Pope Benedict: The Other Man of the Year
Reading Francis through a political lens misses the Gospel.


Kathryn Jean Lopez

Time magazine and countless others have heralded Pope Francis as the man of the year. In doing so, they may have missed the story of the year.

On February 28, 2013, the best-known religious leader in the world stepped away from power, believing it to be God’s will for him and His Church.  

If you love Pope Francis, thank Pope Benedict XVI. And do him the favor of listening to the new pontiff.

“God is love,” Pope Benedict wrote in the third volume of his series on Jesus of Nazareth. This final installment, published a little over a year ago, is on Christ as infant in the Bible. Benedict went on to write: “But love can also be hated when it challenges us to transcend ourselves. It is not a romantic ‘good feeling.’ Redemption is not ‘wellness,’ it is not about basking in self-indulgence; on the contrary it is a liberation from imprisonment from self-absorption.”

He wrote it. Now CNN and everyone else is covering it, albeit with a broken lens.

Pope Benedict did something profound in the fall of 2012. As we were about to reelect Barack Obama president — seemingly shamed by his patronizing talking points into believing that the religious-freedom problem that had even the University of Notre Dame heading to court was not a harbinger of things to come from the Obamacare revolution — Benedict was hitting the reset button. Hours before Joe Biden and Paul Ryan would engage in the first and only vice-presidential debate of the election — two Catholics saying very different things about both Church teaching and reality — Pope Benedict was marking the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. The council and its documents are a rich treasure for a world in need of renewal, but they were immediately misread and politicized. I was one of the people who greeted Pope Benedict that October day last year and thanked him as he gave us the same messages Pope Paul VI had delivered at the end of the council. The message he gave me was for every woman in the world.

“The hour is coming,” Pope Paul had written, “in fact has come, when the vocation of woman is being achieved in its fullness, the hour in which woman acquires in the world an influence, an effect, and a power never hitherto achieved. That is why, at this moment when the human race is undergoing so deep a transformation, women impregnated with the spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid mankind in not falling.” The message concludes, “Women of the entire universe, whether Christian or non-believing, you to whom life is entrusted at this grave moment in history, it is for you to save the peace of the world.”

Be honest, did you have any idea that the Catholic Church thought this about women?

In Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict wrote of Mary: “For her, the Cross of radical contradiction becomes the sword that pierces her soul. From Mary we can learn what true compassion is: quite unsentimentally assuming the sufferings of others as one’s own.”

What Catholics believe about the mother of God — that lady gazing at the manger under our Christmas trees this season — tends to be misunderstood. It’s the humble and trusting “yes” held up as a model. Walking the stages of her life with her Son teaches us about God, who faced the cruelest injustices in the most supreme act of charity.

Pope Francis talks constantly both about mercy and about weeping for your brother and sister in pain — that piercing of the heart. We can’t be indifferent, he says, to the suffering of another: the materially poor, the lonely, he who is enslaved by power or another false idol. This is what Francis is talking about. We read him and misread him through a political lens, often conveniently, depriving ourselves of the challenging messages that might take us out of ourselves, changing lives and communities, rocking the world.

Pope Benedict made a significant “yes” himself when he became a priest. But life is a series of humble acts of fiat – this is the model in the New Testament and what the world has been watching with a fascinated curiosity and sometimes unsettling fear.

The new Pope Francis and the now-emeritus Pope Benedict made history with their encyclical letter to the Church, The Light of Faith, released this summer. It is signed by Francis, but Benedict had been working on it to close out this Year of Faith in the Church. They wrote: “There is an urgent need, then, to see once again that faith is a light, for once the flame of faith dies out, all other lights begin to dim. The light of faith is unique, since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence. . . . Faith is born of an encounter with the living God who calls us and reveals his love, a love which precedes us and upon which we can lean for security and for building our lives. Transformed by this love, we gain fresh vision, new eyes to see; we realize that it contains a great promise of fulfillment, and that a vision of the future opens up before us.”

This all won’t happen without suffering. Without misunderstanding. Without persecution. We celebrate Christmas and bear in mind what is to come: Easter, yes, but Good Friday first. This, too, may help with some of the unsettling debates we are having today.

What has been happening in the Catholic Church is not just for Catholics. Believers seeking to be conformed to Christ are people we need in a democratic republic. We want them as neighbors. We need them in the marketplace. This is at the heart of the reason why the religious-freedom case involving the Hobby Lobby chain of arts-and-crafts stores, which will come before the Supreme Court in the spring, is important: Religious freedom keeps men and women flourishing. It’s a treasure we must protect. But we’ll never know it unless we see real people taking full advantage of it, living their lives in love of God. It’s not a bad New Year’s resolution. Two popes drove the point home this past year.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.

Papal Tweets
December 12 marks the first anniversary of the the first tweet by a pope, when Pope Benedict sent a message from the Paul VI audience hall at the Vatican. Since then Pope Francis has continued to embrace the medium in speaking to the Catholic faithful. Here’s a sampling of one year from @Pontifex, illustrated by NR.
“Dear friends, I am pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter. Thank you for your generous response. I bless all of you from my heart.” (December 12, 2012)
“We can be certain that a believer is never alone. God is the solid rock upon which we build our lives and his love is always faithful.” (Dec. 12)
“Everyone’s life of faith has times of light, but also times of darkness. If you want to walk in the light, let the word of God be your guide.” (December 19)
“Please join me in praying for Syria, so that constructive dialogue will replace the horrendous violence.” (January 7, 2013)
“What happens in Baptism? We become united forever with Jesus, to be born again to a new life.” (January 13)
“If we have love for our neighbor, we will find the face of Christ in the poor, the weak, the sick and the suffering.” (January 16)
“Many false idols are held up today. For Christians to be faithful, they can’t be afraid to go against the current.” (January 23)
“Everything is a gift from God: it is only by recognizing this crucial dependence on the Creator that we will find freedom and peace.” (February 6)
“If only everyone could experience the joy of being Christian, being loved by God who gave his Son for us!” (February 27)
“Thank you for your love and support. May you always experience the joy that comes from putting Christ at the centre of your lives.” (February 28)
“Dear friends, I thank you from my heart and I ask you to continue to pray for me.” (March 17)
“Accept the risen Jesus into your life. Even if you have been far away, take a small step towards him: he awaits you with open arms.” (March 31)
“God loves us. We must not be afraid to love him. The faith is professed with the lips and with the heart, through words and through love.” (April 4)
“Being a Christian is not just about following commandments: it is about letting Christ take possession of our lives and transform them.” (April 10)
“If we act like children of God, knowing that he loves us, our lives will be made new, filled with serenity and joy.” (April 10)
“Let us not forget: If we are to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus, our lives must bear witness to what we preach.” (April 14)
“Worshipping God means learning to be with him, stripping away our hidden idols and placing him at the centre of our lives.” (April 14)
“Let us pray for the many Christians in the world who still suffer persecution and violence. May God grant them the courage of fidelity.” (May 12)
“We cannot be part-time Christians! We should seek to live our faith at every moment of every day.” (May 16)
“We must learn from Mary, and we must imitate her unconditional readiness to receive Christ in her life.” (May 18)
“We are all sinners. But may the Lord not let us be hypocrites. Hypocrites don’t know the meaning of forgiveness, joy and the love of God.” (June 23)
”Let the Church always be a place of mercy and hope, where everyone is welcomed, loved and forgiven.” (June 16)
“We need to model our lives on the life of Jesus, so as to share his sentiments and his thoughts.” (July 28)
“Mercy is the true power that can save humanity and the world from sin and evil,” (October 7)
“Too often we participate in the globalization of indifference. May we strive instead to live global solidarity.” (October 25)
“We cannot think of a Church without joy. This is the joy of the Church: announcing to all the name of Jesus.” (December 12)
Updated: Dec. 13, 2013