February 11 is celebrated in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar as the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, which recalls the 1858 apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the vicinity of Lourdes, France. In that puzzling country in the central region of Africa called Cameroon, it is celebrated as a National Youth Day, even if it offers little to the youths under a political and economic climate of impunity and corruption. Owing to the centrality of the healing experience that followed these apparitions at Lourdes, February 11 is also a day dedicated to praying for the sick – the World Day of the Sick, in the Catholic Calendar.
Perhaps in the future, Roman Catholicism, often known for its sense of complementarity and multifacetedness, – faith and good works, bread and wine, nature and grace, word and sacraments, Christ and the saints, et cetera, might decide to celebrate February 11 as the World Day of the Sick and the World Day of Goodness and Humility. If we as a Church ever get to this point, it could well be a sign that we would have begun to understand the prophet and his message, a journey demanding a rigorous spiritual and academic cognition that is needed when approaching the gifted and remarkable life of Joseph Aloysius Ratzinger/Benedict XVI. February 11, three years ago, was the day Benedict took up the apostolate of prayer, letting go of papal power.
Catholicism’s 2000-year history had seen few, if any, such resignations of papal power. Gregory XII had renounced the papacy in 1415 in order to end the scandalous Great Western Schism. Celestine V, faced with the imperial politics of King Charles II of Naples and Boniface VIII, his own successor in the papacy, resigned the office of pontiff – a resignation that led to his dying behind bars and his consignment to the antechambers of Dante’s hell, for Celestine’s “great refusal.”
As we reflect on Benedict’s resignation that happened three years ago, the message of his life becomes all the more visible. To many, Benedict represents the spiritual dimension of a Catholicism that is impervious to the liberal ethos of the post-modern world, a Catholicism that is counter-cultural and radically faithful to the core teachings of Christ and his gospel message, as handed down through the living tradition of the Church. A hardcore academic right down to his boots, Ratzinger’s unapologetic focus on the Catholic identity invited some harsh criticisms that are considered by his adherents and admirers as the price he has had to pay for being a theological traditionalist, radically faithful to the deposit of the faith, once delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3).
Cardinal Ratzinger’s role as the chief theologian of the Church in his capacity as the Prefect of the CDF did not make things any easier for his public image. His battles with liberation theologians in Latin America; feminists theologians in the West; theologians known for their work on inculturation and inter-religious dialogue in Asia, Oceania and Africa; ecumenists in Protestant parts of Europe and elsewhere; theologians who understood and interpreted Vatican II in terms of discontinuity with the past; and a predominantly hostile liberal culture of the secular West, all contributed to building the unflattering image of Ratzinger as “Cardinal NO;” the “Panzer-Cardinal,” and God’s Rottweiler! I have often wondered why Ratzinger never defended himself, why this shy Bavarian of a harmless demeanor never set out to produce an Apologia of the type of Socrates or Newman? Perhaps it could be that Ratzinger, given his radical Christian intuitions, was conscious that one could not be a Christian and simultaneously sought for media approval! And most importantly, that even though it requires words to convey, the truth shines on its own terms and is not in need of cosmetic, ice-creaming acolytes to render it politically useful. A truth that is true because it has scored high in the opinion polls of the Boston Globe or the New York Times will go the way of others: true at dawn, doubtful at noon, false at dusk!
In addition to the self-evidence of truth, Benedict’s resignation speaks of an uncommon courage and humility. By walking away from the ephemeral in favor of the spiritual “a life dedicated to prayer”, Benedict set a template for true leadership, not only in the spiritual world but in the secular too. He created a new imagination of ministry in the Catholic Church. He showed that ministry was much more primary to the symbolic meaning of the office. He recast, in a more fundamental yet gentle way, the original commission of Christ to the apostles to preach the gospel to the ends of the world. The ministry of Peter was meant to serve the Church, and not the other way round!
His resignation also brought to the world-stage the value of prayer, often overlooked in a post-modern mentality that is largely materialistic and empirical. It could very well mean that he has exchanged the Petrine ministry of governance for the Johannine ministry of prayer and contemplation, perhaps conscious that prayer and fasting are the only ways to triumph over the forces of evil that seek to engulf our world (Matt. 17:21). His candor in admitting that, ‘my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry’ is worthy of commendation and his example without a parallel, especially for an African continent that octogenarians see sit-tightism as their only political option. By renouncing papal power to take up prayer, Benedict has shown that even though Jesus and the Church are not separable, they are not simply identifiable with each other, and that for the Christian, Christ could make more radical demands than the Church, especially the demand of letting go of all for Christ, especially that which we price as valuable to our ego and worth.
Between a choice to remain in high office though frail, and incapable of providing effective leadership, and the sacrifice to stand down for a more able shepherd, Benedict chose the latter. By putting the common good above self-interest, Benedict demonstrated that he has conquered the self; indeed, he has waged and won the first and the greatest of human struggles. Benedict, an intellectual of no mean order, read the signs correctly that, “today’s world, (is) subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith…”
At 8 p.m. on Feb. 28, 2013, Benedict XVI stepped down from the papal throne, less than three weeks after announcing his resignation. Earlier that evening, Father Benedict, as he now prefers to be called, stood from the balcony of Castel Gandolfo’s papal residence, overlooking the thousands who had filled the lake town’s small main square: “I wish still with my heart, my love, my prayer, my reflection, with all my inner strength, to work for the common good and the good of the Church and of humanity,” Benedict told the crowds in off-the-cuff remarks just hours before his resignation would take effect.
As I watched Benedict on that window, words he had written earlier came to my mind: “Man is such that he cannot stand the person who is wholly good, truly upright, truly loving, the person who does evil to no one (…) People will crucify anyone who is really and fully human. Such is man. And such am I.” (Ratzinger, Dogma and Preaching, 121). It could very well be that his renunciation of papal power and embrace of the new position at the foot of the cross in prayer, for the good of the Church and the world, was the most fitting pattern of bringing to a close a life lived for God.
In this period of clear suffering for Ratzinger, the serenity and God-like courage which he displayed, showed once more, that the assistance from above is never lacking to the Just One. Only in standing hopelessly before God, is God’s true power allowed to shine more brightly. The grain of wheat must always die in order to bear fruit. One who lives for God must suffer. One who lives for God must be rejected. One who lives for God must be cast out. Such is the lot of the Just One, for justice and injustice, truth and falsehood, love and hate, beauty and ugliness, must have their time, especially in the life of the Church. And to love the Church entails being ready to suffer from and for her. In the life of the One who lives for God, justice, truth, love, and beauty are realized in the eschaton of the now, awaiting that consummation of the ages, when the Angel of the Apocalypse will sound the last trumpet, declaring, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of Our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign for ever and ever” (Rev. 11:15).
Deriving from this, it may be said that any man worth the honor of leading at any level must have the humility, the courage, and the selflessness to, in a manner of speaking, walk away from it all. It is in this context then that it can be said that, like great men who define real greatness by changing the spirit of their age, Joseph Ratzinger, by his decision to resign from the Papacy, altered the spirit of the age and defined in practical terms, the true meaning of leadership, for the Church and for the world.
Ratzinger’s world might have been best situated besides the Sea of Galilee, where together with his predecessor, Simon the Fisherman, this son of Bavaria heard the Lord Jesus, the love and meaning of his life say to him, “Feed my Lambs; Feed my Sheep” (Jn. 21: 15 – 17). If Ratzinger is declared a Doctor of the Church a hundred years from today, it will be because the Church of the ages would have recognized in this Bavarian, a firm believer in God’s love, truth, goodness and beauty, with a rare gifted intellect – a gift that he placed at the service of the Church with all his generosity, his human limitations notwithstanding. It is Ratzinger, the soft-spoken and holy master of the faith that will continue to speak to the hearts of those who will encounter Jesus Christ, the Yes of God, in his body, the Church, her weaknesses notwithstanding, and by so doing, find the decisive path for their lives, Christ Our Joy, – the shibboleth of his prolific theological vocation.