Monday, 11 February 2013

Benedict XVI: Servant of the servants of God


The papal title that has always impressed me the most by far is Servus servorum Dei (Servant of the servants of God), first used by Saint Gregory the Great, and I believe Benedict XVI’s shock resignation today is an extreme expression of taking it seriously. When a servant can no longer serve, the ultimate manifestation of service is to resign. The Italian economist Prof. Luigino Bruni put this particularly clearly by saying that Benedict XVI’s humble decision has “shown us that the Pope is not a king but a servant.”

Having spent the day thinking about what to say, I have decided against the following, all of which would have been great choices:
  1. Reflecting on the specifics of his beautiful resignation message (a highlight being his affirmation that the Petrine ministry “must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering.”).
  2. Reviewing the many heartfelt messages arriving from all around the world (a great example being Israeli Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger’s spokesman saying that “I think he deserves a lot of credit for advancing inter-religious links the world over between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. During his period there were the best relations ever between the Church and the chief rabbinate and we hope that this trend will continue.”)
  3. Surveying both the historical precedents (admiring in particular Saint Pontian, who in 235 AD “was arrested and sent to the salt mines, and in order for a successor to be able to be elected in Rome, […] resigned his office.”) and the canon law applicable in this case (pausing over the fact that for the resignation to be valid it does not need to be accepted by anyone).
  4. Arguing that at the heart of both Benedict XVI’s resignation and John Paul II’s persistence in spite of his crippling illness (retorting that “Christ did not come down from the cross either,” when asked whether he’d consider resigning), which prima facie look contradictory, lies a profound commitment to discerning and heroically acting on the will of God.
Instead, I will share with you those insights and teachings of Benedict XVI that have most encouraged, guided and delighted me:1
  1. His joint highlighting of the saints and of art: “[T]o me art and the Saints are the greatest apologetic for our faith. [… I]f we look at the Saints, this great luminous trail on which God passed through history, we see that there truly is a force of good which resists the millennia; there truly is the light of light. [… H]eart and reason encounter one another, beauty and truth converge, and the more that we ourselves succeed in living in the beauty of truth, the more that faith will be able to return to being creative in our time too, and to express itself in a convincing form of art.”

  2. His insistence on a fearless seeking of the Truth, backed by a profound trust in God: “[T]he search for knowledge and understanding always has to involve drawing closer to the truth. […] As far as preserving identity is concerned, it would be too little for the Christian, so to speak, to assert his identity in a such a way that he effectively blocks the path to truth. Then his Christianity would appear as something arbitrary, merely propositional. He would seem not to reckon with the possibility that religion has to do with truth. On the contrary, I would say that the Christian can afford to be supremely confident, yes, fundamentally certain that he can venture freely into the open sea of the truth, without having to fear for his Christian identity.”

  3. His freedom to recognize truth even in sources that don’t have the Church’s approval, such as quoting Origen attributing the following saying to Jesus: “Whoever is close to me is close to the fire” - a statement not found in Catholic canonical Scripture, or praising Teilhard de Chardin’s vision that “At the end we will have a true cosmic liturgy, where the cosmos becomes a living host.”

  4. His clear denunciation of fideism, by affirming that Catholic tradition “has always rejected the so-called principle of ‘fideism’, that is, the will to believe against reason. […] Indeed, although a mystery, God is not absurd. […] If, in contemplating the mystery, reason sees only darkness, this is not because the mystery contains no light, rather because it contains too much. Just as when we turn our eyes directly to the sun, we see only shadow - who would say that the sun is not bright? Faith allows us to look at the ‘sun’ that is God, because it welcomes His revelation in history. […] God has sought mankind and made Himself known, bringing Himself to the limits of human reason.”

  5. His passionate emphasis of the centrality of joy: “Joy is at the heart of the Christian experience. [W]e experience immense joy, the joy of communion, the joy of being Christian, the joy of faith [… and w]e can see the great attraction that joy exercises. In a world of sorrow and anxiety, joy is an important witness to the beauty and reliability of the Christian faith.”

  6. His proclamation that closeness to God is not contingent on a belief in His existence:2 “[A]gnostics, who are constantly exercised by the question of God, those who long for a pure heart but suffer on account of our[, the Church’s,] sin, are closer to the Kingdom of God than believers whose life of faith is “routine” and who regard the Church merely as an institution, without letting their hearts be touched by faith.”

  7. His insight that faith is not a subscription to this or that dogma, but an encounter with the person of Jesus: “[M]any Christians dedicate their lives with love to those who are lonely, marginalized or excluded, as to those who are the first with a claim on our attention and the most important for us to support, because it is in them that the reflection of Christ’s own face is seen. […] It is faith that enables us to recognize Christ and it is his love that impels us to assist him whenever he becomes our neighbour along the journey of life.”

1 Thanks to my bestie PM for this great suggestion!
2 The truth of this was yet again brought home to me today, when my expressing admiration for Pope Benedict was met with understanding from an agnostic and an atheist friend of mine and with mockery from two Christian ones …