The unprecedented retirement of Pope Benedict XVI has led to innumerable articles on the man and his pontificate. I think it’s too soon to discuss the achievements of his pontificate but I would like to say a few words about the man or about my own impression of the man.
I can’t say that I have any personal knowledge of the late Pope but unlike most commentators and pundits, I have at least read a couple of his books. A few years ago I read his “Jesus of Nazareth” an obvious attempt by the Pope to bring the results of a lifetime of work and study to a non-scholarly audience. I can’t say that I can remember much of the book or the Pope’s arguments. I do remember thinking that the Pope’s great intellect and learning were obvious on every page.
When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected seven years ago at the age of 78, I was contemplating my own retirement after 36 years as a financial advisor. I had always advised my own clients that they should regard retirement not as an end, but as a new beginning; that it might finally give them an opportunity to do something that they had always wanted to do.
In my own case I had been a scholar and teacher before circumstances forced me to change career and enter the world of financial service. It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me, but after a successful 36 years, I looked forward to getting back to my first interest, history. So it was easy for me to sympathize with Cardinal Ratzinger on his election.
Here was a great, great scholar who had given up most of his last years in the service of the Vatican, an often-thankless job. He was lampooned and derided even by Catholics. During the pontificate of John Paul II, wasn’t Cardinal Ratzinger often referred to as the Vatican’s Rottweiler? Just when he might have thought that at age 78, he could enter into a peaceful retirement, return to his study, and complete his life’s work, he gets elected to one of the most difficult jobs on earth.
Isn’t it incredible that even those who dislike the Catholic Church and especially the Papacy seem to expect so much from it? But what can a Pope actually do or accomplish? He cannot resort to the usual weapons at the disposal of governments today whether they are despotic or democratic. He has no taxing power. He cannot put you in jail or confiscate your property if you fail to put money in the collection basket.
Despite what many non-Catholics might think he cannot order Catholics around or tell them what to do. He can advise but they often refuse to consent with no apparent loss or penalty. Some are shocked that the Catholic Church believes that the Pope is infallible. But this famous doctrine has only been used on one occasion since it was promulgated in 1870 by the first Vatican Council. Big deal.
Upon his election Cardinal Ratzinger chose the name Benedict and he became the sixteenth Pope of that name which literally means “say good.” He said that he was thinking of the famous saint who founded western Monasticism back in the last days of the Roman Empire. But he was also thinking of Pope Benedict XV, a little remembered Pope who early in the twentieth century strove unsuccessfully to keep the great powers of Europe from plunging into the First World War.
It was obvious that the new Pope saw himself as a peacemaker both within his own troubled Church and in the World. He did his best in the past seven years but finally old age caught up to him and he wisely decided to step down. His story reminds me of a wonderful short story by J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of the “Lord of the Rings” and the “Hobbit”. This little known story, “Leaf by Niggle” is about a man who is attempting a painting of a leaf. He regards it as his life’s work but throughout he is constantly interrupted by the needs and demands of family, friends, and even strangers. He dies with the painting of the leaf unfinished but that’s not the end of the story.
In the end we see Niggle in Heaven working on a painting of a huge tree containing thousands of beautifully painted leaves. Let’s hope that Pope Benedict will one day come to a similar reward. Well-done, good and faithful servant. Rest in peace. ###