In less than 24 hours Benedict XVI, heir of St. Peter, will abdicate the Papal Throne. He will abdicate in the midst of one of the most trying periods in the history of the Catholic Church and, indeed, one of the most trying periods for all of Christianity. I write “one of” because it’s difficult — if not unimaginable — to consider the present time as graver than what faced the Apostles on Pentecost or the centuries of bloody persecution the Church endured at the hands of the pagan Roman Empire. It’s also difficult to consider it graver than the periods of mass heresy and schism, though I suppose we’re accustomed to reading ecclesiastic history as a straightforward, triumphal march behind the Cross. Now, according to some, we’re in a period of decline, one from which we’ll never recover. The glory of Christendom has gone out of the world and now the Church must suffer the indignity of a protracted, painful death. She is assailed by the world and, worse, gutted from the inside out. Hope is in short supply, so too, for that matter, are simple faith and unwavering charity.
There is no reasonable way anybody can put Benedict XVI’s pontificate “in perspective.” That is the task yet-born historians will have to undertake a century or more from now. Still, many judgments have already been issued. Was he a good pope? A bad pope? An ineffectual pope too old, tired, and out-of-touch to fulfill his office? Did he make prudent and wise decisions? Were his aims too lofty for his means? The various ideological camps all have their perspectives of course, though I wonder what good any of these groupings really believe will come out of their “learned observations.” Some say Benedict XVI wasn’t a “large pope” in the way John Paul II, and I am sure the Holy Father would be the first to agree with them. It was never his intention to be the larger-than-life figure his predecessor was, to some extent, compelled to be, and yet it is still possible that through his many writings and, more importantly, his few, but profound, encyclicals that this Pope — this man who will continue to reign over the Church for just short of another day — will secure a greater legacy for himself. On a personal level he was too aloof to be loved as a celebrity is loved, but he certainly deserved our deepest affections. It is a sorry thing that in the darkest days of his Pontificate that he likely never felt them at all.
By this time tomorrow all eyes will fix exclusively on the upcoming conclave and the shameful political jockeying, fueled by media speculation and worldly interference, that — according to some — will determine who the next Pope will be. The Holy Ghost has, it seems, lost His say. Or has He? Exiling God from our hearts and minds is not tantamount to the Lord being exiled. We abandon God; God does not abandon us, despite our worst wishes to the contrary. Granted, some in the Church desire the sort of Pope God deserves; but they should tremble at the possibility of receiving one that we really deserve. It is God’s Church, not ours. It has been placed on earth for us, not because of us. But who, really, thinks in such terms any more? We, the enlightened of the 21st C., “know better” than that — right? Right? The most pious prayer I can imagine for this moment is, “God, grant me naiveté.” Personally, I’d appreciate a bit of it right now. It sure beats the cynical alternative.
So, in my own small way, I want to say thank you to the Holy Father for nearly eight years of extreme service offered from a life that has, from its earliest years, been put in service to the one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ. And I thank the Holy Father as well for the years of prayerful service he will continue to offer the Body of Christ until God sees fit to call him home.