His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, announced yesterday that he would resign his sacred office at the end of the month. Although not unheard of, it's the first resignation by a pope in almost 600 years. The last one was in the 15th century and was only done to end the Great Western Schism that threatened to break apart the Church. The one before that was in the 13th century and caught the attention of Dante. Dante placed that pope in hell.
Though there will always be conspiracy theorists when it comes to the Church and gossip is as popular as ever it seems that His Holiness is sincere and well-intentioned in his choice to abdicate (and certainly not landing in hell, despite Dante's beliefs).
I wrote a completely different blog post trying to hash out the complexities of Pope Benedict's papacy but decided to scratch it. Plenty of the news outlets are doing that already. Suffice it to say, he had big shoes to fill during his reign. It's hard to follow the charismatic and beloved Pope John Paul II, one of only four popes to be called "the great" in 2000 years of Church history. But Benedict was the the pope chosen by the Spirit to lead at this time. And that is comforting for those who believe. I think the only question I can answer is What has this pope meant to me?
His Holiness is the only pope I have known. On my 18th birthday I came home from school to learn that John Paul II had died. While in college two years later, I became Catholic. I get asked fairly often why I converted, especially in Wheaton. There were three main reasons and one of them was a lesson that Benedict taught me: to know that faith and reason are never at odds.
People will talk about His Holiness as a traditionalist and probably as someone who was out of touch with the world. While he certainly loved tradition he was not an ignorant, medieval man. I know him as the man who wrote 'In the Beginning...' A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall and in it taught that if you believe faith and reason are in conflict, you're misunderstanding at least one of them. I know him as someone who wasn't afraid of the mind, and as the man who published What It Means to Be a Christian and in it said that a Christian is simply anyone who loves. (Eat your heart out, universalists!)
I don't know him as a perfect man or leader or even with any level of intimacy. But I experienced a profound respect for his office and a deep connection with him as a teacher. The Bavarian Catholic who went from being in the Hitler Youth, which was something compulsory, to priest to brilliant theologian to pope had an extraordinary journey.
People sometimes ask about popes. I tell them a king wears a crown, an emperor wears two, but a pope wears three. Now that's a rosy, idyllic, and ultimately unhealthy prism for viewing the papacy. But it does help convey the profound reverence a faithful Catholic can't help but feel for, not the man, but the office - the Vicar of Christ, God's chosen representative and the direct successor to St. Peter. All of that should be held alongside a particularly critical eye toward The Church (which too many Catholics forget, by the way) but it's nevertheless quite awe-some.
I think of Benedict as a teacher and mentor at a time when I, as a young, isolated Catholic, desperately needed one. His decision is unusual but fair and canonically legal. I had an inherent respect for the man who shouldered the weighty papal burden, a burden one of the current cardinals has called "a nightmare."
I think I'll remember the teacher and the advocate: a traditionalist who still had the common sense and gospel-inspired courage to oppose America's wars, contraception, unfair labor laws, unbridled capitalism, and infringements on religious liberty, all of which made him greatly unpopular. I didn't agree with everything he did nor all of his beliefs. I don't know how history will remember him but I think what I feel when I hear "Benedict XVI" or "Joseph Ratzinger" is mostly pride. In remembering a father, that's not too bad.