‘night, Papa

Image from a “dying” Church: Benedict’s final Angelus

And so it ends.

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.”



The Ring of the Fisherman

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • Elizabeth Scalia

    Wow, Tom, that says it all. I concur with each word and sentiment.

  • Chris

    Great blog. And i love the picture at the end. It captures so well what immediately drew me to Pope Benedict at his election: instead of heavy-handed hardliner some insisted we were getting, God gave us a gentle, kindly teacher, with a smile and a twinkle in his eye.

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  • http://www.parafool.com victor

    I agree. Pope Benedict XVI couldn’t ask for a better send off than this post right here, not even if he’d gone out with a pushbroom into the middle of St. Peter’s Basilica and swept up a spotlight until it was a tiny speck of light and then gone.

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  • Gloria Laudes

    While it still brings me to tears to read words such as “Good night, papa” (sob) I must tell you this is a perfect essay and I thank you for writing it.

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  • jmt

    the gift of gratitude for your gift of words,….

  • http://roughplacesplain.tumblr.com/ nancyo

    Yes! This is exactly how it was for me right after his election. All of my misgivings melted in his shy smile. Whew, I’m going to miss Benedict.

  • Mitch

    When I was studying abroad in Rome for a summer my classmates and I on a few occasions went late in the evening and got some gelato around the corner from the Vatican. We would walk to St. Peter’s square to sit in front of the basilica, eat our ice cream and say good night to Papa Bene. Your post reminded me of this happy memory.
    As a high schooler I came to my faith during the beginning of his pontificate and his papacy has shaped my faith. For me too Papa Bene will always be ‘my pope.’

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  • Matsey

    i am happy i am a seminarian of his time Benedict has always written good messages to encourage us as seminarians to be focused….we shall miss him, all seminarians in Uganda East Africa mostly here in Ggaba seminary

  • Matsey

    good plse thanx

  • http://electingthepope.net Dorian Speed

    This is beautiful, Tom, although your line about “The last great man of Europe takes the stage for the final time” seems way too much like foreshadowing. Which is not to say that it rings false.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    I do wonder if we’re even capable of producing that kind of mind and that kind of man again.

  • Lynn Flaherty

    God is indeed capable, only time will tell.

  • irma


    I am writing a paper on St.Augustine and read your post on on Augustine and questions atheist won’t ask, 2008. I don’t have a topic and im wondering if you could give some suggestions. I am interested in free will, the vices and time as possible topics to explore. Thank You