The official Latin term for the time between popes holding the office of the papacy is the Interregnum. There is no pope. Vatican operations go into near shutdown or at least restricted mode with key officials doing only essential duties, attending to the most critical things, while the college of cardinals carry the weight of the church and world on their shoulders. But there’s no word for the uneasiness countless Catholics feel around the world for this time of the sede vacante, the empty seat. As one renowned cardinal put it last time around, in 2005, ‘it’s frightening, Peter is not there.’
Time and again over the past several days, I’ve heard Catholics in high places say they are unsettled, anxious, sad and even ‘orphaned’, which is especially poignant given that in his final message as pope, Benedict XVI said he takes each one of us with him (everyone in the world) and prays for us ‘with a father’s heart.’ One of his legacies is helping us see how we’re all in this together, that each one of us in the world has equal dignity and rights and responsibilities.
The cardinals are starting to work out the details of the process of going forward now. Benedict is finally resting and spending time in privacy, praying and reading and enjoying his favorite books and music, and praying some more. But his legacy is among the weighiest of the modern popes. Papal biographer George Weigel told me in an interview that he considered Pope Benedict XVI the greatest papal preacher since Gregory the Great.
Pause a moment with that one…
Carl Olson wonders, was he ‘The Last of the Giants’? It’s all hard to summarize, the pontificate and analyses of it. Read this whole piece, it’s a good one. But here’s the end of Olson’s commentary:
Judging Benedict XVI’s pontificate is a difficult thing to do, hardly possible on the day it has ended. The key question is: what criteria will be used to judge, and who will do the judging? With that in mind, I conclude this essay with two quotes, both from Mark Brumley, President of Ignatius Press, from whom I learned so much about John Paul II’s thought (when Mark was my professor in the late 1990s) and who has worked so tirelessly to bring the writings of Ratzinger/Benedict XVI to English-speaking readers throughout the world.
First, in a 2005 interview with ZENIT, Mark was asked, “What will Pope Benedict XVI bring of himself and his theological interests to the pontificate?” He replied:
Although Ratzinger the prefect is distinguishable from Ratzinger the theologian, we are blessed in Pope Benedict XVI with a theologian and pastor who has thought and prayed long and hard about Jesus Christ, the Church and her mission to the world.
He will, I believe, continue the twofold task of Vatican II — renewing the inner life of the Church and reinvigorating the Church’s mission in the world. He is committed to a renewal of biblical studies and a deepening of ordinary Catholics’ appreciation of and participation in the sacred liturgy.
He staunchly proclaims the universal call to holiness of Vatican II. He understands the importance of dialogue among Christians and dialogue with world religions and seekers, while he upholds the integrity of Catholic faith and insists on a renewed missionary drive to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world.
And he knows that in the areas of morality and social justice, the Christian message has not been tried and found wanting, as G.K. Chesterton noted, but has been found difficult and left untried. Furthermore, he sees the threat of radical relativism and many other “isms.”
And today, in a press release, Mark states:
Although Pope Benedict’s pontificate has been relatively short, he has accomplished a great deal amidst profound challenges, both within the Church and in the world. By stressing the “hermeneutic of reform” in contrast to the “hermeneutic of rupture,” he has shown the way forward in clarifying the relationship between the Second Vatican Council and the Church’s Tradition. He has presented clearly, forcefully, thoughtfully, and winsomely “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), and he has strengthened the Church’s efforts to evangelize the world. He has sought to deepen the renewal of the Church’s worship and sacramental life by fostering a recovery of “the spirit of the liturgy.” He has appointed and elevated men to the episcopate who perceive the importance of an authentic understanding of the Second Vatican Council, in light of the Church’s Tradition and the “joy and hope, the grief and anguish” of our world (cf. Gaudium et Spes, no. 1).
And then he ended it all with utmost humility and simplicity. His final public words:
Thank you – thank you from my heart!
Dear friends, I’m happy to be with you, that I can see the Creator’s beauty around us, and all the goodness you’ve given to me – thank you for your friendship and your affection!
You know that this day of mine hasn’t been like those before. I’m no longer the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic church…now I’m just a pilgrim beginning the last part of his journey on earth.
With all my heart, with all my love, with my prayer and all my strength – with everything in me – I’d like to work for the common good of the church and all humanity. I feel your kindness so much.
Let us always move together toward the Lord for the good of the church and of the world. Thank you for bringing yourselves [here] – with all my heart, I give you my blessing….
Thank you and goodnight!
Tom McDonald, a savvy, witty blogger, hardly knew what to say.
And so it ends.
The last great man of Europe takes the stage for the final time, and reminds us that greatness is measured not by political machinations, military or economic might, or even important discoveries, but in staying grounded in the vast messiness of this frustrating and glorious human family with compassion, humility, and gentleness.
He was the teacher we needed at the time we needed him. The Holy Spirit is funny that way. As the world was careening towards armageddon, with almost half its population locked in near-slavery, He gave us a firebrand: a charismatic leader who spoke with a force that toppled nations.
When our greatest enemy was ourselves–our prosperity, our tendency to selfishness, our triviality, our refusal to be taught–he sent a quiet viticulturist of souls. In one of those great cosmic ironies that proves God is a brilliant joker, He sent a teacher to a people unwilling to be taught: a people under the delusion of a radical individualism that says each man is his own Lord and Master, and thus must find his own way by his own light, rather than by the one Light Who illuminates all.
For a people easily distracted by an infinitely multiplying, utterly inconsequential number of small things, he turned the bright beam of his intellect on the big things: the things that mattered: hope, faith, love. In an era when the people who have assumed the mantle of “humanism” are the most anti-human of all, he gave us a true Christian humanist rooted where it must be rooted: in the God who loves.
Non-Catholics can’t possibly understand the connection truly faithful Catholics have to their pope. He’s not magic, he’s not a god, and oddly enough he doesn’t even need to be holy or even particularly inspirational. (Fortunately, this last part is rare in the history of Christ’s Church.) What he is, is this: a promise. He is a promise, made by the Incarnate Lord, of a visible leadership that will last for all time, beginning with the flawed, hot-headed, cowardly fisherman who sat at His right hand, and stretching down through the millennia to us today. “Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam.”
And I will miss him more than words can express. He was “my” pope. I read him for years as Joseph Ratzinger, marveling at a mind so sharp it could convey complex points with utter simplicity. As someone called to a teaching ministry, I was inspired by his ability to teach at any level required of him, and teach so well that he also could inspire.
And that bespeaks my sentiments exactly. I read him for years as Joseph Ratzinger, quoted him in articles I wrote and talks I gave and on radio shows, because he taught the depths of human truths with such clarity and elegance and art. All that Thomas said, yes.
His reach was expansive. Monday I interviwed Dr. Eugene Fisher, former associate director of the U.S. Catholic bishops' Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, about Benedict's legacy of advancing Jewish-Catholic relations. He said Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict had first-hand experience with Nazi tyranny, which may not be the case with Benedict's successor. So interfaith leaders are at a crucial transition point right now, sharing the tenuous feelings so many others share.
In recent days, I’ve twice interviewed Fr. Joseph Fessio, founder and editor of Ignatius Press and former student of the former Fr. Joseph Ratzinger with whom he has maintained a close 40 year long friendship. It has been enlightening and joyful and inspiring to talk with him, a priest who can really call Ratzinger/Benedict “my pope.”
“He was different, and people came to listen to him. He offered a very personal, meditative reflection. As people now recognize, he was articulate, organized and coherent,” recalled Father Fessio, during an interview that shared recollections of Ratzinger’s role as a teacher and offered an appreciation of his gifts as an author.
But Father Ratzinger’s intellectual gifts were even more striking during the graduate seminars, “where there would be five or six of us. In each session, one person would make a presentation, and others would respond,” Father Fessio remembered. “Father Ratzinger would listen, and then, in the discussion, he would make sure that others also spoke. My German was not good, and I couldn’t say very much.”
During the seminars, Father Ratzinger “would sit back, and then, at the end of the seminar, in two or three sentence, he would summarize all that was said. He pulled the discussion together into an organic whole in a way that was always illuminating.”
Fr. Fessio told me Ratzinger/Benedict had the gift of synthesizing thoughts in something like ”an intellectual symphony,” a beautiful and perfectly apt description of Benedict’s exquisite expression. “He had a power of seeing,” Fr. Fessio told me again on Monday. “He wrote with clarity, depth and breadth. His deep faith gave him the power of seeing everyting integrated as a whole, with an inner unity.”
From the interview in National Catholic Register:
Father Fessio recalled a remark the Pope made during a meeting some time after his election.
Another Catholic publisher asked the Holy Father why only Ignatius Press was publishing his works. Father Fessio recalled that the Pope calmly responded, “Because when no one else cared, they published my works.”
Those of us who knew the mind and eloquent expression of Joseph Ratzinger always cared, in fact valued it highly, and hung on every word. Fortunately, they will be with us for a lifetime and many more after us, no matter who his successors are to the Chair of Peter.