To Benedict, the Church came first

 — Feb. 13, 201313 févr. 2013
By Michael Swan,

Clarity and charity, the Gospel proclaimed and Jesus at the heart of the Church will always be the legacy of the great teaching Pope who led off the 21st century.

Pope Benedict XVI may have surprised the world by announcing his withdrawal from the See of Peter, but his courageous decision to put the Church and the office of the Pope before any other consideration was absolutely consistent with his character.

“As a Pope he was humble, conscientious, diligent,” wrote theologian Gregory Baum in an e-mail to The Catholic Register. “(He) derived no pleasure from being seen and celebrated.”

Still reeling from the Pope’s announcement and the realization he will soon be called to help choose the next supreme pontiff, Toronto’s Cardinal Thomas Collins spoke about Benedict’s mission as a teaching Pope.

“His encyclicals are obviously crucial to his legacy,” said Collins. “They obviously speak of love being the heart of it all. Hope and love and then the tremendous way in which we reach out to people who are suffering and in need. The encyclicals are crucial.”

But it goes beyond the encyclicals, Collins said. His legacy as a theologian before becoming Pope — including his 300-page masterwork, Introduction to Christianity — his popular writing on the life of Jesus and even the short addresses Benedict has given at weekly audiences throughout his pontificate are all part of the Pope’s instinct for teaching.

“The remarkable thing about this Holy Father is that he writes a lot of little books. I have a couple of shelves,” said Collins. “I’ve been reading them for decades now. They are insightful and clear.”

“Joseph Ratzinger is a brilliant intellectual, a creative theologian, a student of the Church Fathers, especially St. Augustine,” said Baum.

It was how Pope Benedict absorbed St. Augustine that contributed to his image as a man opposed to the modern world.

“He never gave up St. Augustine’s strict division between the two cities — the Church chosen by God and the world in need of conversion,” Baum said. “As Pope Benedict XVI he preached that believing in God is the indispensable first step to the reform of culture and society, even though in our days movements of ardent believers in God spread hostility, practise intolerance and even turn to violence. His great desire was to proclaim the Gospel.”

It was Benedict’s keen theological mind rooted in Church tradition that led him into conflict with so many theologians and schools of theological thought, said theologian Catherine Clifford from Ottawa’s Saint Paul University.

“The last 30 years will be remembered for the influence of Joseph Ratzinger on the whole theological life of the Church,” she said. “This translates into a direct influence on magisterial teaching.”

The papacy Benedict inherited from the globe-trotting, charismatic Pope John Paul II could never fit back into an exclusively European, exclusively Catholic box. The pope today is the pope of the whole world, who reaches out to all Christians and to all faiths.

“He (Benedict) has been fully committed to interfaith dialogue,” said Clifford.

Interfaith dialogue did not always go smoothly. A lecture at his old university in Regensburg in 2006 in which he quoted a medieval emporer accusing the Prophet Mohammed of violence resulted in rioting and protests throughout the Muslim world. But the misunderstood Pope persevered and the incident brought him to Turkey to pray at the Blue Mosque and eventually a meeting with Muslim scholars who formed the Muslim-Catholic Forum in 2008.

A similar sore point struck in Benedict’s relations with Judaism. In an attempt to heal the rift with the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, he withdrew the excommunications of four SSPX bishops, unaware that one, Richard Williamson, was a notorious Holocaust denier. Despite this and tensions over the beatification of Pope Pius XII, Benedict became the second Pope to visit Israel in 2009.

This Pope has understood that the Church today is universal in ways that were unimagined a century ago, said Fr. Damian MacPherson, the archdiocese of Toronto’s ecumenical and interfaith affairs director.

“The universal outreach of the Roman Catholic Church is not simply to the Roman Catholic world. It’s obviously to embrace the whole world, firstly the whole Christian world and then secondarily the interfaith world,” said MacPherson.

In forging his remarkable relationship with the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, Benedict ensured that the outreach went beyond ecumenism.

Benedict, the Green Pope, and Bartholomew, the Green Patriarch, together spoke about the environmental crisis and Christian responsibility for healing the Earth.

From the outset, Benedict faced the crisis of sexual abuse.

“How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to Him,” Benedict wrote in Good Friday reflections just before his election.

“The soiled garments and face of our Church throw us into confusion. Yet it is we ourselves who have soiled them. It is we who betray you time and time again.”

Though he is given little credit for it, Benedict took on the challenge of clerical abuse, said Saint Paul University professor of canon law Ann Asselin.

“There is a gap concerning the perception that the public may have regarding sex abuse cases, but I think there’s probably a gap in several things between the reality and the public’s perception. Good news rarely makes the news,” Asselin said.

It’s thanks to the Pope’s efforts that every diocese around the world today has protocols for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse. Benedict changed not only canon law and procedures, he changed the culture.

“There has been a tremendous step forward in the awareness of the Church and us canonists that we have to make sure these laws are in place and that the bishops and the personnel in the diocesan curias are well formed in canon law and the use of these protocols. There’s a very high level of consciousness now,” said Asselin.

“it’s a billion people in the Church. We in this part of the world have our own problems and also other people in other parts of the world — and great joy. It’s a complex reality. But in the midst of the complexity what is needed is holiness,” said Collins. “What we need (in a Pope) is a holy pastor.”

It’s what the Church has had in Benedict XVI, and what the Church prays for in the next pope.

Posted: Feb. 13, 2013 • Permanent link:
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