Tuesday, February 12, 2013

How might we react to Pope Benedict's abdication?

Like many others, when I woke up yesterday to the clock radio by my bedside, one of my first conscious thoughts was, "wait--what did I just hear?" I assumed, because I was sleepy, I misheard the reporter; but I hadn't.

One of the things we might do is fortify ourselves for a big bargeful of nonsense being spoken about the Church.

I listen to NPR, which sometimes is worthwhile, but other times is a penance. I was so sorry to hear them trot out Silvia Poggioli, their vaunted "Roman correspondent." I don't know what this woman's accomplishments are, but knowing anything about the Church is not one of them. This morning, she was saying things like, maybe now the Church will reorganize it's governance and be "more collegial," while the reporter interviewing her, asked breathlessly, could we get someone, you know, more liberal--meaning, more amenable to things like contraception and redefining marriage and the whole modern secularist wishlist.

Then there is the nonsense about what Pope Benedict's legacy will be. Ms. Poggioli and the other reporters...heavens they are shallow.

True, his decision to step down will be part of his legacy. I wish he hadn't, but he didn't ask me! And I trust his judgment.

But really, the obvious legacy will be in setting in motion a "hermeneutic of continuity" as applied to the Second Vatican Council and the Deposit of Faith in light of recent times. People have short memories. It wasn't so long ago that many folks seemed to think everything was up for grabs. That was how people reacted in light of the Second Vatican Council; and when Pope Paul VI stood by constant teaching on openness to life in Humanae Vitae, it was shocking to many who had imbibed the idea that Vatican II was all about a new Church, rather than a renewed Church.

It fell to Blessed John Paul to steady the bark of Peter and smother a lot of nonsense. He was accused of putting on the brakes--and that's true. He hit the brakes when many members of the Church were intoxicated with a "spirit of Vatican II" and the Church was careening dangerously. John Paul helped us sober up.

But it was Benedict who, once we sobered up, began presenting some good sense about how to understand the Council and how to go forward. And the great stroke of his, which will cement his legacy, was his decision to free the celebration of the older form of the Mass and the sacraments.

Most people miss how significant this will be, because the change it will bring isn't being felt right away. But let me illustrate how much this has changed things.

I entered the seminary in 1997 and was ordained ten years ago in 2003. During that time, any seminarian who expressed anything more than mild curiosity about the older form of the Mass, and the liturgical and sacramental tradition that prevailed before the Council, came under immediate suspicion. The idea of actually wanting to learn the older forms, let alone celebrate them, was radioactive.

Now priests are free to learn the older forms and use them--and they are. Seminaries are beginning to teach the older form of the Mass; and even if they don't, there are growing opportunities to learn these things outside the seminary. Unless a future pope suppresses this--which is possible, but I doubt it--this will grow and grow.

It's no secret why Pope Benedict did this. He gave us two reasons. First, he wanted to make clear that what was good and holy before the Council remained good and holy: a commonsense truth that even so became obscured for awhile. Second, he talked about having the older form and the newer form of the liturgy and sacraments to influence each other.

Before he was elected pope, Benedict wrote a book called The Spirit of the Liturgy; and in it, he made clear that he was supportive of reform in the liturgy, but he believed the first draft of it, as it were, didn't quite get it right. A lot of folks would like him to have imposed a second draft; but I think he was wise in not trying that. Instead, he considered how he could plant the seeds that would, on their own, grow up and produce a good harvest. I think he has planted those seeds, and during the next 20 years, we'll see the effect.

Back to the nonsense we have to endure: some of it will come from well meaning folks who decide this is a sign of the Apocalypse.

Well, what if it is? Don't you want the Lord to return and put things right?

But chances are, it's not. In any case, it's out of our hands.

So back to my fundamental question. How might we react?

Whenever I see Pope Benedict, he always seems so peaceful. No doubt it's partly his disposition; but it's also the fruit of a lifetime of good habits, including the habit of prayer and faith.

So, if you love the pope, imitate his example.

Second, when I consider the popes we've had in recent times, I think we should be very grateful. Going back over a century, we've had a good run of popes. By all accounts, they were wise, capable, courageous men of prayer and good judgment. Our enemies delight to tell tales of scoundrel popes; they happened, but they were rarer than we are led to believe. Even so, none of our recent popes looks anything like that.

And each pope we've had, I think, has brought us something we needed. They aren't perfect and the fact that they are protected from teaching error in formal ways (that's what infallibility means), doesn't mean they are all-knowing or all-wise. That they make mistakes isn't remarkable; what's remarkable is that things work out as well as they do.

I think Paul VI himself realized that he ought to have handled the implementation and aftermath of the Council differently. Yet his greatest hour will be standing firm on Humanae Vitae, and I feel certain the next few decades will see his teaching completely vindicated. I think John Paul II played a decisive role in so many ways, even if he didn't play the role many might have wished. He was, I think, given a more difficult task than any pope since Pius XII, and few would have carried it off. He did. And then there is Pius XII, one of the most heroic popes in the entire history of the Church, who still bears the slanders heaped upon him as a consequence of the Cold War: I pray that his good name will be restored in my lifetime.

Pope Benedict has likewise played an important role--we may find, in time, a pivotal role. One of the things I admire about him is his humility. Many people remarked, when he was elected, that he would suffer from the towering reputation of John Paul II. Benedict didn't seem to mind very much. When he issued his first volume of Jesus of Nazareth--that he would write such a scholarly yet accessible work as pope is itself remarkable--he said something astonishing in the forward. He said, in effect, even though I'm the pope, I offer this only as a scholar might. Anyone is free to find fault with my writing here! Some of the shallow talking heads we're enduring this week have pointed out that Pope Benedict actually drew more people to his audiences than Pope John Paul did--but they don't tarry to consider why.

So: blessings to Pope Benedict! Pray for him and for the conclave. Trust in the Lord and be about his work.


TerryC said...

Wonderful post father.
And of course Benedict allowed Anglicans who were disposed to once again recognize the primacy of Peter to return to the Universal Church, while bringing potentially many good fruits to our Church.

Tony said...

Father, thank you for posting this.

When I heard that the Holy Father was planning to step down, it put a big happy smile on my face. Not for why you might thing.

I am learning to trust God. It's hard for me, but the more I do it, the easier it is becoming. I know that the Holy Father always endeavors to prayerfully do God's will. And if he is stepping down, it's God's will.

We are always given the pope we need for the age the world is in, and the challenges we face. I'm sure the new pope will address these issues.

I'm also in formal inquiry into the permanent diaconate, and I'm hoping if I have God's call and I'm ultimately ordained, I will learn and be allowed perfoem the extraordinary form of baptism, matrimony and burial.