A strange grief: Losing Pope Benedict XVI
ROME, February 14, 2013, (LifeSiteNews.com) – If our readers will forgive the self-indulgence, I thought I would talk frankly about my feelings, for a change, since I suspect that I am not alone in them. There have been few newsworthy events of the last ten years over which I have felt more at a loss than Pope Benedict’s announcement that he will renounce the papal throne at the end of the month. Catholics all over the world were as stunned and speechless as were, reportedly, the small group of cardinals to whom he made his brief announcement on Monday morning.
And, as the world’s news cycle turns back to its daily amusements, there are some of us, perhaps many, who are left as though beached and stranded by this momentous and unprecedented tidal shift. In the last few days, I have found myself among those still grappling with the implications. One of the rules by which we understood the world, or at least the Church that makes up much of our personal world, seems to have been broken. Popes do not resign. There can be no such thing as an ex-pope.
After a few days of putting a brave face on things, trickles of writing, mostly from ‘bloggers, who don’t mind letting the world in, are expressing our shock and dismay, sadness and even anger. Pat Archbold wrote in the Catholic Register, “Orthodoxy aside, there is one thing and one thing only that I would demand from our new pontiff. Holy Father, when you die, you must die as Pope.”
“So my advice to the future Pope is simple. Make it clear early and often that as long as your are able to blink instructions in Morse code, you will not be leaving the Papacy by any means other than [a] sarcophagus. If Popes do not leave town in a coffin, they will eventually be driven out on a rail.”
Since Monday, I have struggled even to understand my own feelings. These have ranged, honestly, from shock to a kind of dread not only at the ominous question of what happens now, what is coming next, but at the very great strangeness of breaking of this ancient precedent. How can it be right? And why now, when the world seems to be sinking into an unimaginable darkness?
Today I put some of these questions to a cleric who has been in Rome and around Vatican circles for many years. He said that, though they would not dare to breathe a word of criticism, many inside are also feeling a gamut of emotions, not restricted to shock and bewilderment but also grief and even anger. In frank and pastoral terms, my wise “source inside” assured me that I and people like me are not over-reacting or “over-thinking”. And that our feelings are natural and even a sign of real fidelity, of genuine Catholicity.
“We normal Catholics are reacting so strongly because, simply, we love him. It’s a very personal and natural thing; we gave him our hearts. How am I to react when our father, or step-father, the one given to us to protect us, says he will leave us?
“And we do love him. We’ve loved him since the day his name was announced. And we feel like our father is leaving us. And we’re completely at wit’s end because even if we don’t want to think ill of Benedict, we still don’t have a natural outlet for our feeling of loss."
He called it a “strange and confusing grief,” because though we have lost him, Benedict is not dead. This is why the situation “for many Catholics is surreal, almost dream-like.”
“When a pope dies we can have a funeral, we can have requiems in black. But in this strange situation, we have no natural way to express the grief we feel at having lost our father. And we have. We’ve lost someone that we love.”
“The papacy is an absolutely unique institution in this world. In many ways he is like a father, because he is our Holy Father. In some ways it’s like a step-father, because he is there taking care of us when we can’t see our real father, our Heavenly Father. And the papacy, until very recently, until three days ago, was for life, and we trusted it to remain so. And now we say to ourselves, well, he can never stop being a father. So we are confused by our own feelings.”
The Church makes distinctions for papal infallibility, and Catholics are free to disagree with the pope’s “prudential decision” while remaining perfectly faithful. We can legitimately feel, he said, that the pope is making a prudential mistake. This isn’t a lack of fidelity or love, or even of trust. We have to accept the decision, he said, but we don’t have to agree or like it.
My inside man strongly denied the rumours swirling around the internet that somehow the pope has been forced or coerced into making this decision by dark and nefarious forces. “It’s perfectly in character for him,” he said. “Nothing in Benedict’s character, that we have all observed very publicly for decades, has indicated he would ever bow to such pressure.”
Ruling out a palace coup, he said that we can accept the decision because it was also not immoral. “It was done humbly. It was not an act that is intrinsically evil. He’s doing it because he thinks it’s what God wants him to do. It’s one of the few things he’s done entirely on his own and he’s in complete control. No one can stop him.
“He is very dedicated to the Church, and he wants to do what is best. And he saw first hand the problems with a largely incapacitated pope, and it may have frightened him. He really does believe that he has a ministry, the Petrine ministry, that is not for himself but for others, for us. And he really believes that if he cannot fulfill that duty he should step down.
“And because the papacy is not precisely fatherhood – it’s an analogy – he sees his own weakness, he sees a way that he can take away his weakness and provide for his children, by letting someone else take up the mantle and take up the sword and the shield.”
But he assured me that we have no obligation to think this is a good idea, or even that it will not damage the Church. Popes have made bad decisions in the past, even good popes: “If the Church has or has not done something for 600 years, there’s usually a reason for it. I myself think that popes should stay on until they’re dead, and let God remove them.”
“I think he has taken into account the wisdom of the world to achieve those otherworldly ends. This is not all bad, but you also have to look to the supernatural considerations. I think it is good for the pope to let God to determine the time when he leaves ministry. Because God is the pope’s only superior.”
Catholics doubting the decision, he said, “may simply not be convinced that he can’t protect us any more.”
“I’m not convinced of this. But we know we must accept the decision, not just because he’s the pope and we have to defer to his judgment, but also because we can’t see inside his soul, and we can’t enter into that decision.”
What aspect of Benedict’s intellect does this decision come from then?
“There is,” he answered, “a very worldly sense that entered into the Church with the ascendancy of the liberal faction in the post-Vatican II era, and Benedict was part of that. He was a centrist liberal, a Catholic liberal and he shifted to the right. But he still embraced a lot of this-worldly prudence from that time. A kind of utilitarian idea that things that are not absolutely essential are ultimately disposable.”
“It’s not absolute worldly prudence because it’s not directed towards worldly ends. But men like John Paul II and Benedict XVI have looked at the supernatural with prudential, pragmatic, this-worldly eyes.”
“There’s a degree to which this is necessary. You have to be as wise as serpents. But you also have to be willing to lose everything. I think there really is a need for someone with a more otherworldly focus. And someone who is a more of a hero than a manager or even an academic. A paladin.”
“And we mustn’t forget that there is such a thing as the grace of the state. The pope gets special gifts from the Holy Spirit.”
The reasons people are angry and upset, or at least disconcerted is perhaps an intuitive worry that this decision comes from emphasizing the wrong aspect of the papacy, the institutional character of it at the expense of the fatherly, incarnational, supernatural aspect of it.
The pope’s decision is unsettling those who look upon the papacy as more than merely the function. It has appeared to further that ominous modern tendency to push the papacy down from its supernatural heights, to the level of mere functionalism.
“The papacy has these different layers of meaning, similar to a monarchy, where you have, united in one person, both the natural aspects of being a ruler and a sovereign and a leader, and the supernatural aspects of being a father and a person to love. It’s why the papacy is about more than what the pope can do.”
I said I was confused about the sudden outpouring of hatred for him in the press, now that he is no longer any threat to the “progressive” or “liberal” end of the Church?
“A lot of Catholics, good, bad, indifferent, liberal, traditionalist, charismatic, have a visceral attachment to the pope as a father. That’s why some of them can be dissidents, because they all love their father. They can disagree with their father, but he’s still their father.
“People can’t leave it alone, they can be overflowing with vitriolic hatred, and people ask them, ‘Why don’t you leave the Church,’ and they can’t. They can’t ever stop being the children of their father.”
As for the sudden explosion of hatred from the non-Catholic, secularist world, he said, the answer is much easier: “The world always hates the popes.”
“Now sometimes that doesn’t show as much, but even with the popes who are well respected by the world, you don’t have to scratch too deep to find that bitter hatred. It’s true of anyone who follows Christ, but even more towards his Vicar. And the more the pope conforms to Christ, the more he will be hated with that blistering hatred that he still inspires in some people.”
And they particularly hate Benedict XVI because whatever the prudential problems with his resignation, he is “clearly not acting from a selfish motive”.
“He’s not seeking self-aggrandizement, he is healthy enough that it’s not something he has no choice about. He could keep going if he chose. And that strikes the world where it hurts, in their pride.
“We live in a world of reality TV shows where fame is so desperately important that you would humiliate yourself for it, and this is a man who is more photographed than anyone on the planet, and three weeks from now, no one is going to see him ever again.
“They all believe, wrongly, that the papacy is this great, powerful Emperor Palpatine sort of position. And the ones who hate him really believe that he is a power-hungry, power-obsessed old man. And here he is, the head of this huge, immensely powerful organisation, voluntarily setting aside that power. Not out of cowardice, but out of humility and meekness. The world hates that. With a passion.”
“And they hate him, because, quite frankly, he’s one of the best popes we’ve had in the last 70 years. He’s been doing incredible things. Incredible good for the Church. And they hate him all the more because he was a good pope.”