens before us. ... We come to see that faith does not dwell in shadow and gloom; it is a light for our darkness. Dante ... describes that light as a ‘spark, which then becomes a burning flame and like a heavenly star within me glimmers.’"
The Church just marked the first anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation from the Petrine office (see stories on page one), and this passage from Lumen Fidei, which was substantially written by Benedict and completed by Pope Francis, offers a framework for reflecting on the seismic changes that have roiled Catholics over the past year.
At present, secular media and many critics of Catholic teaching often frame the resignation of the pope emeritus and the new pontificate of the first Latin-American pope, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, in political terms: The German pope, a supposed icon of "social conservatism," has been consigned to the dustbin of history, and the new Argentinian shepherd has returned to the more "liberal," enlightened teachings of Jesus and his service to the poor.
But there is another story to be told, another way to approach these historic events — if we take the time to see them through the "eyes" of Benedict, a faithful Vicar of Christ who made a choice illuminated by his own "encounter with the living God."
During his last Wednesday audience, on Feb. 27, 2013, Benedict told the vast crowd assembled in St. Peter’s Square of his utter reliance on the will of God: "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.
So what was the "fresh vision" — the "new eyes to see" — that prompted Benedict’s unprecedented action? He stated that failing health was the primary reason for his decision to step down, but does that fully explain his reasons? Father Raymond de Souza, in a column for the Register (see page 2), speculated that Benedict may have concluded that his own voice was not being heard.
Benedict "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," wrote Father de Souza. This suggestion is all the more remarkable because Father de Souza in no way denied the unparalleled quality of Benedict’s legacy as a preacher and scholar. Indeed, many preachers have predicted that Benedict will be named a doctor of the Church one day.
It was not the first time that Joseph Ratzinger faced a challenging decision that would profoundly affect the life of the Church and his own trajectory.
After the election of Blessed John Paul II, Joseph Ratzinger — the shy German scholar — set aside his own academic research and writing to accept an appointment as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Then, after the death of his friend, Cardinal Ratzinger accepted his own election by the College of Cardinals and assumed the chair of St. Peter.
Contrary to the secular view of the papacy as a position equivalent to worldly power, Benedict knew firsthand that the Vicar of Christ, the Servant of the Servants, must be the first among all of Christ’s disciples to embrace the redeeming power of the cross.
And when he announced his decision to resign, he told the gathering of cardinals, "I am 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."
The unfolding "vision of the future," however, not only involved his resignation and a new form of spiritual renunciation through a life of seclusion at a Vatican monastery, but also the election of a new pope. As Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has observed elsewhere in these pages, "We need to see the Holy Spirit working in a twofold way: It was both the stepping down of Benedict and the election of Francis."
Did Benedict anticipate the possibility that his decision might result in a barrage of criticism and the mischaracterization of his own teachings on faith and service to the poor? Most likely, the man who warned of an emerging "dictatorship of relativism" and was often the target of Church dissenters and their political allies was unsurprised by the attacks and has simply placed them in the hands of God.
Archbishop George Gänswein, Benedict’s former secretary, who has remained the head of the papal household under Pope Francis, put it this way: "We are all seeing the impact of Pope Francis on the world, not only on the faithful in the Church, but on the world; it is a huge impact, and this impact was also facilitated by Pope Benedict in his resignation. He opened up a possibility that, until then, was not there, and we see that Pope Francis has taken up this situation, and we are pleased that today it is so."
What mattered for Benedict was that the next Vicar of Christ would be a man who had been transformed by his own encounter with Christ and was prepared to captain the Barque of Peter through stormy seas.
And while Benedict continues to pray for a fulfillment of the "fresh vision" that guided his own actions, it is Pope Francis who must find a way, guided by a great Light, to draw the world’s enthusiasm for him to the person of Christ.