One year ago today we woke to the shock of Pope Benedict XVI doing what popes haven’t done in centuries: resigning. I don’t have too much to add to what I wrote then and in the weeks afterward. He is the man I admire most in the world, and he has taught me more than anyone else about this life and this faith. His wisdom, clarity, gentleness, and good humor marked his 8 years on the throne of Peter with one high point after another.
When I read despicable, ignorant, lying articles about him, an anger starts to bubble up, and then I check it (most of the time). That’s not the way he would respond. He’d listen earnestly, sit silently, and then quietly do what he has done his entire life: teach with love.
I will always be a Catholic, but the years of Benedict were years in which I felt a certain closeness to the papacy that I have not felt before or since. Francis, for all his many skills, is not the careful teacher and meticulous scholar that Benedict was. He is a man in the world looking to overturn tables, and at this point in time he’s the right man for the job. That I don’t feel the closeness to him I felt to his predecessor is a statement on me, not the Holy Father.
Benedict was the last great man of Europe. The last of a type of old world scholar and leader formed in the old ways of learning and forged in the nightmares of war and the upheavals of change. This little man stood astride this century as a bridge between the Church of Then and the Church of Now, and with all his vast power and intellect attempted to reunify them into a single tapestry.
He’s still with us, and still serving the Church in prayer and, I believe, with counsel to his successor. Those who try to drive a wedge between Benedict and Francis are fools. No one who has read deeply in Ratzinger/Benedict could fail to see the continuity of belief and conviction, even as they notice the discontinuity in style. Benedict’s papacy was a time of regrouping and learning between two larger, ebullient figures: John Paul II and Francis. That the shy and thoughtful Joseph Ratzinger was not the globe-trotting John Paul or the gregarious Francis is neither here nor there. To everything its season.
I hope in his retirement he is finding the peace he so desired after the death of John Paul, when he simply wanted to return to Germany and write his books and play his piano. He just wanted to be Joseph: the quiet teacher. But God needed him to be Benedict, so he took that burden until he could no longer carry it. He’s served the faith for decades, and at the end, he’s earned a measure of peace. God be with him always.
Here are the pieces I wrote about the resignation last year at this time and in the weeks after: