After a couple of weeks, many are still stunned and sorrowful at the decision of Pope Benedict XVI to step down as the vicar of Christ.
Catholics find themselves in this strange emotional limbo: On the one hand, we cannot really mourn Pope Benedict XVI. Benedict still lives! On the other hand, we look forward with hope to a new vicar of Christ. But who can replace Benedict XVI?
Looking over his past eight years, Pope Benedict XVI will be remembered as a master teacher. He wrote three encyclicals: Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope) and Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth). He also headed three synods of bishops — on the Eucharist (2005), the Word of God (2008) and the New Evangelization (2012) — and he declared three significant years for our spiritual growth: the Year of St. Paul in 2008, the Year for Priests in 2009 and the Year of Faith in 2012.
Nonetheless, there are three particular works that truly stand out. The first is his three-volume set on the life of Christ, Jesus of Nazareth. These books show how the historical-critical method of Scripture study, a sophisticated historical and literary critical methodology, can be a useful tool for studying the Bible. In the post-conciliar period, the historical-critical method became a destructive force for deconstructing the Bible. The forewords to these volumes are invaluable works where Pope Benedict XVI explains how the historical-critical approach must be balanced with the faith. He humbly writes, "I would not presume to claim that this combination of the two hermeneutics is already fully accomplished in my book. But I hope to have taken a significant step in that direction."
The second work that stands out is Pope Benedict XVI’s 2006 talk in Regensburg on the relationship between faith and reason, religion and culture.
The political philosophy professor Jesuit Father James Schall calls it "the most important address in modern times." Although the talk made headlines over an obscure reference to Islamic violence, the heart of the talk carefully addressed the identity crisis of the West and how faith properly understood can and should interact with the modern secular world.
He spoke on this theme again and again throughout his pontificate, particularly when he spoke at the various parliaments in Europe. These talks showed his masterful ability to diffuse anti-religious sentiment among secular leaders, while giving penetrating analysis of why a world without faith is unconvincing and, ultimately, detrimental to the future of humanity.
Third — and perhaps the most important of his teachings — are his writings on the liturgy and his freeing of the traditional Latin Mass with the 2007 motu propio Summorum Pontificum.
It was a courageous decision that met much opposition within the Church, but which powerfully addressed the identity crisis of the post-conciliar period.
The Pope sees that the greatest teacher and cause for transforming both the Church and the culture is the liturgy properly understood. Unfortunately, many in the Church still do not even know about Pope Benedict’s writings on the liturgy.
Yet, as the extraordinary form continues to bear good fruit in the coming years, this decision to allow all priests to offer the traditional Latin Mass will come to be seen as one of the most enduring decisions of his pontificate.
Finally, the symbol of Pope Benedict XVI as a master teacher is best demonstrated by his pilgrimage to England for the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman.
Father Louis Bouyer once wrote, "As St. Augustine was the great apostle of the early period of the Church and St. Thomas of the Middle Ages, so is Newman that of the modern times."
The Holy Father saw how Blessed John Newman taught the Church how to think of herself in the modern world. Dare I say that both Pope Benedict XVI and Blessed John Newman could one day be doctors of the Church?
There are many mischaracterizations of Pope Benedict XVI in the media, such as a man who could never move out of the shadow of Blessed John Paul II or of authoritarian enforcer of Church doctrine. Those with even a modest knowledge of Pope Benedict XVI know how far these ideas are from the truth.
Cardinal Ratzinger was a close friend and adviser to Pope John Paul II, and the two had great respect for one another. Each of them had different gifts and different insights, but I think their pontificates will be closely linked in history as a team effort to navigate the murky waters of the post-conciliar period.
Rather than an authoritarian inquisitor, Pope Benedict XVI was and is the embodiment of meekness, and this decision to step down as the vicar of Christ only reinforces that notion.
The example of his life shows that he has truly lived the Lord’s words: "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth" (Matthew 5:5).
Pope Benedict XVI will be sorely missed. We will miss the gentle way he tried to explain to the West that faith in God was not contrary to reason, but, in fact, increases man’s capacity for greatness. We will miss how he explained to the East that violence in the name of religion is never justifiable. We will miss his clarity of thought.
Considering the state of the Church and the world, how can this decision be anything but troubling news?
Outside of the Church, there is terrible hostility to the Gospel. In the West, there is this curious self-hatred for its own history, manifesting itself in a rapidly declining birthrate and a culture of death.
In the East, Islam and communism are growing and becoming increasingly intolerant of Christians. Christian persecution around the globe is on the rise.
Within the Church, it is even more troubling. There is a lack of discipline in many places, a lack of unity and more scandals. When Pope Benedict XVI traveled to Fatima in 2010, he stated, "Today we see in a truly terrifying way that the greatest persecution of the Church does not come from outside enemies, but is born of sin within the Church."
At his glorious inauguration Mass in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI appealed to the faithful, "Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves."
Is it wrong to ask whether we failed to fulfill this request from our father? No one should interpret the Pope’s serene appearance as a sign that his decision to step down did not weigh heavily upon him. During this Lenten season, perhaps it is possible to meditate on the hidden passion of Pope Benedict XVI.
Once again, after a couple of weeks, Catholics find themselves uneasy, unsettled and perplexed. There are many questions that will most likely never get answered.
Yet this is what the Year of Faith was supposed to do: increase our faith.
Without answers, we continue forward, confident that Our Lord and Our Lady will show us the way.
In the meantime, one can trust in the Lord and humbly pray the words of Blessed John Newman: that "in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him."
Father Greg Markey is a parish priest in the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut.