The news was breathtaking. It did not respect the Bavarian celebration of Fasching, nor did it regard Ash Wednesday. It certainly did not consider Valentine’s Day. On the Feast of our Lady of Lourdes, when Catholics concurrently observed the Day of the Sick, Pope Benedict XVI’s announced his resignation effective in 17 days. It was an announcement that shocked the entire world:
“After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering.
“However in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of St. 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. “
The secular news media immediately began speculation as to why the Pope really needed to resign so immediately. The sex scandals involving Catholic priests and the papal documents leaked through a rogue papal butler were mentioned. There was however the more simple explanation: The Pope recognized the truth of his failing physical powers that were no longer compatible with his duties of governance over a Church desperately in need extraordinary strength, courage, theological insight, closeness to the world, and creativity, and resigned in love. His love for the Church was such, that it led him to humbly accept his condition and its imperatives in truth.
In this manner, the Pope himself was living the lesson he taught which most deeply moves me in my life: truth for us is necessarily linked to love; love for us is necessarily linked to truth. The truth about ourselves we acknowledge not just in abstract cobwebbed concepts, but in loving acts that make actual history. Loving authentically in our history leads us necessarily to acceptance of the truth. This truth in love (veritas in caritate), or love in truth (caritas in veritate), Benedict XVI taught to be “the driving force of development” not only the macro social scale, but also on the individual, personal scale. In the manner of his resigning he is living this.
For those of us clerics who have tasted the forbidden fruit of religious power, felt the rush of adrenalin before large crowds that seems like power to turn stones into bread, the endless adulation that comes with being associated with the wisdom, majesty and infallibility of God, the social respect and admiration that comes with being asked about this or that, or being able to decide this or that in God’s name, and that wines and dines and spoils us in God’s name, the resignation of the Pope is as sobering as it is shocking. It is possible to be overcome by it all. It is possible to resign from it all. It has happened. In this case, what triumphs is not a loveless Church and an anachronistic ecclesiastical culture that cannot accept the true demands of love. What triumphs is a humble man of the Church loving in truth.
That important hint for our lives that underpins Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 letter to the Church, Caritas in Veritate (CV), is offered to all of us. Truth and love, love and truth, are not to be separated. There is a truth in our relationship with God – if we ourselves would care to find it – that is of a special status, a special dignity, in nature. We are understood by God, and can understand in his image. We are loved by God, and can love in his image. We are created by God, and can create in his image. We are sinners and baptized most profoundly in his redeeming image: that of his Word of Love-made-flesh, Crucified on the Cross, put to death and risen. We are not just inert nature. That is the truth.
We must live this truth in love. In the revelry of Mardi Gras today. In the fasting of Ash Wednesday tomorrow. In the roses of Valentines’ Day day after tomorrow. In taking my time, day after day, to talk to my kids, despite all I must do at the office. In taking time to listen to my husband, even when his concerns seem farthest from the things I need to do. In taking time to encourage my wife who continues to tackle her job despite her chores at home. In manifesting the truth of our marriage sacramentally in our most intimate loving and family celebrations.
Food for thought from Benedict XVI? “Love in truth…is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity” (CV, 1). Invitation to reflect on “the principle driving force” behind my career and the development of my family.” Invitation to reflect on “authentic development.” Who or what is the author of development? Is the trajectory of development desirable or not, humane or not, appropriate to my human dignity or not? Is that which is developing foreign to my desiring, alienating, demeaning, or that which is a genuine unfolding in love of the truth within?
It is an insight that is applicable not only to individuals and families, but also to national societies and humanity.
I would like to thank our Pope for his love. And his courage to live it – even in the evening of his life – in truth. I pray that for our Church it signals a new dawn.