Saturday, 2 March 2013

Ascending the mountain


The last words one shares before a departure, especially one from which a return is unlikely or impossible, tend to contain the essence of what one wants those who stay behind to understand and internalize. It is with this in mind that I followed as much as I could of Pope Benedict XVI’s last days in office and listened with heightened attention to his words. Words that I found to be brimming with wisdom and love and whose highlights I would like to share with you.

Let me start by quoting from Benedict’s final Angelus greeting that took place on the last Sunday of his pontificate. It was there that he first introduced the picture of the mountain that then underpinned everything else he said during the following week:
“The Christian life consists in continuously scaling the mountain to meet God and then coming back down, bearing the love and strength drawn from him, so as to serve our brothers and sisters with God’s own love.”1
This is a beautiful synthesis of the two constituent aspects of being a Christian: the vertical, that refers to my relationship with God, and the horizontal, that relates to my relationship with fellow humans. Benedict’s image further emphasizes that it is the vertical that impels us to the horizontal and that the two are in a continuous dynamic.

Against this backdrop, Benedict presents his own role as follows:
“The Lord is calling me to “climb the mountain”, to devote myself even more to prayer and meditation. But this does not mean abandoning the Church, indeed, if God is asking me to do this it is so that I can continue to serve the Church with the same dedication and the same love with which I have done thus far, but in a way that is better suited to my age and my strength.”
To me this is the first of the gems of last week: service does not equal activity - instead it is a frame of mind, an attitude. While it may under many circumstances lead to activity, it can also manifest itself differently if one is incapacitated, while fundamentally remaining the same service.

On Wednesday, 27th February, during his last general audience Benedict returns to his role following the resignation by elaborating on the above picture as follows:
“I do not return to private life, to a life of travel, meetings, receptions, conferences and so on. I do not abandon the cross, but remain in a new way near to the Crucified Lord. I no longer wield the power of the office for the government of the Church, but in the service of prayer I remain, so to speak, within St. Peter’s bounds. St. Benedict, whose name I bear as Pope, shall be a great example in this for me. He showed us the way to a life which, active or passive, belongs wholly to the work of God.”
Far from being an opt-out, a return to the life of a leisurely academic or a move to the speaking circuit that retired politicians favor,2 Benedict remains close to the suffering Jesus whom he served in office and whom he will continue to serve away from the world. This is the second gem for me: Benedict’s move is not a giving up, but instead an expression of utter humility and a putting of the good of the Church before his own.3

Finally, we arrive at Thursday, 28th February - the last day of Pope Benedict XVI as the Bishop of Rome. The first thing that struck me here was the fact that all his activities during this day were streamed live on, which meant that anyone could listen in both to him saying his farewell to the cardinals and later to the inhabitants of the town of Castel Gandolfo, where he will spend the first weeks after his resignation. I found this to be a wonderful thing for the Church to do and I hope that this openness and accessibility will persist.

In his short address to the cardinals, the first thing that struck me was Benedict’s perspective on his pontificate as a walk “in light of the presence of the Risen Lord,” which points squarely to Jesus’ appearance to his disciples on the road to Emmaus and which is the first nod to the Church being the living body of Christ that morning.

The second comes very soon after, when Benedict expresses his wish: “so that the College of Cardinals is like an orchestra, where diversity, an expression of the universal Church, always contributes to a superior harmony of concord.” Here we again have the image of a living body - the orchestra - as well as the introduction of a diversity that is constituent of harmony, which echoes his insistence on “the possibility of a unity which is not dependent upon uniformity” delivered during a talk in Jerusalem in 2009.

The third, and most explicit, angle, which Benedict says “is close to my heart” is a quote from Romano Guardini:
“The Church is not an institution devised and built at table, but a living reality. She lives along the course of time by transforming Herself, like any living being, yet Her nature remains the same. At Her heart is Christ.”
To which Benedict adds:
“[…T]he Church is a living body, animated by the Holy Spirit, and truly lives by the power of God, She is in the world but not of the world. She is of God, of Christ, of the Spirit. […] The Church lives, grows and awakens in those souls which like the Virgin Mary accept and conceive the Word of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. They offer to God their flesh and in their own poverty and humility become capable of giving birth to Christ in the world today. Through the Church the mystery of the Incarnation remains present forever. Christ continues to walk through all times in all places.”
This, to me, is the third gem: remember that the Church is alive, that its diverse, yet harmonious, ever changing, yet of constant nature, that it is Her who makes the Incarnation persistent and that it is through Her that Jesus walks the Earth wherever and whenever She is.

Mind. Blown.

Yet again Benedict transmits that serenity, calmness, confidence and at the same time humility that he has shared on previous occasions4 and takes advantage of this last official occasion to deliver yet another masterclass.

Then there is the brief greeting to the inhabitants of Castel Gandolfo, which to my mind is core to the conclusion of his papacy and which finishes with the following:
“I am simply a pilgrim beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on this earth. But I would still with my heart, with my love, with my prayers, with my reflection, and with all my inner strength, like to work for the common good and the Good of the Church and of humanity. […]

I now wholeheartedly impart my blessing. Blessed be God Almighty, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Good night! Thank you all!”
This is the fourth of the gems I have received during this week from Pope Benedict: we Christians are all simple pilgrims, striving for the common good and for the good of the Church and even the position of greatest responsibility and power is only to be exercised as long as it is out of service. When it is then relinquished, one reverts to the shared Christian pilgrimage.

Finally, I keep coming back to the following thought of Cardinal Dolan’s, when asked what he is looking for in the next pope: “You always look for somebody that reminds you of Jesus.”

Dearest Holy Father, Benedict XVI, thank you for reminding me of Jesus!

1 Actually this is a quote from his Lenten message.
2 See, e.g., Hillary Clinton’s plans.
3 See him saying the following when he announced his resignation: “[I]n order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
4 To my mind one of the most staggering instances of this has been a passage I have quoted before, but one whose conclusion I’ll repeat here again: “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.”