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.
“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.