FALL RIVER, Mass. — As much as we know that Jesus is the Supreme Pastor of the Church and will never leave us orphans, we all feel a little liturgically orphaned and awkward today.
The full reality of Benedict XVI’s resignation is hitting us when, during the Eucharistic Prayer, the rubrics command us to skip over the part in which, for the last 2,873 days, we have prayed "for Benedict, our pope" and to express our communion immediately with our bishop, the clergy and the faithful.
For me as a priest — and for many of my priest-brothers — praying for Benedict was never just a ritual duty or an act of ordinary filial piety. It was something we did full of gratitude and fervor, because of the many ways Benedict enhanced our priestly prayer, life and apostolate.
St. Peter had received the commission from the Lord to "strengthen your brothers in the faith," and Benedict, his 264th successor, fortified us in faith and made us better priests.
Benedict’s papacy can be summed up as an incredibly rich course of continuing priestly formation.
He did this first by his teaching, in which he allowed us to enter into his head and heart and understand so much more about what we are called to believe, live and preach.
His three-volume examination of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, his encyclicals on love, hope and truth, his exhortations on the Eucharist and the word of God, his question-and-answer and lectio divina sessions with priests, his addresses to clergy on foreign trips, his catecheses on the Psalms, saints, prayer and faith, his Angelus addresses and his homilies constitute a corpus that will nourish priests for centuries.
We were able to profit from them in real time.
Of particular usefulness were his commentaries on the Sunday Mass readings that he would give at the Sunday Angelus.
In three paragraphs, with depth and clarity, he would get right to the heart of the readings. In my homily preparation, I would always consult what Benedict had said three or six years earlier in these Angelus meditations. Minimally, it would influence my preparation; occasionally, it was so powerful I would just quote him directly.
Benedict provided us not only ideas and words, but also tone and emphasis. He taught us by example to preach about God and his glory and not just about moral duties, to proclaim the beautiful "Yes" of faith and not curse the darkness with a long list of prohibitions, and to announce the Good News of great joy based on God’s love for us rather than scare, literally, the hell out of people.
This was not what many were expecting from "God’s Rottweiler" when he assumed the papacy, which is perhaps why his example was even more influential.
Benedict also formed us liturgically. He had written and spoken so much about the liturgy prior to becoming pope that many believed liturgical directives and instruction would be among the major emphases of his pontificate. He did do some of this: for example, giving us in 2011 a new and improved English translation of the Mass.
For the most part, however, he led not by mandate but by example.
To help us and our people remember that God, rather than the community, must be at the center of our liturgical worship, he had a prominent crucifix placed at the front center of the altar so that both priest and people could focus on Christ in the Mass.
Many priests and I soon adopted the "Benedictine format" on our altars, with a large crucifix flanked by six candles.
To revive a genuine piety with regard to receiving Jesus in holy Communion, he began to distribute holy Communion only on the tongue to those kneeling, something that gave us priests an opportunity to make that piety and posture contagious among our people.
To help priests pray the Mass better — as well as to try to heal the only schism after Vatican II — he dramatically expanded access to the traditional Latin Mass. No priest can pray the extraordinary form of the Mass without having it profoundly influence for the better how he celebrates every Mass.
More than anything, however, Benedict’s greatest lesson to his brother priests will be his last: the example of the fundamental priority of prayer in priestly life.
Throughout his pontificate, Benedict stressed that prayer is the most important thing any of us does.
He told priests in Brindisi in 2008 that time spent in prayer "is the most important time in a priest’s life, in which Divine grace acts with greater effectiveness, making his ministry fruitful. The first service to render to the community is prayer. And, therefore, time for prayer must be given a true priority in our life."
To priests in Warsaw in 2006, he declared, "The faithful expect only one thing from priests: that they be specialists in promoting the encounter between man and God. The priest is not asked to be an expert in economics, construction or politics. He is expected to be an expert in the spiritual life," someone who makes God his true priority, beginning with the way he spends his time.
By resigning the papacy in order to continue to serve the Church through a life dedicated to prayer, Benedict showed that he believes that prayer is basically even more important than the work of the papacy.
And if that’s the case, then Benedict is reminding all priests that, even in the midst of a frenetic pastoral schedule, prayer is the most important thing we can do for God and others.
The greatest papal teacher and liturgist since Gregory the Great is making his last word the silent one of prayer. And he’s doubtless praying that this lesson will have even more of an impact on the life of priests and the faithful than the doctrinal and liturgical treasure he has bequeathed to us, his priestly brothers, and to the whole Church.
Father Roger Landry is a priest in the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts.
He is national chaplain of Catholic Voices USA.
He will be providing commentary for EWTN during the upcoming papal conclave.