While Benedict XVI is still Pope

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The media and Vatican watchers are busy speculating about the recent past (what ‘really’ prompted this resignation) and the future (who is ‘most likely’ to replace him), I think it’s important to take the opportunity while he’s still in the Chair of Peter to recognize what is the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI.

There’s no use drumming up conspiracy theories about his motivation, I take him at his word in his declaration. And there’s time enough to cover the conclave when cardinal electors do their spiritual and temporal work of discerning who should succeed to the papacy to lead the church into the future.

Fr. Robert Barron, Rector of Mundelein Seminary in the Archdiocese of Chicago, founder of Word on Fire media ministry, and creator and narrator of the magnificent Catholicism series, has done a number of media interviews since the announcement was made public last week and they’re always short and demand practically sound bites for answers (to questions not always well informed to begin with). So he put together this video on the WOF site to elaborate just a bit.

And he talked with me about it Monday in an interview. It was edifying.

The legacy of Pope Benedict XVI encompasses so much, it couldn’t fill a blog post, even with a bundle of hyperlinks. But Fr. Barron has a way of paring things down to the perfect essence, perfect for our short attention span these days, and with a message that’s easy to grasp. He sums up that legacy in three things, he told me, reflecting what you can see on that video.

Pope Benedict was an interpreter of Vatican II. Joseph Ratzinger was at all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council and “contributed mightily to the writing of many of its documents.” As opposed to the prevailing winds blowing after the Council that it had been about a revolution in the church, Ratzinger knew it was the evolution of the church to make it an apt vehicle to go out into the modern world and engage. ‘The intention of the Council was not to modernize the church,’ Fr. Barron said, ‘but to Christianize the world.’ Meaning…for modern sensibilities out of touch with that message…that it was a missionary council filled with zeal for doing with Christ commissioned the apostles to do, which was go out and be a witness to people in the world for the hope and joy you have.

Second, he said, Pope Benedict brought an “affirmative orthodoxy” to the church and the world watching it. Which very much countered the media portrayal of him at his election as the ‘doctrinal hardliner,’ the ‘Panzer Cardinale,’ or ‘God’s Rottweiler,’ among other slurs against the man. In his addresses, messages and writings, ‘the dominant word he used was “joy,” over and over,’ said Fr. Barron. “His stress was always on divine love.”

And third, Benedict’s legacy is all about Christocentrism, in everything he wrote and taught and said and lived. It’s so simple and basic, Catholics and Christians can easily overlook it for the longer, more wordy and complex message. But Benedict simplified it in a most eloquent, theologically brilliant and intellectually clear message: “It’s finally all about Jesus,” said Fr. Barron. “That’s what he leaves us with.”

Benedict did something unprecedented in history by producing a major theological work as pope, a three volume study of Jesus of Nazareth. In the masterpiece by Romano Guardini, The Lord, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote the Introduction in a later release of the work. It was a foreshadowing of what would become the centerpiece of his papacy one day. In it, he wrote this:

As we are taught by Guardini, the essence of Christianity is not an idea, not a aystem of thought, not a plan of action. The essence of Christianity is a Person: Jesus Christ Himself…

Our time is in many respects far different from that in which Romano Guardini lived and worked. But it is as true now as in his day that the peril of the Church, indeed of humanity, consists in bleaching out the image of Jesus Christ in an attempt to shape a Jesus according to our own standards, so that we do not follow Him in obedient discipleship but rather recreate Him in our own image.

And that is truer still today, many years after Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict wrote that Introduction. We are hardly able to even talk about these beliefs in public, hard enough to hang onto them in a world growing increasingly secularized and hostile to Christianity, where ‘tolerance’ has been elevated to the greatest virtue, though it’s terribly skewed.

There’s a very good piece reflecting on this at a Huffington Post blog, and good for them for posting such a good reflection.

Our culture’s complicated relationship with organized religion is closely tied to our culture’s complicated relationship with truth. We love our truth, all right, but we treat truth a lot like religion — it’s fine, so long as everyone else keeps their truth to themselves. Tolerance — which our culture values over all other virtues — consists in not imposing your truth on someone else.

The problem with this well-meaning attempt at tolerance is that it is unsustainable. It’s self-cannibalizing. If there is only your truth and my truth, but no Truth, then there is no common ground upon which to meet one another. Either I’m right, or you are, and since there’s no middle ground, the matter is only ever settled when one side wins and the other side loses. A world without truth isn’t a world liberated from conflict; it’s a world without the possibility of reconciliation.

Pope Benedict’s episcopal motto Cooperatores veritatis — “co-operators of the truth” — suggests a very different understanding of reality; one in which both faith and reason owe allegiance to the same reality, that is, to truth. And truth, at least as the Catholic Church understands it, is best demonstrated, not by carefully reasoned arguments (though those are important) and certainly not by violence, but by self-giving love. There is nothing more compelling, nothing more true, than sacrificial love.

(The central truth of Christian faith — God became man in Jesus Christ, through whose suffering and death we are redeemed — can be summed up like this: God got tired of telling us how to do it, so He decided to come down here and show us.)

Talk about that, Benedict exhorted the faithful. Witness that. You may be the only encounter with Christ people will ever have.

So at the end of the day, at the end of a papacy…

The pope is not a figurehead; he is an apostle. He is not a manager; he is a messenger. By announcing his resignation…Pope Benedict XVI has signaled that the Church of the 21st century will not be a Church of business as usual. It will not be a church of institutional maintenance, of isolation, or of longing for the past. The Church exists to spread the Gospel. And those who have inherited that mission by their baptism must be willing to sacrifice a great deal to answer that calling.

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