Benedict XVI and the Humble Way of the Cross

A Most Affective and Effective Method of Teaching

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Today’s “Rome Notes” is a contribution from John Tabor, director of communications at the Catholic Union of Great Britain.

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On the evening of Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013, the gates of the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo swung shut, the Swiss Guard stood down and a new chapter in the life of the Catholic Church began. His Holiness Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus, as he is now known, will be hidden from public view. His will be a life devoted to prayer and study. In the world’s terms, this voluntary abdication of power and responsibility seems extraordinary but that is to misunderstand the key place humility plays in the Christian life and especially in this case, Pope Benedict’s own.

The primacy of prayer

When, on Feb. 11, Benedict XVI announced his resignation from the Petrine Office, he said he had done so after much prayer and examination of conscience. He repeated this at his final general audience: “In recent months, I felt that my strength had decreased, and I asked God with insistence in prayer to enlighten me with His light to make me take the right decision – not for my sake, but for the good of the Church. I have taken this step in full awareness of its severity and also its novelty, but with a deep peace of mind. Loving the Church also means having the courage to make difficult, trying choices, having ever before oneself the good of the Church and not one’s own.” 

His reasons for resigning — his diminishing strength, affecting his ability to bear the burden of office — display a humility and trust in God that serve as an example of a mature understanding of man’s relationship with God. 

Humility as a way of living

The word humility has its origins in the word “humus” or “earthly”. It brings to mind the formula used on Ash Wednesday, “Remember man that you are dust and that to dust you shall return.” Here Benedict is teaching us about our right relationship with God — creatures of a Loving Creator. It is also an occasion to express our love for God — a theme that has run through his writings from his first encyclical “Deus Caritas Est” right through to his latest book on the Incarnation and his last Lent message “Charity begets charity.”

A Benedictine inheritor

In his Rule for Monks, St Benedict describes the Twelve Steps of Humility. It bears reading in this context. In summary it concludes, “Anyone … who climbed the… steps of humility… will begin to observe…that a new motive will have taken over, not fear of hell but the love of Christ. Good habit and delight in virtue will carry them along. This happy state the Lord will bring about through the Holy Spirit in his servant, whom he has cleansed of vice and sin and taught to be a true and faithful worker in the kingdom.” 

In many ways Benedict’s pontificate has had a monastic feel about it. Less outwardly charismatic than his predecessor, there was nevertheless a clear element of teaching which was characteristic of his long time as a university professor and theologian. Benedict’s speeches in Regensburg and Westminster Hall in particular show this. By opening up Church teaching to a wider audience whilst at the same time adhering to Church orthodoxy, he showed himself to be an inheritor and pragmatic interpreter of the Second Vatican Council within the established Tradition of the Church. It was not, he said, a rupture, rather a continuation. 

Prayer and Work (as he will continue to be doing now) reflect the monastic ideal and display a balance that was also a feature of the pontificate. He was not a showman in the modern sense, nor completely at ease with Church government — both of these will be key qualities perhaps sought after for his successor. Rather Benedict played to his strengths as a teaching Pope.

The office and the priest

In his humility, Benedict teaches us that the way to sainthood lies not in power, wealth or possessions, but in a right relationship with God and our fellow men, recognizing that everything is gift, freely given. His reaching out to those of differing opinions, most notably perhaps, the Traditionalist movement of the Society of St. Pius X, and the offering of the Ordinariate to the Anglican Communion, showed at once both his humility and desire for peace. 

In 2009 Benedict placed his pallium on the tomb of another Pope, St Celestine, who like his successor today chose to return to a life of obscurity and prayer. Humility and prayer go hand in hand, so whilst it will be a quiet life it will be a necessarily ordered one. His resignation was the clearest sign that the office of Pope is distinct from the man who holds that office.

St Joseph is rightly seen as a model of the hidden life — he gets the shortest of mentions in the Gospel but in his role as foster-father of Our Lord, displays a real humility in service. As Pope Benedict’s first patron he will have had some influence in his approach to both his priestly, private and public office. 

“The ‘always’ is also a ‘forever’ — there is no returning to private life. My decision to forgo the exercise of active ministry, does not revoke this. I do not return to private life, to a life of travel, meetings, receptions, conferences and so on. I do not abandon the cross, but remain in a new way near to the Crucified Lord. I no longer wield the power of the office for the government of the Church, but in the service of prayer I remain, so to speak, within St. Peter’s bounds. St. Benedict, whose name I bear as Pope, shall be a great example in this for me. He showed us the way to a life which, active or passive, belongs wholly to the work of God.” (General Audience, Vatican, 27th February 2013)

The way of the pilgrim

In his final address, Pope Benedict said, “I am a pilgrim entering onto the last stage of my earthly pilgrimage.” Pilgrimages can often carry with them a level of penitence and small humiliations — they are undertaken for the Love of God. By freely embracing these, Benedict is teaching us that humility can and does bring the reward of grace and closeness to Christ. He has saved his most effective and affective method of teaching till now.

The Christian life rightly lived out points the way to the Cross. Blessed John Paul II taught us how to embrace the Cross through suffering. Benedict XVI is teaching us how to embrace the Cross through humility, and become who we are really meant to be.

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