Arriving home from an evening out with friends to be told by my father that the Holy Father had resigned was a shock to say the very least… so much so that I haven’t been able to put my thoughts and emotions in order until now.
Two experiences can have a world of difference between them, and yet there can be but a single commonality between them that engenders a spirit of solidarity… I feel this way about the experience of my following God’s call not to make the vows of a religious when I consider it in the light of Benedict XVI’s decision to follow God’s call to step down from the Papacy.
A decision not to proceed with making vows, but rather to leave religious life, can be rash, or it can be prayerfully discerned after a great deal of deliberation on one’s knees. Thanks be to God, mine was the latter. I feel convinced that in my case, my leaving was a lovingly compliant response to the direction of the Holy Spirit. In the announcement that the Holy Father made on 11 February, he indicated that much careful discernment had gone into his decision to renounce the chair and retire to a life of prayer. Certainly in the case of the Holy Father, one whom we have known to be a man of deep prayer, I cannot believe that his decision could have been anything other than a similarly loving act of obedience to the direction of the Spirit.
The Holy Father’s decision has been subject to a great deal of public scrutiny and criticism, on a massive scale. For me, the scale is very different, but within my own sphere of family, friends and acquaintances, I have likewise been subject to scrutiny and criticism. In both cases, the criticism is coming from people who don’t understand, who have no concept of the conversation with God that has transpired and led to the decision, and certainly no concept of the weight of responsibility that the decision involves, nor the emotional impact of such a decision and its aftermath.
I know what a difficult thing my own decision was. I feel blessed and supported by my Saviour and know that I could not have had the strength to follow through were it not for the grace that came with the prompting. Inspired by St. Augustine, I had long been praying “accomplish in me what You command!” Even with grace and the knowledge that I am infinitely loved by Him, this decision and the monumental changes it has involved have been the most difficult time of my life. Amidst it all has come both joy and peace… and yet at the same time it has involved much trial and suffering, and what feels like God’s absence, even though I know that is only a feeling, and that He is there with me all the time. This is a challenging time, and yet it is a time of hope and of growth. I feel quite certain that the Lord is drawing me closer to Himself… on the Cross.
Knowing what I now know through this experience, I am in AWE of the soon-to-be Emeritus Bishop of Rome, His Holiness Benedict XVI.
My decision was small potatoes by comparison. The enormity of what he has done, and the courage, obedience and love that it must have taken, along with the humility that has been exhibited in the manner of its execution… I just can’t get my head around it! We are witnessing history, and we are witnessing authentic greatness.
Many scare-mongerers have speculated in the news frenzy and on the blogosphere about potential conspiracy theories and power-plays that could be going on behind the scenes, motivating this unexpected move from the Holy Father. I guess this is to be expected, particularly from non-believers and from cynics. This act is outside the norm, even if both precedent and canonical provision exist for it. Without an understanding of, an experience of or a belief in the workings of grace, who wouldn’t think that there was more afoot than meets the eye?
Then there is the bookmaking circus – the bets on the outcome of the upcoming Conclave. Lucky for those involved that Canon Law is more lenient than it used to be!
Despite all of this, I really do believe sincerely that this is exactly what the Holy Father says it is. And I believe that, rather than interpreting these reasons that he has given us as a retreat from responsibility, what we are really witnessing is a call to deeper sacrifice, a yet weightier role. Benedict XVI is being invited up to the mountain, as the Peter of our time, to contemplate the transfigured Face of Christ, and in so doing, is interceding ceaselessly for the needs of a suffering Church as it seeks to more deeply understand the disfigured Face of Christ on the Cross. In a way perhaps chiastically, the Face of Christ does not remain disfigured, but again becomes radiant in the glorified, Resurrected Body.
If anyone feels the need to look for a deeper significance to the Holy Father’s act than that which he has explained to us himself, I would suggest that one need look no farther than the reality that the Holy Father is both a theologian and a teacher. I think it is fair to say that this is the deliberate act of an intelligent man, an act designed to have a teaching significance that will form a significant part of the Holy Father’s legacy to the faithful. His renunciation of the Chair, rather than standing in contradiction to the witness of John Paul the Great’s heroic teaching on the dignity of the elderly and the sick, rather complements it beautifully.
John Paul the Great taught us that a person’s dignity resides in the reality of who they are, not in any utilitarian value that can be placed on their capacity for output or productivity. He taught us that the sick and the elderly are people to be loved, and that loving is never a burden. These facts should be self-evident, yet our society has become blind, unable to apprehend this objective reality without guidance from one who can see. And boy, could John Paul the Great see!!
Now, Benedict XVI teaches us that humility, obedience, love and trust are necessary in the encounter with the person of Christ, and that our responsibility to live in a way that reflects these virtues extends into our senior years. Benedict XVI doesn’t get off the hook just because he’s living the last years of his life – no, massive life changes and suprising commands from God happen even when one is an octagenarian! It is still our duty, in justice to our Creator, to freely choose to obey in love. Benedict teaches us about the freedom there is in obedience. He teaches us that life is a struggle, right up until we breathe our last, but that continuing to struggle is possible, even when one is old and tired! He teaches us that courage is not simply a virtue of the young and the strong.
Most of all, the contrast between these two holy servants of God show us that holiness looks different on different people. No one person’s path to heaven is the same as that of any other.
Thanks be to God! We are living in a time of great saints!
In approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes, the Chair of St. Peter will be vacant. (To correspond with 8pm 28 Feb ROME time). Mary, Mediatrix of Graces and Mother of the Church – pray for us.