Pope Emeritus in the News

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

There’s some buzz — a Drudge link helps — surrounding a report that Pope Benedict XVI has said that “God told me” to resign after a “mystical experience.” Reported as some kind of bombshell revelation, it sounds much like the window into his prayer life that he has had open for a while now, most notably that morning he did announce the shocking news he would be stepping aside for the cardinals to elect someone new.

In February he said: “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”

He and Pope Francis have both talked tirelessly about an “encounter with God.” It’s not just domesticated, unchallenging – a safe harbor that makes us feel better, that reminds us God loves us and that we might have life beyond this one. Christians are called to something radical – to infuse all of life with light, to be the source of not just hope and strength but direction. And that’s not just a general direction, Heaven or Hell. It’s specific. It’s vocational. It involves joy and also sacrifice. It is redeeming. But it’s not a life of convenience. 

In his resignation statement, Benedict also wrote:

I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me. 

Here again we see, the spiritual and the physical, the personal and the public, are interlocked, meant to be integrated.

The great invitation of these last months might be best elucidated in an early paragraph of the recent encyclical letter, Lumen Fidei, that was the work of both Benedict and Francis:

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. A light this powerful cannot come from ourselves but from a more primordial source: in a word, it must come from God. 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 fulfilment, and that a vision of the future opens up before us. Faith, received from God as a supernatural gift, becomes a light for our way, guiding our journey through time. On the one hand, it is a light coming from the past, the light of the foundational memory of the life of Jesus which revealed his perfectly trustworthy love, a love capable of triumphing over death. Yet since Christ has risen and draws us beyond death, faith is also a light coming from the future and opening before us vast horizons which guide us beyond our isolated selves towards the breadth of communion. We come to see that faith does not dwell in shadow and gloom; it is a light for our darkness. Dante, in the Divine Comedy, after professing his faith to Saint Peter, describes that light as a “spark, which then becomes a burning flame and like a heavenly star within me glimmers”. It is this light of faith that I would now like to consider, so that it can grow and enlighten the present, becoming a star to brighten the horizon of our journey at a time when mankind is particularly in need of light.

We do ourselves and civilization an injustice when we become comfortable with “renounc[ing] the search for a great light, Truth itself, in order to be content with smaller lights which illumine the fleeting moment yet prove incapable of showing the way.” For, “in the absence of light everything becomes confused; it is impossible to tell good from evil, or the road to our destination from other roads which take us in endless circles, going nowhere,” Lumen Fidei proposes. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It’s so much of our institutionalized culture in higher education and, increasingly, government, with a tyrannical streak prone to marginalize those who would seriously go toward the light of Truth in their lives, in real (even job-creating) ways.

That Benedict would have searched his soul, gone deep in prayer, and been touched by divine revelation should come as no surprise. Not only because he’s already given us a window in, but because it’s the call of a Christian who is for real.

In his parting Angelus message as pope, he said:

“Dear brothers and sisters…The Lord is calling me to “climb the mountain”, to devote myself even more to prayer and meditation. But this does not mean abandoning the Church, indeed, if God is asking me to do this, it is so I can continue to serve the Church with the same dedication and the same love with which I have done thus far, but in a way that is better suited to my age and my strength”. “We will always be close in prayer!”.

That mystical reality is one he lives in. Of course, God would approach him with directive. That’s what the man has dedicated his life to, showing that this is how we are called to live! We won’t be all writing mystical autobiographies, but there’s a lot more listening we could afford to be doing – it’s why Benedict was big on the silence of contemplation for even – or especially – communications, and specifically those in the media. Catholics don’t believe in a God who leaves us alone to figure it all out by ourselves. Benedict modeled this in a way that’s still making headlines.