Benedict’s decision conjures an evocative and dramatic moment from the era when Popes were crowned rather than inaugurated. As the newly-chosen Pope moved through St Peter’s Basilica on Coronation Day carried aloft on the sedia gestoria the procession stopped three times. On each occasion, a cleric would fall to his knees before the Pontiff with a tow of burning flax. As the cloth burned away, he would chant “Sancte Pater, sic transit gloria mundi!” – Holy Father, so passes worldly glory! It was meant as a reminder of the transitory nature of earthly power.
By beginning the process of passing the Petrine Ministry onto another, Pope Benedict has demonstrated that the papacy is a ministry of service rather than a ministry of power.
Benedict’s election in 2005 was an occasion that surprised many, thrilled lots of people and filled some with dread. Much has been written about the historic significance of the Holy Father’s decision to renounce the Petrine Ministry. In this week’s issue of The Irish Catholic we seek to assess the life, ministry, teaching and legacy of the man who became best known to the world as Benedict XVI and will now retire from public view. It is a story of an incredible journey from a childhood growing up under the insane racism of the Nazi ideology that had gripped the Germany of Joseph Ratzinger’s childhood. It is a story of a little boy who desired nothing more than to serve God as a priest in the Church who found himself thrust on the world stage as leader of some 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide.
Benedict XVI is easy to caricature: God’s rotweiler, the Panzar Cardinal, the rigid enforcer of the Faith. The caricatures are as meaningless as they are easy. Benedict leaves behind a remarkable legacy of writing, teaching and homilies. He will be best remembered as a teacher. He is an academic of outstanding brilliance who sought to use that learning not to confuse others or revel in academic isolation. Instead, he sought to invite people in to a relationship with God in the person of Jesus Christ.
Benedict was compelled with the person of Jesus just as the early followers of the Carpenter of Nazareth was compelled. For Benedict, entering into relationship with the person of Jesus was the logical step that led ultimately to fullness of faith in God and in this, faith was at a fundamental level nothing more than friendship with God from which everything else flowed.
Much of his papacy was dedicated to what he described as the battle against a “dictatorship of relativism”. His experience in 20th Century Europe proved to him that where moral absolutes – such as the right to life – are relativised and made contingent on worldly power, the most horrendous consequences for humanity become inevitable.
Benedict’s faith was unshakable. The firmness of his conviction, however, was always marked with the realisation that one cannot compel others to love God or the Church.
It is for this reason that Benedict sometimes liked to remind bishops and catechists that Christianity must be proposed to young people as a radical ‘yes’ to relationship with God rather than a list of prohibitions or as something burdensome. For Benedict, to love God was to be in tune with one’s deepest inner nature rather than the embrace of a set of external values. Benedict, in his encyclicals, sought to speak about love, about charity and about hope at a time when the world thrives on a diet of despair and ministry.
The years of the pontificate of Benedict XVI have been marred by a loss of the Church’s moral authority in some parts of the world as a result of clerical sexual abuse. It is an issue he has addressed on countless occasions. He has prayed with the victims, cried with the victims and listened to the pain and devastation that they have experienced.
He has been repeatedly accused of co-ordinating a worldwide cover-up of abuse when the facts make it clear that he was one of the first in the Vatican to understand the severity of these crimes and act. History will, one suspects, be kinder to Benedict XVI on this vital issue than has been the case in the Pontiff’s trial by media.
Benedict XVI now retires from public ministry. He will devote his life to prayer, reflection and study in the shadows of the dome of St Peter’s Basilica.
His legacy of writing and teaching, however, will live on in the hearts and minds of the countless people he has touched throughout his priestly ministry. It is a priestly ministry that now enters a different phase, a phase that continues to teach the Church, Catholics and all men and women of good will a message of humility.
The Irish Catholic this week offers an insight into the life, ministry and legacy of Benedict XVI. It is a rich legacy that can help to deepen faith and relationship with God.
This newspaper speaks for Catholics and people of goodwill from all religious traditions and none in wishing Benedict XVI – Roman Pontiff Emeritus – health and happiness in this new phase of his remarkable life. Ad multos annos.