Pope Benedict shook the world with his announcement that he would step down as the Supreme Pontiff of the Church due to deteriorating health. He said he had come to a point where he recognized his incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to him.
I heard Pope Benedict’s announcement while attending the 2013 Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington, D.C. Here were more than 420 Catholic social ministry directors and other Catholic social justice leaders who gathered to share models of social ministries in their dioceses and discuss strategies to promote human life and dignity in the U.S. and the world.
The news of the pope’s resignation sent shock waves through the group. Many of us were speechless, not sure what to make of the announcement. Others discussed various conspiracy theories and the problems within the Vatican over the past several years as contributing to the pope’s announcement.
Since the announcement, I have had time to reflect upon Pope Benedict’s leadership and legacy, and want to share a few thoughts.
First and foremost, Pope Benedict has demonstrated great courage and faith. When his fellow Cardinals elected him pope in April 2005, he was 78 years of age, and knew he had the free choice whether to accept the Cardinals vote of confidence or not. He could have said, “No, I am too old and cannot take on the huge responsibility as spiritual leader of the Church.”
Yet, he humbly and courageously, by faith, accepted the position, knowing it would cost him a great deal both physically and spiritually. And nearly eight years later, he courageously determined that he could no longer physically and spiritually fulfill the ministry God had called him, he took the daring step, by faith, to step aside to allow another leader to be chosen and take up the mantle of St. Peter.
Secondly, Pope Benedict has demonstrated a very keen sensitivity to the Holy Spirit and deep discernment into the zeitgeist, or spirit of the time, during his pontificate.
Pope Benedict’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) focused on the unity of love in creation and salvation history and the practice of love by the Church. Many Catholics and Church observers were surprised by the choice of topic by the former Cardinal Ratzinger who had unfairly been accused of being “God’s Rottweiler” because of his uncompromising positions when he led the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Yet, Pope Benedict presciently sensed what the Church and the broader faith community needed to hear at the time. His two later encyclicals—Spe Salvi facti sumus (In Hope We are Saved) and Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth)—have also provided the Church and its leaders with light to guide our future. Caritas in Veritate, the pope’s last encyclical, was especially helpful in giving the Church a challenge to continue to engage our culture and to grapple with the negative impacts of globalization on the poor. He also boldly addressed issues such as environmental degradation and global climate change and our responsibility as Catholics to care for the earth.
Third, throughout his pontificate, Pope Benedict has spoken passionately about the need for all of us to encounter Jesus Christ personally and intimately. In his Jesus of Nazareth book series, Pope Benedict invites all of us into a deeper understanding and knowledge of the real historical figure of Jesus and to believe in him and follow him.
I am personally saddened to see Pope Benedict step down, but I am grateful to God for his faithful service over the past eight years. We, as Catholics, must not retreat from the corruption, conflicts and injustices in our world. As Pope Benedict has exemplified through his life and witness, we too must take courage in the midst of very difficult trials and step out in faith, being sensitive to the spirit of our times and to the leading of the Holy Spirit, and be faithful witnesses of our Lord Jesus Christ and his transformative love.
We, as Catholics, with all the gifts of the Holy Spirit must work with our sisters and brothers to address structures of injustice and corruption and engage our culture through service and love.