Growing up, Pope John Paul II was my hero; my role-model; my father. The example of his holiness shown through love for Jesus Christ and the whole world inspired a desire for the same in me. It was his stirring words at World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto, Perhaps God is calling YOU to the priesthood; BE NOT AFRAID!, which drove me into the seminary two years later. Under his watchful and paternal eye, my first year in formation for the priesthood was guided. That was until 2 April 2005, when he returned to the House of the Father, as the homilist of his funeral Mass put it- Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
There was a void in my heart. How would I ever make it to the priesthood without my Holy Father guiding me? Despite how terribly sick he had become there was an idealist in me that dreamed of him hanging in there until I was ordained a priest; before the end of my first year, that dream was dashed. I will never forget sitting around the television set for hours waiting for the announcement, the Pope has died. The days that followed were emotional and foggy. The Church was fatherless; shepherdless.
On April 19th at 11:50am (in London, ON, where I studied), ten minutes before the second round of ballots were supposed to be burned in the Sistene Chapel, a light coloured smoke poured out of the chimney as shown in the bottom corner of CNN. In a flash, the entire seminary was crammed into one room watching, with the rest of the world, to see who would emerge onto the loggia over St. Peter’s Square.
Annuncio vobis gaudim magnum: HABEUMS PAPAM! Eminentissimum ac Reverndissimum Dominum JOSEPHUM Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinale RATZINGER. Having been born long after Pope John Paul II’s election, there was no rush comparable to what I experienced with the proclamation of those words. We were fatherless no longer! And what a father we received. While Pope John Paul II saw me safely through most of my first year in the seminary before entrusting me to the care of his successor; Pope Benedict XVI saw me through the remainder of my seminary and nearly the first year of my priestly ministry and will now entrust me again to his successor- to St. Peter’s successor.
I have been heartbroken since February 11th. I will likely never forget that day as long as I live. In a strange sense, I think I would joyfully welcome the end of the world if it were to come before the 28th of February 2013- such is my lack of faith. Although it somehow feels instinctively wrong, I have not stopped asking myself in these last days, what is the Holy Father doing? Could it be that he is simply too tired to press on? The consistent observation is that he has grown increasingly frail. News correspondents continually point out that he looks ill. While it is being apparently confirmed from various perspectives that some underlying health issues are at play, the Vatican Press Office adamantly defends that it is not for such reasons that Pope Benedict has chosen abdication. Regardless of the declined state of the Pontiff’s health, I think what is being neglected in secular suppositions is that this is actually a mystical matter.
It is the Catholic belief that, among his many roles and services, the pope is a teacher. His teaching comprises a unique expression of the Magisterium and we can therefore trust in its guidance. Perhaps the question no one has asked yet is, what is the Holy Father teaching us, both in the days he remains seated in Peter’s Chair, and further still, from its conspicuous vacancy? Perhaps the answer lies in another conspicuous vacancy.
In the first eight years of his pontificate, Blessed John Paul II published seven encyclicals. In the slightly less than eight years of his pontificate, Pope Benedict published three. One of the most prolific theologians of the twentieth century, excluding the countless decrees and letters he issued during a long tenure at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Pope Benedict only wrote three encyclicals. The first was Deus Caritas Est, on Christian love. The second, Spe Salvi, was on the nature of Christian hope. Anyone learned in their catechism knew that the next encyclical would be on Christian faith, so as to round off his treatment of the theological virtues. Instead, the third encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, was a contribution to the noble tradition of many of his predecessors to teach on the social doctrine of the Church. This was certainly a bizarre tangent from a remarkably non-tangential man; nevertheless, it was highly anticipated that the encyclical on faith would be next on the docket. Unless one should emerge in the next few days, it seems unlikely we will ever see that.
Isn’t it curious, then, that right in the midst of this Year of Faith the one who has called it would cast our Church into such darkness and confusion? Many might say so. As I wiped the tears from my eyes that early Monday morning, I myself was plagued by such torturous doubts. It took some time for me to appreciate a glimmer of the brilliance of what I believe Pope Benedict XVI has done.
In fact, he has finally published his long awaited encyclical on faith to complete his treatment of the theological virtues- an encyclical not of words but of example- a living encyclical. He is asking us to have faith; he is asking his successor to have even more; he himself has acted out of an abundance of faith that, perhaps, displays more than all of ours combined. We will never in our lifetimes remotely comprehend the genius and magnanimity of this man who has been our Father.
On the eve of March 1st, Pope Benedict will retire to his bed as somewhat of a hermit. Undoubtedly, some will suggest it will be the soundest sleep he has had in his life. I would beg to differ. He will never shed the burdensome weight of all the world’s souls. As for their shepherding, indeed, to another he will entrust them. As for their salvation- our salvation- he will not cease to make constant supplication before almighty God on their behalf. That is a vocation one neither sheds nor attempts to.
A young man on the cusp of his priestly ordination- on the cusp of taking up that same burden of souls- shared this thought with me, “I love our Holy Father for many reasons, but there is one that stands out among the others and that is this: he has shown me what it is to be a man of the Church; being learned in Her traditions, having Her Wisdom in the bones and having Her burning light of truth in the heart.”
As his Episcopal motto, Joseph Ratzinger took, Cooperatores Veritatis, “Coworkers of the Truth”. Truth is not a thing, He is a Person: Jesus Christ. Pope Benedict XVI has been a profound coworker of the Truth; and so He shall continue just as he continues to pray that we too, his children, may keep that burning light of Jesus Christ aflame in our hearts.