This morning Pope Benedict announced that he would step down from the Papacy at the end of this month. I’m both sad and encouraged.
I came to love Pope Benedict XVI through his writing, a book of meditations called Benedictus: Day by Day with Pope Benedict. As with the best writers, his writing revealed little personal information about himself, but intimated that he understood humanity and its problems with belief very well. In fact, I’d never put down a book (each day, no less) feeling so personally understood, and encouraged towards Christ.
In 2008, I went on pilgrimage see the Holy Father in New York.
I had seen Pope John Paul II several times, on earlier trips to Rome in college and shortly thereafter. I’d enjoyed the energy at the Vatican as he drove through the cheering crowds, and people reached out to touch him. He would reach back, kiss the babies, and smile that benevolent smile that made you feel loved and embraced by the Church.
But I felt connected to Pope Benedict in a way I’d never quite connected with Pope John Paul II. I wanted to see him in person the same way it seemed he had already seen me. I was older, pregnant with my fifth child, still in love with my faith, but I’d seen the dark side of it too. I’d wrestled with it in concrete ways in my personal life, and felt at times like the hemorrhaging woman, reaching out for healing, even if it was just in the shape of someone saying, “Yes, I know, it’s hard.”
Pope Benedict knew it was hard. He was in the midst of a tremendous battle, purifying the Church after countless allegations of priestly sexual abuse.
An excerpt from my account of that trip:
At two o’clock, the entire Dunwoody Seminary had a lockdown. Helicopters began to circle overhead. I tried to get close to the pylons, though my friends had stayed up near the food and chapel to pray and eat. We didn’t know there would be no movement between the two areas—the food court, and the lawn where Pope Benedict would be. My friends were locked out, as were about 5000 other people.
I was one of the lucky ones who stood in sweltering heat at the pylons for two hours trying to secure my spot. I accidentally bumped into an elderly nun, and she gave me a sharp, swift elbow in the back. A group of women had made a pile of their belongings in front of the pylon to hold their place. I suggested they might want to move it, so that it wouldn’t get trampled when the Holy Father came. “Not yet. It’s only three o’clock” they said, not ready for the crowd to make its inevitable encroachment. Things were getting ugly.
We’d been there since 7 a.m. We were tired and hot. Lines were long in the food court and now it was closed. We were hungry. We were thirsty. We wanted to see the Pope and touch him.
A young couple was taking advantage of the closeness and anonymity of the crowd to grope one another and stick their tongues in each other’s ears. I tapped the boy on the shoulder and told him to knock it off. There were nuns and priests standing all around. He loosened his hold on the girl, and avoided eye contact with me for the rest of the day.
A security guard then came by and told us that the Pope would not be coming into the crowd, so we could relax. Our standing and ribbing had been for naught and a palpable disappointment and shame rippled through the crowd. Poor, miserable people. So hungry for Christ, so clueless about how to find him.
A quiet young voice began to sing, “Jesus, I adore you…” People looked around. Was it one of the nuns? A child? Who was it? A few other voices sang too, “And I lay my life before you.” Others joined in, and it was a round, “How I love you.” Within seconds, our shame and loss had become a song of adoration for the One all of us were really seeking.
This was my first intimation that Pope Benedict was not going to succumb to my desire to idolize him. He was not going to do things the way we expected him to do them. Whenever we looked to him, he would redirect us, in some unexpected way to seek God himself.