International Women’s Day

How and whether it was observed depends on perspective.

I happened to be in Rome, in the middle of a brief visit with my son, who came by the hotel in time to head to St. Peter’s Square for the Angelus and read me the message on his cell phone from Vodafone (in Italian) which said something like ‘If the world is an epic, it is thanks to woman.’ The message then said in celebration, free internet access would be given to all subscribers that day… And I asked him to repeat that. Neither of us knew anything about this Festa taking place on a day already important to me and marked for celebration for other reasons. So he said it’s apparently Women’s Day in Italy, and we thought it nice that the cell phone company started it off with a nice message. It was a little baffling to us both, since Italy celebrates Mother’s Day as the US does, and this day was set apart from that to celebrate all women, which we did not know.

Then we headed to St. Peter’s. I’ll get back to that in a moment.

Sometime late that day, a splendid one in Rome with family spending hours outside in glorious weather walking, dining, strolling, talking, enjoying gelato, with more strolling amid countless other families, I went online ever so briefly. And learned that articles and blog posts were dedicated to revealing the origins of International Women’s Day in socialism and communism, something most citizens of the US never knew because it’s not celebrated here and hardly noticed as an international story.

But when we read that, it stood so at odds with our experience in Rome, the first experience of this occasion. Whatever it is or was for anyone else anywhere, here’s how I first encountered the Day of the Woman (besides the Vodafone message my son read to me).

At the Angelus in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis finished his remarks relating to the Sunday Gospel with these remarks.

…“a greeting to all women! To all the women who work every day to build a more human and welcoming society. And a fraternal thank you to those who in a thousand ways bear witness to the Gospel and work in the Church. This is for us an opportunity to reaffirm the importance and the necessity of their presence in life. A world where women are marginalised is a barren world, because women not only bring life, but they also give us the ability to see beyond – they see beyond themselves – and they transmit to us the ability to understand the world through different eyes, to hear things with more creative, more patient, more tender hearts. A prayer and a special blessing for all women present here in the square and for all women! Greetings!”

It was a beautiful finish to a message that sent us off on what I said was a glorious day, and along the way we saw everywhere the Italian bouquets of ‘mimosas’, the small yellow flowers that symbolize the day, and I was greeted by shop owners and restaurant hosts with a warm ‘Buona Festa!’

Reading the stories online later about the socialist roots of the day, decades earlier, I thought of the many times we had crisscrossed the Pantheon walking around Rome those days. It was originally erected as a pagan temple or building of some sort, possibly dedicated to many gods. It was later consecrated as the church of St. Mary and the Martyrs. Which seemed emblematic to me, of meeting something where it is and bringing to it a Christian presence, reflecting the glory of what Pope Benedict referred to as the ‘new humanism.’

Like when my family visited Ireland and came upon the Hill of Slane, on which St. Patrick lit a Paschal fire to rival the ‘festival fire’ on the opposite Hill of Tara lit by a pagan king, initiating a longstanding, sacred Catholic Easter Vigil rite.

In other words, it is indeed what you make of it.

So since my initiation into this festival honoring women on March 8th happened as it did in Rome, hearing Pope Francis honor the role of women as he did, it seemed to me a current day acknowledgement of the unique role of women recognized by the Second Vatican Council in its closing remarks, among countless individual ones by popes and councils. After addressing different, diverse identity groups, the Council fathers said this:

And now it is to you that we address ourselves, women of all states — girls, wives, mothers and widows, to you also, consecrated virgins and women living alone — you constitute half of the immense human family. As you know, the Church is proud to have glorified and liberated woman, and in the course of the centuries, in diversity of characters, to have brought into relief her basic equality with man. But the hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of woman is being achieved in its fullness, the hour in which woman acquires in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved. That is why, at this moment when the human race is under-going so deep a transformation, women impregnated with the spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid mankind in not falling.

Simply not falling? That’s it? Yes, that is what they were saying.

You women have always had as your lot the protection of the home, the love of beginnings and an understanding of cradles. You are present in the mystery of a life beginning. You offer consolation in the departure of death. Our technology runs the risk of becoming inhuman. Reconcile men with life and above all, we beseech you, watch carefully over the future of our race. Hold back the hand of man who, in a moment of folly, might attempt to destroy human civilization.

Wives, mothers of families, the first educators of the human race in the intimacy of the family circle, pass on to your sons and your daughters the traditions of your fathers at the same time that you prepare them for an unsearchable future. Always remember that by her children a mother belongs to that future which perhaps she will not see.

How beautiful is that?

And you, women living alone, realize what you can accomplish through your dedicated vocation. Society is appealing to you on all sides. Not even families can live without the help of those who have no families.

How sensitive an understanding of roles that was, and is.

Especially you, consecrated virgins, in a world where egoism and the search for pleasure would become law, be the guardians of purity, unselfishness and piety. Jesus who has given to conjugal love all its plenitudes, has also exalted the renouncement of human love when this is for the sake of divine love and for the service of all.

Lastly, women in trial, who stand upright at the foot of the cross like Mary, you who so often in history have given to men the strength to battle unto the very end and to give witness to the point of martyrdom, aid them now still once more to retain courage in their great undertakings, while at the same time maintaining patience and an esteem for humble beginnings.

What a profound statement of understanding, acknowledgement, appreciation and appeal this is, even in its brevity.

Women, you do know how to make truth sweet, tender and accessible, make it your task to bring the spirit of this council into institutions, schools, homes and daily life. Women of the entire universe, whether Christian or non-believing, you to whom life is entrusted at this grave moment in history, it is for you to save the peace of the world.

This needs to be recalled now. We are presently in the midst of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Next Monday, my radio program will be dedicated to the proceedings of some lively, engaging, and intense meetings. And to giving voice to women who speak to the role of life giver, nurturer, caregiver, humanizer, peacemaker, and the witness of what Vatican II saw as “the vocation of woman…achieved in its fullness, the hour in which woman acquires in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved.”

Which beats the hell out of whatever socialists and communists intended by fabricating something like an international women’s day according to their designs.

Pope Francis, global village pastor

He is the spiritual father the world is looking for, whether they realize it or not.

That’s how papal biographer and Vatican analyst George Weigel put it when we spoke the other day to mark the first anniversary of Jorge Bergoglio’s papacy.

The analysis of his first year, and what it’s the first year of, continues.

A year into the papacy of Pope Francis, however, the world and the Church continue to wonder just what this pontificate will bring — and no small part of that puzzlement, it seems to me, has to do with the “narrativizing of the pope” that has been underway in much of the world media for the better part of a year. Perhaps now, on this first anniversary of his election to the Chair of Peter, it’s time to set aside the narratives and look at what the pope has actually said and done, in order to get a better sense of where he may be leading more than 1.2 billion Catholics and those outside the Catholic Church who look to Francis for leadership and inspiration.

This is incisive.

His most significant papal document to date, the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, showed him to be a man completely committed to reenergizing the Church as a missionary enterprise. This evangelical vision of the Catholic future, which was the dominant motif of the last half of the pontificate of John Paul II, is also in continuity with a regularly repeated injunction of Benedict XVI: The days of culturally transmitted Catholicism, or what some might call Catholicism by osmosis, are over and done with.

Though the continuity in teaching and tradition remains unbroken and unchanged, there’s a new tone and style and character in the chief shepherd’s office.

For all his high media profile throughout the world, Pope Francis is actually committed to a certain downsizing of the papacy. His recent complaint about the image of the pope as “Superman,” in an interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, is not simply a matter of Bergoglio’s objecting to journalists’ turning him into something he knows he isn’t; it reflects his sense that, when the pope is the sole center of attention in matters Catholic, all others are getting a pass on their evangelical responsibilities. Much attention has been paid, over the past year, to what are essentially symbolic aspects of this papal downsizing…

Check them out, he names several.

At the same time, this papal downsizer has shown himself to be a deadly serious reformer of the Roman Curia: a task, he told the Corriere, that was the primary concern of the conclave that elected him. His creation of a new secretariat for the economy as one of the premier offices of the Curia, and his naming of the no-nonsense Australian cardinal George Pell to head it, is little less than an earthquake in the structure of the Holy See. Finance, personnel policy, and administrative oversight have been taken away from what Francis evidently regards as a sclerotic Italian bureaucracy. And those responsibilities have been given to what is expected to be a lean (and, when necessary, mean) operation, which in its crucial first years will be headed by one of the toughest and shrewdest of churchmen, who (not unlike Francis) combines a priest’s heart with a keen nose for corruption.

Francis’s challenge to his newly named cardinals — that they think of themselves as servants, not courtiers — is another expression of his determination to challenge everyone in the Church to greater evangelical fervor. So was his recent charge, to the Vatican office that helps the pope select bishops, to search widely — perhaps more widely than has been the case in the past — to find for Catholicism the local leaders it needs: men of proven evangelical determination, who can call both priests and people to live their missionary vocation more actively, often in difficult cultural circumstances.

Anyone who followed the naming of new cardinals noticed immediately that the pope went, literally, to the ‘existential peripheries’ to which he refers often.

Which brings us to something else that ought to have been learned about Pope Francis over the past year: this is a man with a deep, compassionate, yet searching sense of the profound wounds that postmodern culture inflicts on individuals and societies. Many regarded it as something of a throwaway line when, in one of his daily Mass sermons, the pope made a positive reference to Robert Hugh Benson’s 1907 novel Lord of the World, the first of the 20th-century literary dystopias. But the more closely one reads Pope Francis, especially in those daily homilies, the more one begins to get the sense that Benson’s vision, of a world in which power-madness and aggressive secularism masquerade as reason and compassion, is quite close to Bergoglio’s vision of what he has sometimes described as the idolatries of our time. The pope has spoken passionately about those who have been left behind, materially, in the world economy. But he has spoken just as passionately about the spiritual and cultural impoverishment that comes from imagining that everything in the human condition is plastic, malleable, and subject to change by means of human willfulness.

This is important, in any hope of understanding this pope and where he is leading people.

The pope knows that, amid the polymorphous perversities of postmodernity and the pain they cause, the Church attracts primarily by witness, not by argument. To those who imagine themselves beyond the reach of compassion, the Church offers the experience of the divine mercy. No one, the pope insists, is beyond the reach of God’s power to forgive. That experience of mercy, in turn, opens up its recipient to the truths the Church proposes: the truths the Church believes make for the human happiness that is being eroded by the idolatries of the age, especially the idolatry of the imperial autonomous Self. Mercy and truth are not antinomies, in the Catholic scheme of things. Mercy and truth are two entwined dimensions of God’s reach into history, and into individual lives.

Time [magazine] read the Pope’s self-query, “Who am I to judge?” as the opening wedge to that long-awaited concession by the Catholic Church that it had been wrong, all along, about the sexual revolution. That is not what the pope thinks, having gone out of his way in Corriere della Sera to praise the “genius” and “courage” of Pope Paul VI for “applying a cultural brake” in the encyclical Humanae Vitae, for standing fast against the tidal wave of Sixties permissivism that has led to so much unhappiness and sorrow, and for opposing “present and future neo-Malthusianism.” When Francis asked, “Who am I to judge?” he was responding as a pastor to the particular situation of a man experiencing same-sex attraction. And as the pope said, if that man was trying, with the grace of God, to live an honest and chaste life, he ought not be judged by his temptations, any more than anyone else in this world of endless temptation. Mercy and truth, as always, go together. For the mercy that tells us that we are not beyond the pale of forgiveness is the mercy that leads us into the truths that make for genuine human happiness.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio is a very old-school Jesuit, and it’s clear that, as such, he is going to be pope his way, not anyone else’s…

And as such, he is capturing the world’s attention, for reasons they may not even know or be correct in identifying. All they know is that he is reaching the human heart and mind and soul on a depth not even perceptible to the senses, except for that of the transcendent. Many people who are not Catholic, including the altogether un-churched, have called him ‘our pope’. And so he is.

Pope Francis: ‘Can you hear me now?’

Though he didn’t say exactly that, he said that in so many words.

Pope Francis has been provoking and jabbing people on all sides of the political and ideological spectrum since he was elected to fill the Chair of Peter. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI dedicated their pontificates to implementing the rich teachings of the Second Vatican Council. Pope Francis comes along and says, more or less, ‘okay, let’s do this.’ He seems to have his sleeves perpetually rolled up (in a manner of speaking), and his worn shoe leather hitting the ground to reach everyone who comes across his path. In fact, he goes seeking the ones who aren’t on his path, as he did in Rio during World Youth Day week when he instructed his motorcade to stop abruptly so he could jump out and go visit a family living in a house he passed along the way. He must be driving his security detail nuts, but they’re surely getting more used to this pope by now.

After all, he even slips out at night to go into the run down parts of the city of Rome to give alms, evidently.

He has the world’s attention. That’s one thing. But are they hearing him?

I’d love to delve deeper into Evangelii Gaudium, ‘The Joy of the Gospel’, and will. But preparing to leave town on an event with the mission to reach people who want to hear the joy of the Gospel (and God help me if I don’t bring it, in a joyful demeanor a la Francis), there’s no time right now to give those outstanding words and paragraphs the time they deserve right now. In due time…

Suddenly, Catholics in high places who want to get it right and are trying to stay up with this Pope are putting out thought provoking posts like this.

What’s Pope Francis up to? Reminding people of roots and past, urging us forward with a greater awareness of the Trinitarian dimensions of our lives. What’s Archbishop Gomez up to in his Immigration and the Next America? Ditto. Archbishop Chaput in just about every syllable. Something similar. You get the idea. We have a talented and wise bench of American bishops and rising cardinals. They challenge and lead. (Thinking of Bishop Olmsted of Phoenix and so many others.)

If lay Catholics take the lead in the political, really grappling with what Catholic Social Teaching should look like in policy practice in an ecumenical civil context, our pastors will have more time for the pastoral. And we’ll [have] more of a prayer of Catholics who vote and serve with Catholic teaching in mind, discerning their contribution in prayer, infused by the graces of the Sacraments and sanctified living.

In the early going, the ever instructive Jimmy Akin lists his ‘what you need to know’ points about this papal document. I particularly liked point no. 7:

7) What particularly noteworthy things does the pope have to say in the document?

There is a mountain of them.

He’s certainly right on that.

The document is 51,000 words long, which means that it is the length of a novel and takes at least 5 hours to read.

There are numerous important things that the pope says, some of which I will endeavor to unpack in future blog posts.

However, Archbishop Fisichella offers a summary of seven main themes that it covers:

The following seven points, gathered together in the five chapters of the Exhortation, constitute the fundamental pillars of Pope Francis’ vision of the new evangelization:

1. the reform of the Church in a missionary key,

2. the temptations of pastoral agents,

3. the Church understood as the totality of the People of God which evangelizes,

4. the homily and its preparation,

5. the social inclusion of the poor,

6. peace and social dialogue,

7. and the spiritual motivations for the Church’s missionary action.

The cement which binds these themes together is concentrated in the merciful love of God which goes forth to meet every person in order to manifest the heart of his revelation: The life of every person acquires meaning in the encounter with Jesus Christ and in the joy of sharing this experience of love with others.

Sound too ‘churchy’ for you? This pope doesn’t do ‘churchy’ in ways modern culture is used to, or used to ridiculing.

Media are still seeing the document as an excoriation of capitalism. Not exactly, though once again, he jabs everyone. This piece has a good lead.

Nothing worries Catholics more than the reporting of statements made by Pope Francis.

True, I’ve learned early on. He makes everyone nervous. People are working overtime ‘explaining this pope’, I’ve seen time and again.

The reaction across the political spectrum suggested that Pope Francis was breaking with the supposedly ultra-conservative Pope Benedict XVI on emphasis if not entirely on teaching, while others accused Francis of betraying the Cold War legacy of soon-to-be-canonized John Paul II by embracing socialism rather than the free-market economics that liberated Poland and Eastern Europe.

However, a thorough reading of Evangelii Gaudium in the context of the Catechism promulgated by John Paul II fails to substantiate these accusations or celebrations. It’s true that Francis has scalding criticisms of dysfunctional capitalism as an end in itself. One has to consider that in the context of his front-row seat for the Argentinian version of it, where crony capitalism creates a huge distortion in the distribution of goods and the winners corrupt government to perpetuate those outcomes. Argentina hardly holds a monopoly on that development, though, and where gaps of inequality and poverty in these economies grow, criticism of those outcomes don’t make one a socialist. Indeed, Francis even includes a disclaimer against “an irresponsible populism,” even while blasting economies that “attempt to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded” in the same sentence.

For those familiar with Catholic teaching on economics, Pope Francis speaks in a consistent voice with his predecessors.

So, some snips to make the points clearer:

Almost all of the coverage of the document failed to note the actual purpose of the apostolic exhortation, which was to evangelize in the real world….

The Gospel, Pope Francis insists in Evangelii Gaudium, transcends those by reminding us to be mindful of the human cost of markets, and to feel the pain of those who are impoverished rather than dismiss them as mere statistics – like “the 47 percent,” for an example. The central point for Catholics is to evangelize the Word of God through proclamation and service, and not “capitalism,” or “socialism,” or “utopianism.” Francis scolds governments for not structuring their economies better to prevent injustices, but the emphasis in Evangelii Gaudium is on individual action….

Near the end of the exhortation, Francis notes that the state has a responsibility to promote the common good through “the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity.” The key concept of subsidiarity in Catholic doctrine rejects Marxism and command economies, teaching that “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order” (paragraph 1883)…

Pope Francis uses a small part of Evangelii Gaudium to challenge Catholics not to invert the means over the ends, i.e., to fall so in love with economic philosophies as to become blinded to their pitfalls and negative outcomes. Far from demanding top-down control over economies, Francis is exhorting Catholics to act personally when they see injustices, and in that effort bear witness to the truth of the Gospel.

If that makes us uncomfortable – and clearly that part of Evangelii Gaudium will do so for Catholics inclined to support market-based economics – it serves as a reminder not to dull our senses so that we grow deaf and blind to the sufferings of the poor, just as the Gospel demands.

And it serves as a blueprint for the way forward.

“The title — ‘The Joy of the Gospel’ — says it all: We need to speak boldly about Christ and the Gospel and do it with joyful lives, engaging the world,” Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., the newly elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Register.

George Weigel, the author of Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church, told the Register that Pope Francis was building on the foundations of his predecessors, but he also identified something “new” from the Church’s first Latin-American pope.

“He puts the New Evangelization at the very center of the Church and orients everything else around it,” said Weigel. “This exhortation demonstrates the seamless continuity between John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis and the continuity between the John Paul-Benedict interpretation of Vatican II and Francis: It’s all about recovering the missionary vocation of everyone.”

Happy to say that I’ve had George Weigel, Archbishop Kurtz, and renowned evangelist Fr. Robert Barron on my show in the past two weeks to talk about what seems like constantly breaking news with this pope and social policy. Each and all have reinforced their enthusiasm for the way and the words Francis chooses to engage the world today. Fr. Barron referred to it as an urgency, like ‘grabbing the lapels’ urgency to make an important point, an urgency he said started with the Apostles.

Wow. It’s been a long time since we’ve felt that. Fr. Barron continues:

“Pope Francis is clear: The one thing that positions everything that the Church seeks to accomplish, from worship to catechesis to efforts to serve the needs of the poor, is the central and urgent task of evangelization.”

And what is its message? The sense of urgency is in the response.

“How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” Francis asks.

The Holy Father acknowledges that his strong words might bruise the feelings of some Catholics, but he said that was not his intention.

“My words are not those of a foe or an opponent,” Francis states. “I am interested only in helping those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centered mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains”.

He’s rattling those chains. And we’re hearing him, loud and, hopefully, clear.

‘Peter is not there’

The official Latin term for the time between popes holding the office of the papacy is the Interregnum. There is no pope. Vatican operations go into near shutdown or at least restricted mode with key officials doing only essential duties, attending to the most critical things, while the college of cardinals carry the weight of the church and world on their shoulders. But there’s no word for the uneasiness countless Catholics feel around the world for this time of the sede vacante, the empty seat. As one renowned cardinal put it last time around, in 2005, ‘it’s frightening, Peter is not there.’

Time and again over the past several days, I’ve heard Catholics in high places say they are unsettled, anxious, sad and even ‘orphaned’, which is especially poignant given that in his final message as pope, Benedict XVI said he takes each one of us with him (everyone in the world) and prays for us ‘with a father’s heart.’ One of his legacies is helping us see how we’re all in this together, that each one of us in the world has equal dignity and rights and responsibilities.

The cardinals are starting to work out the details of the process of going forward now. Benedict is finally resting and spending time in privacy, praying and reading and enjoying his favorite books and music, and praying some more. But his legacy is among the weighiest of the modern popes. Papal biographer George Weigel told me in an interview that he considered Pope Benedict XVI the greatest papal preacher since Gregory the Great.

Pause a moment with that one…

Carl Olson wonders, was he ‘The Last of the Giants’? It’s all hard to summarize, the pontificate and analyses of it. Read this whole piece, it’s a good one. But here’s the end of Olson’s commentary:

Judging Benedict XVI’s pontificate is a difficult thing to do, hardly possible on the day it has ended. The key question is: what criteria will be used to judge, and who will do the judging? With that in mind, I conclude this essay with two quotes, both from Mark Brumley, President of Ignatius Press, from whom I learned so much about John Paul II’s thought (when Mark was my professor in the late 1990s) and who has worked so tirelessly to bring the writings of Ratzinger/Benedict XVI to English-speaking readers throughout the world.

First, in a 2005 interview with ZENIT, Mark was asked, “What will Pope Benedict XVI bring of himself and his theological interests to the pontificate?” He replied:

Although Ratzinger the prefect is distinguishable from Ratzinger the theologian, we are blessed in Pope Benedict XVI with a theologian and pastor who has thought and prayed long and hard about Jesus Christ, the Church and her mission to the world.

He will, I believe, continue the twofold task of Vatican II — renewing the inner life of the Church and reinvigorating the Church’s mission in the world. He is committed to a renewal of biblical studies and a deepening of ordinary Catholics’ appreciation of and participation in the sacred liturgy.

He staunchly proclaims the universal call to holiness of Vatican II. He understands the importance of dialogue among Christians and dialogue with world religions and seekers, while he upholds the integrity of Catholic faith and insists on a renewed missionary drive to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world.

And he knows that in the areas of morality and social justice, the Christian message has not been tried and found wanting, as G.K. Chesterton noted, but has been found difficult and left untried. Furthermore, he sees the threat of radical relativism and many other “isms.”

And today, in a press release, Mark states:

Although Pope Benedict’s pontificate has been relatively short, he has accomplished a great deal amidst profound challenges, both within the Church and in the world. By stressing the “hermeneutic of reform” in contrast to the “hermeneutic of rupture,” he has shown the way forward in clarifying the relationship between the Second Vatican Council and the Church’s Tradition. He has presented clearly, forcefully, thoughtfully, and winsomely “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), and he has strengthened the Church’s efforts to evangelize the world. He has sought to deepen the renewal of the Church’s worship and sacramental life by fostering a recovery of “the spirit of the liturgy.” He has appointed and elevated men to the episcopate who perceive the importance of an authentic understanding of the Second Vatican Council, in light of the Church’s Tradition and the “joy and hope, the grief and anguish” of our world (cf. Gaudium et Spes, no. 1).

And then he ended it all with utmost humility and simplicity. His final public words:

Thank you – thank you from my heart!

Dear friends, I’m happy to be with you, that I can see the Creator’s beauty around us, and all the goodness you’ve given to me – thank you for your friendship and your affection!

You know that this day of mine hasn’t been like those before. I’m no longer the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic church…now I’m just a pilgrim beginning the last part of his journey on earth.

With all my heart, with all my love, with my prayer and all my strength – with everything in me – I’d like to work for the common good of the church and all humanity. I feel your kindness so much.

Let us always move together toward the Lord for the good of the church and of the world. Thank you for bringing yourselves [here] – with all my heart, I give you my blessing….

Thank you and goodnight!

Tom McDonald, a savvy, witty blogger, hardly knew what to say.

And so it ends.

The last great man of Europe takes the stage for the final time, and reminds us that greatness is measured not by political machinations, military or economic might, or even important discoveries, but in staying grounded in the vast messiness of this frustrating and glorious human family with compassion, humility, and gentleness.

He was the teacher we needed at the time we needed him. The Holy Spirit is funny that way. As the world was careening towards armageddon, with almost half its population locked in near-slavery, He gave us a firebrand: a charismatic leader who spoke with a force that toppled nations.

When our greatest enemy was ourselves–our prosperity, our tendency to selfishness, our triviality, our refusal to be taught–he sent a quiet viticulturist of souls. In one of those great cosmic ironies that proves God is a brilliant joker, He sent a teacher to a people unwilling to be taught: a people under the delusion of a radical individualism that says each man is his own Lord and Master, and thus must find his own way by his own light, rather than by the one Light Who illuminates all.

For a people easily distracted by an infinitely multiplying, utterly inconsequential number of small things, he turned the bright beam of his intellect on the big things: the things that mattered: hope, faith, love. In an era when the people who have assumed the mantle of “humanism” are the most anti-human of all, he gave us a true Christian humanist rooted where it must be rooted: in the God who loves.

Non-Catholics can’t possibly understand the connection truly faithful Catholics have to their pope.  He’s not magic, he’s not a god, and oddly enough he doesn’t even need to be holy or even particularly inspirational. (Fortunately, this last part is rare in the history of Christ’s Church.) What he is, is this:  a promise. He is a promise, made by the Incarnate Lord, of a visible leadership that will last for all time, beginning with the flawed, hot-headed, cowardly fisherman who sat at His right hand, and stretching down through the millennia to us today. “Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam.”

And I will miss him more than words can express. He was “my” pope. I read him for years as Joseph Ratzinger, marveling at a mind so sharp it could convey complex points with utter simplicity. As someone called to a teaching ministry, I was inspired by his ability to teach at any level required of him, and teach so well that he also could inspire.

And that, my friends, bespeaks my sentiments exactly. I read him for years as Joseph Ratzinger, quoted him in articles I wrote and talks I gave and on radio shows, because he taught the depths of human truths with such clarity and elegance and art. All that Thomas said, yes.

In recent days, I’ve twice interviewed Fr. Joseph Fessio, founder and editor of Ignatius Press and former student of the former Fr. Joseph Ratzinger with whom he has maintained a close 40 year long friendship. It has been enlightening and joyful and inspiring to talk with him, a priest who can really call Ratzinger/Benedict “my pope.”

“He was different, and people came to listen to him. He offered a very personal, meditative reflection. As people now recognize, he was articulate, organized and coherent,” recalled Father Fessio, during an interview that shared recollections of Ratzinger’s role as a teacher and offered an appreciation of his gifts as an author.

But Father Ratzinger’s intellectual gifts were even more striking during the graduate seminars, “where there would be five or six of us. In each session, one person would make a presentation, and others would respond,” Father Fessio remembered. “Father Ratzinger would listen, and then, in the discussion, he would make sure that others also spoke. My German was not good, and I couldn’t say very much.”

During the seminars, Father Ratzinger “would sit back, and then, at the end of the seminar, in two or three sentence, he would summarize all that was said. He pulled the discussion together into an organic whole in a way that was always illuminating.”

Fr. Fessio told me Ratzinger/Benedict had the gift of synthesizing thoughts in something like “an intellectual symphony,” a beautiful and perfectly apt description of Benedict’s exquisite expression. “He had a power of seeing,” Fr. Fessio told me again on Monday. “He wrote with clarity, depth and breadth. His deep faith gave him the power of seeing everyting integrated as a whole, with an inner unity.”

From the interview in National Catholic Register:

Father Fessio recalled a remark the Pope made during a meeting some time after his election.

Another Catholic publisher asked the Holy Father why only Ignatius Press was publishing his works. Father Fessio recalled  that the Pope calmly responded, “Because when no one else cared, they published my works.”

Those of us who knew the mind and eloquent expression of Joseph Ratzinger always cared, in fact valued it highly, and hung on every word. Fortunately, they will be with us for a lifetime and many more after us, no matter who his successors are to the Chair of Peter.