The last great man of Europe takes the stage for the final time, and reminds us that greatness is measured not by political machinations, military or economic might, or even important discoveries, but in staying grounded in the vast messiness of this frustrating and glorious human family with compassion, humility, and gentleness.
He was the teacher we needed at the time we needed him. The Holy Spirit is funny that way. As the world was careening towards armageddon, with almost half its population locked in near-slavery, He gave us a firebrand: a charismatic leader who spoke with a force that toppled nations.
When our greatest enemy was ourselves–our prosperity, our tendency to selfishness, our triviality, our refusal to be taught–he sent a quiet viticulturist of souls. In one of those great cosmic ironies that proves God is a brilliant joker, He sent a teacher to a people unwilling to be taught: a people under the delusion of a radical individualism that says each man is his own Lord and Master, and thus must find his own way by his own light, rather than by the one Light Who illuminates all.
For a people easily distracted by an infinitely multiplying, utterly inconsequential number of small things, he turned the bright beam of his intellect on the big things: the things that mattered: hope, faith, love. In an era when the people who have assumed the mantle of “humanism” are the most anti-human of all, he gave us a true Christian humanist rooted where it must be rooted: in the God who loves.
Non-Catholics can’t possibly understand the connection truly faithful Catholics have to their pope. He’s not magic, he’s not a god, and oddly enough he doesn’t even need to be holy or even particularly inspirational. (Fortunately, this last part is rare in the history of Christ’s Church.) What he is, is this: a promise. He is a promise, made by the Incarnate Lord, of a visible leadership that will last for all time, beginning with the flawed, hot-headed, cowardly fisherman who sat at His right hand, and stretching down through the millennia to us today. “Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam.”
And I will miss him more than words can express. He was “my” pope. I read him for years as Joseph Ratzinger, marveling at a mind so sharp it could convey complex points with utter simplicity. As someone called to a teaching ministry, I was inspired by his ability to teach at any level required of him, and teach so well that he also could inspire. There were those who greeted the news of his election with dismay, because they understand the Church primarily through the lens of power and politics and modern obsessions. I was overjoyed, because I understand that the Church’s role primarily is pedagogical. An evangelical church is, first and foremost, a teaching Church. And what better leader for a teaching Church than a wise and compassionate teacher?
Whoever next occupies the See of Peter will also be my pope, but at the age I am and being the man I am, I doubt I will ever have the kind of connection that I had with Benedict. After many years of spiritual wandering far away from my Catholic roots, his was the quiet voice that summoned me back and showed me a new way. He reshaped the way I think. All of the reading and education and influences that went into furnishing my mental apartment is now viewed through a Ratzingerian lens.
That was an incredible gift given not only to me, but to all of us who chose to listen and learn rather than scoff. Now we must give him a gift in return: the gift of letting him go to his rest as he prepares to move on to that final clarity in which he shall know even as he is known; and in which he shall see face to face rather than through a glass darkly. And all we can say will be, “Good night, papa, and thank you.”