Like much of the world, when I learned that Pope Benedict XVI had decided to abdicate the Throne of St. Peter and retire to a life of prayer, I was initially both shocked and saddened. Almost immediately however, so much of the commentariat was focused on conspiracy theories as to why he was stepping down, or who the new Pope would be, that it was too easy to get sucked into speculations which will ultimately prove futile in assessing his Papacy, or of prognosticating the future of the Church. As I pointed out in an interview I gave yesterday, the Pope has visibly grown more frail over the past year or so – he is after all in his mid-80′s – and those who are trying to second-guess what the Conclave will do are more likely than not going to be wrong. So rather than pay attention to what the so-called mainstream media reports about the Holy Father’s decision, or respond to what dissenting “experts” argue the Church must do next in order to satisfy their own personal political agendas, allow me to thank Pope Benedict for what I see as some of the great accomplishments of his pontificate.
One of the great legacies which this Pope will leave for future English-speaking Catholics in particular, has to do with one of the most fundamental aspects of what it means to practice one’s faith, and that is in repairing some of the translation problems with both the mass itself and in the lectionary. Whenever you translate from one language to another, it is never going to be absolutely perfect, particularly when you are shifting from Latin to English. The work to bring the mass in English as close as possible to that of the text in Latin is something which all of us will benefit from for the foreseeable future.
In a related move, I see this Pope’s encouragement of a wider use of the traditional Latin mass as a part of his effort to bring more people of good will within the fold. While efforts to reconcile with those who split with the Church over the use of the Latin mass are ongoing, and no doubt that work will continue under the next Pontiff, this Pope has clearly shown that he not only appreciates the beauty of tradition, but wants to encourage Catholics to re-discover their own rich history. Even in his choice of vestments, Benedict has often made a point of bringing back things which had been abandoned in the upheavals that occurred in the 1960′s and ’70′s, not to go backwards, but to emphasize continuity with and connection to the past.
Similarly, the establishment of the Anglican Ordinariate to reach out to those members of the Anglican church who felt themselves drawn to Rome but still loved their own traditions, is something which in and of itself is of tremendous historical significance. I remember well the day that this news was announced, when several friends and I gathered at an English-style pub here in downtown Washington to celebrate what we enthusiastically referred to as “Anglo Catholic Reunification Day”, and to raise pints not only to Pope Benedict, but to welcome those Britons, both clerics and laity, who would soon be joining us on this side of the Tiber. Now of course, our own Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, has been put in charge by Pope Benedict of overseeing the establishment of the U.S. version of the Ordinariate, and we have already seen a number of Episcopal communities coming into communion with Rome, something which people like St. John Fisher, St. Thomas More, and Blessed John Henry Newman are no doubt very pleased to see happening with their American cousins.
Additionally, while things are still moving slowly, we have seen that this Pope has reached out to the Eastern Churches, continuing the work of his predecessors, in attempts to reunite the two “lungs” of the Universal Church. One cannot undo one thousand years of the Great Schism at a stroke, obviously. However I have always felt that this Pope, in taking the actions described above with respect to those who wish to celebrate the traditional mass, and to repair the split with those Anglicans willing to work with him, has been laying a foundation for ongoing, future dialogue with the Orthodox. The joy in Christendom if the Catholic and Orthodox churches were finally to be reconciled is something which I can only pray and hope that I live to see in my lifetime, and if it happens clearly we will have to point to this Pope as one of those who moved that reconciliation forward.
There are many other areas of endeavor which one could examine in assessing the work of Pope Benedict XVI. We saw his continued outreach to the youth of the Church, drawing even larger crowds than his predecessor; his embrace and encouragement of the use of new media as a tool for re-evangelizing the world; his writings, sermons, and speeches; his historic visit to England and address in Westminster Hall; etc. I would also mention two items of personal importance to me: his visit here to Washington, where I was fortunate enough to attend the Papal Mass at Nationals Stadium, and his visit to consecrate the iconic Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona, which he raised to the level of a minor basilica. While his pontificate has lasted only eight years, one wonders whether any of us, if we live to such an old age ourselves, would be able to do so much.
While I am very sad indeed to see him go, I also greatly respect Pope Benedict XVI for taking what must have been the very tough decision to recognize that, in the particular circumstances in which he finds himself, it would be best for the good of the Church if he were to step down. It cannot have been an easy conclusion to arrive at, knowing that there is so much more he could do, and yet physically he will not be able to do it. So to step away from the world, and retire to a life of prayer and drawing closer to God, in preparation for the day when one finally meets Him face to face, is something that sets a tremendous example for all of us to ponder.
My hope is that His Holiness will be able to do so, for however long he remains with us in this present life, like the tremendous but humble scholar and teacher he unquestionably is: ordering his days of prayer on behalf of the Church and in the sacrifice of the Holy Mass, while having time to rest, surrounded by the books of the great spiritual writers, the classical music he loves, and hopefully a friendly cat.