“If you do not love, you do not know.” Benedict, Francis and a Relevant Church

It was one year ago today that Pope Benedict XVI announced an action on his part that will resonate for many decades into the future — to long past when we have all passed — and throughout the world.

The Catholic church is relevant to the whole world. It has been for 2000 years, and it will be relevant until the end of time. Decades of social revolution, transitioning moral outlook, broad educational opportunities and excessive materialism (combined with the church’s own heinous sins) had fooled some people into thinking that the church’s relevance had diminished into something at-once quaint and aggravatingly still present, like an old grandparent who has lived past usefulness, won’t die and refuses to remain silent and unseen in the home to which she had been relegated.

Once, while doing volunteer work with aged patients in a senior facility, a rather angry woman who wrote poetry blurted to me, “welcome to the Hotel Omega. The End. The Last Stop for those of us who are living too long, and keeping inheritances from being pissed away.”

I think some had come to see the Church in a similar vein — as a place of last things, stubbornly staying alive and holding on to treasures of principle and interest that a new generation would spend differently.

Seen in that way, the world’s ignorant hatred of Pope Benedict during his reign can be somewhat given a character; a natural world turned in on itself, seeking reflections of itself and increasingly numb to the simple truth that there are “things visible and invisible” (and that what is supernatural is often a truer reality than we can allow ourselves to perceive) could only see Benedict as an impediment to the anticipated windfall of its own relativistic truths finally being acknowledged and celebrated.

Pope Benedict is a fine scholar and professor. He understood that the world had stopped listening and learning. If the Church was a University (which it partly is) its students had stopped attending class and were milling about on the great lawn of the world, tossing frisbees, smoking a bit of weed and talking past each other like forever-sophomores, delighted with all they thought they knew. There was no point, it seemed, in adhering to (or even studying) an old Canon that was presumed to have nothing to say to the age, and was being tossed aside, unlearned.

But the church was still relevant, and Benedict knew it, so he did what a good teacher, who loves his students, will do: He found a way to get their attention, with just a few words. Quickly, the frisbees were put down, the weed was stashed and while a measure of chatter continued, most of the world watched, and wondered, and waited.

Thesis proved: the church remains relevant. Were she not, nothing would have slowed down, a year ago, and things would not seem so fascinating and green and full of promise, a bare year later. We credit that promise to his successor and call it “The Francis Effect”, and it is that.

But Pope Francis himself, knows that he is the fundamental first-effect of Benedict and his action.

The world approves, for now, but it hasn’t yet come to grips with the breadth and depth and width of what Benedict put into motion, a year ago today.

We are in a new semester, the lesson plan has been revised but the books have not. We will be unpacking the Benedict effect — no matter what we call it — for generations to come.

Let us take a moment to pray for Francis, and for Benedict, and for a Church that continues to be relevant and has begun to flourish again.

Yet the world and its enticement are passing away. But whoever does the will of God remains forever. – 1 John 2:17

The Church is not going anywhere.

“. . .we find ourselves in a strange situation: we have no choice but to speak of love if we are not to betray God and man, but it is almost impossible to do so because our language has already betrayed love so often. In such a situation, our help must come from without. God speaks to us of love; “Holy Scripture” which is God’s word cast in human words, raises the word, as it were, out of the dust, purifies it and restores it to us, cleansed. Scripture makes it shine again by placing it at the source of its luminosity — in the mystery of Jesus Christ. From the Cross the word love recovers its uniqueness. Men need more than just grasping and holding; they need understanding, which gives power to their actions and their hands; they also need perception, hearing, reason that reaches to the bottom of the heart. And only when understanding remains open to reason, which is greater that it is, can it be genuinely rational and acquire true knowledge. If you do not love, you do not know (cf. 1 John 4:8). Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Homily, 1985, from Co-Workers of the Truth

John Allen: How Benedict Set the Stage for Pope Francis
Rocco Palmo: Benedict, One Year On
Matthew Bunson: The Year of Two Popes
Fr. Longenecker: Eyewitness Account of the Resignation

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • vox borealis

    But the church was still relevant, and Benedict knew it, so he did what a good teacher, who loves his students, will do: He found a way to get their attention, with just a few words.

    Boy, I don’t know about this. I teach for a living. So by analogy, if my students are not listening ty my lectures, I should get their attention by walking out of the classroom and handing the course over to my TA who has a completely different teaching style. And for this I should be praised?

    Maybe. But I’m not convinced. I’m simply unconvinced that Pope Benedic stepped down because he felt he was vilified and misunderstood. If he did, I would be sadly disappointed. Moreover, he could not have known that Francis would follow—in your analogy, that a new teacher with a different style would take over and capture the class’s imagination. And without that foreknowledge, we are left with: Benedict quit and left the class to the whims of fate. (And don’t say he left it up to the Holy Spirit…Benedict as Ratzinger made clear that is not how he sees the papal election working.)

    and for a Church that continues to be relevant and has begun to flourish again.

    Hmm. So, Benedict quit so that we can have the new springtime, or some such? Well, Rolling Stone is excited, so that’s something, but really…the church is now flourishing again? I get that you dig Francis’ vibe, but this seems a bit much.

    Maybe I’ve missed the point entirely.

  • MeanLizzie

    Indeed, you have. Utterly.

  • perpper

    The Church is not irrelevant. It she were, nobody would be angry at her or hating on her. The fact that our culture’s default stance is anger and hatred toward her is the proof that she is indeed very relevant. The culture just doesn’t like what she has to say in her testimony.

    Of course, like his efforts to eliminate belief in himself, Satan wants most for people to dismiss the Church as irrelevant and ignore her. He just can’t seem to accomplish that, can he?

    When the Church is truly ignored, when she is no longer the focus of so much anger and hatred for those whom the World deems chic, trendy, relevant, and elite, then she will be irrelevant. Of course that will never happen; read the Revelation.

  • vox borealis

    Then what is the point? And I ask that seriously. I’ve read a lot today on the one year anniversary of the Big Decision, and much of it strikes me as trying too hard. We will probably never know what compelled Benedict to make his near to but not entirely unprecedented decision. It will take a long time to work out, historically, whether it was in fact a *good* decision. I personally doubt that the reason behind the decision was that “Benedict the good teacher knew no one was listening any more.” I don’t think he stepped down to shake us up or to get the class to listen. And, like I wrote before, if that was in fact the reason, I would be disappointed.

    I think much of what I have read (not only here, but around the internetz) is straining to make sense of—and to put some sort of cosmic positive spin on—a very odd decision (historically speaking). I understand that as humans we tend to want to rationalize and systemitize and order events, to provide greater meaning to them. This says more about us than Benedict or Francis or the newly flourishing church or whatever.

  • Slocum Moe

    Relevance requires a renewal of universal love and unconditional acceptance by and of, all. Haven’t seen it. Same old small, shrill, angry, mean group of self proclaimed “real” Catholics hating on everyone else. Bad Pelosi and Biden. Bad Gays and Lesbians. Bad women who don’t know their proper role and place. Bad liberal media and academic elitists with their secularist agenda. Bad Obama, born in Kenya, hippie mother Mau Mau father, Islamic, communist, tool of Satan.

  • MeanLizzie

    I’m not trying to be a pain when I say…think about what I might have meant besides what seems “obvious” to you. I am not saying that a good teacher deserts his classroom. I’m saying a good teacher knows when things need to be shaken up. Benedict did not leave b/c he was vilified and hated — he left from a place of power — the absolute certainty that this is God’s church and bigger than a man or a moment. He threw the church — and by extension the entire world — into the path of the Holy Spirit in complete trust. I am tired and in a bad place right now so I am not up for a long discussion on this.

    I’ve written what I’ve written — and people do not have to agree — you can disagree and be perfectly within your rights to do so. I believe Benedict has helped to rebirth the church in an age of extreme ignorance and poverty of spirit. And this will still be evolving when we’re dead.

  • oregon nurse

    … “welcome to the Hotel Omega. The End. The Last Stop for those of us who
    are living too long, and keeping inheritances from being pissed away.”

    omg, how I would have loved to know this lady and have long conversations with her over tea!

  • Frank

    This piece is lovely, and your response here adds clarity. I think this insight one of the best I’ve come across on the meaning and significance of Benedict’s resignation. And the old Ratzinger quote at the end is perfect.

  • Anna

    “I understand that as humans we tend to want to rationalize and
    systemitize and order events, to provide greater meaning to them. This
    says more about us than Benedict or Francis or the newly flourishing
    church or whatever.”
    But Benedict’s resignation wasn’t a random event that we are trying to assign meaning to. It was a thought-about, prayed-about decision on his part, and given the depth of both his thought and his prayer, it seems presumptuous (of me at least, with nowhere near that depth) to believe that the resignation was either a desertion or a coin-toss type of decision. It seems quite reasonable to me to look for what the Holy Spirit might be trying to lead us into through Benedict’s, as you said, nearly unprecedented decision. If we can trust both Benedict and God (and their relationship), then there must be a reason (or many) why Benedict’s path led where it did.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    I may be one of the few people who prefers to have Pope Benedict back. After a year of reflection, I still think it was a mistake to abdicate. And the down side of a precedent of abdication would be felt far into the future. All we have seen is the positive side now. And I don’t think he did it to get people’s attention, though obviously it would. Francis is a nice man, a lovely man, a better face for Catholicism, but intellectually he isn’t any where near Benedict. I’ll take the publicity improvements, but I’m still skeptical of the Francis papacy.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    I think I agree with everything you say. And Benedict stepped down because of his health and age, not because he was misunderstood. Actually I think he was less misunderstood than Francis. Francis can’t put out an interview without have to scramble for a clarification.

  • MeanLizzie

    She was a character. She had always frightened me a little, b/c she was so angry, but when she said that to me I realized, her anger had nothing to do with me, and after that we got on pretty well. She was a woman of real means and background and yet she had a very colorful way of speaking — a true poet. My Auntie Lillie was similar but without means or background. I think they’d have gotten along though.

  • vox borealis

    It was not a random event, but nevertheless it is one that we are still trying to sort out. We know what Benedict said about his decision, but we will never truly know what compelled him to make the move. And to my larger point, it is one thing to try to figure out why Benedict did it. It’s another to then graft this onto some cosmic interpretation of future events (e.g. the Renewal of the Church guided by the Holy Spirit). *That* is trying (too hard in my mind) to systematize and make sense of events.

    Look, I’m a historian by trade. So I am naturally sceptical of any attempt to explain the recent past in historical terms, justified by predictions of future events placed in a cosmic context.

    I think Elizabeth is probably right that the ramifications of the Big Decision will reverberate for many years, long after we are all good and dead. But I also think it is going to take that long, at least, before we would be able to understand the significance and meaning of the decision, or to determine whether it led to a renewal of the church, etc.

  • vox borealis

    Yes. This is certainly one feature of the last year, it seems: constant explanations and clarifications. And now it’s projecting backwards, and we have a rash of pieces claiming to explain or clarify what Benedict did. It’s as if the papacy now requires a secret decoder ring.

    You’re right, too, about Benedict not being misunderstood. He was understood perfectly clearly (most times)—it was just people didn’t like what he said. And also, I would argue, it was not that people stopped listening to Benedict; they listened too him, but they simply despised the lesson.

  • ladybird

    I agree. As we age, we come to realize the new limitations to our mind and body. Benedict must have come to this realization. The reflection, retrospection and projection to Benedict > Francis, I believe, is the work of the Holy Spirit.
    When Benedict was elected, the staff at my parish was in tears. New to the church I asked “why?”. They spoke of him as if Hitler had been selected, “We are going to slide back to pre-Vatican II”. So, I read his books and encyclicals. And, boy were they way off base. He loved Jesus and the church. His face reflected the Peace and Joy of our savior.

  • ladybird

    Your assessment of Catholics is the antithesis of what I see in my parish and in the good works of the Church that are evident throughout the world. We have members who are “the good, the bad and the ugly.” No different than sum-total characteristics of most other groups. God bless you, Slocum Moe. Tonight I will say a special prayer for you that you have a special and peaceful encounter with Christ.

  • http://rosarynovice.stblogs.com/ Augustine

    If anything, the moment in the Mass when we remember the Holy Father in our prayers has taken a deeper meaning to me.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Really? Why is that?

  • http://rosarynovice.stblogs.com/ Augustine

    Because I share your concerns about Francis.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Ah, I will keep that in mind when I hear it every Sunday as well. Thanks.