Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis & the Greatest Friendship Imaginable

I had never heard the term before. Opera Omnia. But, boy, did it sound impressive. It was in the Fall of 2008. Pope Benedict XVI was in the third year of his papacy and the first volume of his Opera Omnia was being presented at the Vatican. I would soon learn that Opera Omnia, literally translated, means “all (or complete) works”. And this Pope’s works go deep. Sixteen volumes deep to be exact. From his earliest formative years as a fledgling priest to his most recent seasoned years as a deeply respected theologian, Pope Benedict XVI could never be accused of being an intellectual lightweight. In fact, in penning volumes addressing topics such as ecclesiology, eschatology and the theology of the liturgy, Benedict has at times been labeled an aloof academic, a denizen of the theological ivory tower too far removed from the true concerns of his Catholic flock.

As a Catholic who converted under Pope Benedict in 2009, I remember too well the harsher monikers affixed to this Pope in 2005 when he (as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) was being considered “papabile” (or a papal candidate, literally “pope-able”) in the wake of Pope John Paul II’s death. Epithets such as The Panzer Pope, God’s Rottweiler, The German Shepherd became common parlance among the news media. Once elected, Pope Benedict XVI led the Church from 2005 to 2013 after which he humbly stepped aside for a “younger” Pope to step in with physical strength that he admitted he was lacking. That man would be Pope Francis. And while Pope Francis has warmly manifested a style of his own informed by a spirited and humble charity, inevitable comparisons would be made by naysayers who found in Pope Francis the virtue and in Pope Benedict XVI the vice (I write about this in my previous post, Loving Francis, Missing Benedict). Before long, an image began to emerge of a lovable, fatherly, saintly Francis contrasted against a shifty, sneering, punitive Benedict. Hmmm. How curious.

And it all made wonder, did these detractors ever read Benedict? Before I began my road to Catholicism, I would have joined in this exercise of criticism. After all, I originally felt that the papacy was little more than a Pharisee-like exercise in theological pomp and circumstance. Even more, I would likely have subscribed to the caricature of Pope Benedict XVI because those caustic representations would have deliciously satisfied my preconceived notions of just one more thing I didn’t want to like about the Catholic Church. But my journey (with my ever-respectful, faith-filled wife and my dear, insightful friend) through years of Mass, prayer, conversations with priests and friends, and reading the luminaries of the faith helped me discover the richness of the Catholic Faith and the deep and indispensable role of the Pope in the Church and the world, (for more on this, please read my previous post Man of the Year – Why the Pope Matters).

And so, having given Catholicism a second look and finding myself awestruck by what I found, it was important for me to honestly and fairly re-approach God’s Rottweiler, The German Shepherd, the author of this immense Opera Omnia. Generally, what I found was described in my previous post, Pope Benedict XVI and Surprise. But I felt a few words needed to be shared in light of the comparions being made between Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.

Pope Francis has taken the world by storm. With an ever-present smile, affable demeanor and boundless energy, Pope Francis has waded deep into crushing crowds, ridden in tiny open-windowed cars through delirious throngs of the faithful, and (reportedly) embarked on clandestine late night outings to minister to the needy on dark Roman streets. He has given off-the-cuff interviews, engaged in thoughtful debates with his deepest critics, and shocked people simply by dialing them up on the phone. In his speeches and writings, he exudes love, faith and hope. He truly is a faith-filled shepherd.

And Pope Benedict XVI? If you were to read the broadest coverage of his pontificate, it was reputedly dominated by high-brow consideration of arcane theological esoterica, flush with intolerant condemnation of the jots and tittles of the Catholic Faith, and characterized by a pious remove from the real world problems of “the least of these”? If you were to believe these writers gleefully contrasting the current pope with the former, then, indeed, This. Is. Pope Benedict XVI. 

But, you see, this ISN’T Pope Benedict XVI. This Pope who penned the sixteen volumes’ worth of theological writings, also:

welcomed babies,

blessed the disabled,

and waded into crowds.

But to understand what this somewhat shy and deeply thoughtful Pope held dearly, we must turn to the prized works of the mind and spirit that make up his Opera Omnia. What will we find there? Minutiae pertaining to the liturgy? Some. Arcana on eschatology? Yes. Subtleties of ecclesiology? Quite likely. But there is a more overwhelming message that suffuses his work: Friendship with Christ.

“Christianity is not an intellectual system, a collection of dogmas, or a moralism. Christianity is an encounter, a love story; it is an event.”

&

“The person gains himself by losing himself in God.”

&

“Christianity is not a new philosophy or new morality. We are Christians only if we encounter Christ… Only in this personal relationship with Christ, only in this encounter with the Risen One do we really become Christians.”

&

“For each one of you, as for the apostles, the encounter with the divine Teacher who calls you friends may be the beginning of an extraordinary venture: that of becoming apostles among your contemporaries to lead them to live their own experience of friendship with God, made Man, with God who has made himself my friend.”

&

“Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine”, seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.

We, however, have a different goal: the Son of God, the true man. He is the measure of true humanism. An “adult” faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceipt from truth.”

Over and over again, you hear Pope Benedict XVI illustrate a warm, inviting, merciful theme of friendship with Christ. God is not an abstraction. He is here. And He is our friend, our guide, our advocate. It is difficult at times to live (and die) for a Creed, even though we do. It seems infinitely more sensible and tangible to do so for a Person. As Flannery O’Connor once observed about the the abstract vs. tangible experience of faith,

“Our response to life is different if we have been taught only a definition of faith than if we have trembled with Abraham as he held a knife over Isaac.”

Pope Benedict XVI sought to reintroduce us to the person of Christ – the person of Christ who came into history and then transcended it, the person of Christ who welled up with love and winced with pain, the person of Christ who peered with infinite love and mercy into the eager eyes of Peter, the treacherous eyes of Judas and the tearing eyes of Mary. And what did he say to all of them?

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

- John 15:13

“I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends…”

- John 15:15

Christ would lay his life down for us. But before doing so, he would befriend us. As friends of Christ, we are dignified and valuable, comforted and encouraged, taught and mentored. But we are also disciplined and held accountable. This friend – this Christ – never, ever turns away, but he bids us come and follow him.

Now isn’t that something? The Pope who is derided as the Rottweiler disciplinarian, the detached intellectual, the malevolent Hyde to Pope Francis’ earnest Jekyll…that same Pope, in his own style and deep substance, simply wanted us to cultivate the greatest friendship we could ever imagine. Perhaps, yes perhaps, that is what Pope Benedict XVI’s entire papacy was about. Friendship with Christ. 

Huh.

Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis are good men with deep substance and particular styles. They are both devoted and faithful disciples of Christ. And, together, they are his friends. Are we?

Now if you’ll excuse me. I have a bit of reading to do.

 

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