Saturday, March 2, 2013

In Benedict’s Classroom

When Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope eight years ago, I told people who asked for my impressions that I looked forward to being surprised. I never imagined it would be this! Even if I had, I never would have thought I would be right in the middle of it. Yet here it is, and here I am.
I had a bird's eye view Sunday at the Angelus
I also told you in my last article that I wouldn’t be blogging regularly unless “something happens that might interest you.” You’ve had your pick of blogs and broadcasts, tweets and timelines surrounding the conclusion of the first papacy of the social media era. I wondered what I could offer you that hasn’t been put out there ten thousand times already.

Whenever I’ve gone out of the house in these last couple of weeks, people have wanted to talk. That’s normally not a problem, except that now it’s usually in Italian, so with my limited vocabulary, communicating is more of a toussle. Still, we’ve managed:
• The Carabiniera (Italy’s version of Homeland Security) who worries that the pope might be abandoning his vocation, the Church, and by association, her;
• A pharmacist in the neighborhood, who smells something foul in the air;
• The chiropractor, who perceives a new path for Church ministry, but wonders about the precedent it sets and how it affects our sense of fidelity to promises made;
• The theologian-friend, who anguishes over the questions it raises and who, as he continues to foster his deep relationship with God in prayer, will see himself in the questions he asks—if he hasn’t already.

Through these encounters I’ve stepped into the Pope’s classroom. The theme of his magisterium, or teaching role in the Church, is being repeated by one person after another.

A charism course presenter, Fr. Roberto Roveran, SSP, for instance, began class the day after the Pope’s announcement by inviting us to learn from what we’re picking up all around us. He sees in Benedict’s renunciation of the Petrine ministry, “not a retreat, but an openness to modernity. In this, too, he’s exercising a true magisterium. John Paul II showed the world his humanity by carrying the cross to the end. So is Benedict.”

When George Rutler writes that the ministry of the pope is not “indelible,” (see the end of this article) or as my theologian-friend says, “It’s not a vocation”—certainly not in the same way that states in life are—they’re reminding us that setting down the crosier is always a possibility. At the same time, Benedict remains a bishop, which means that, following his vocation, he will continue to teach the world.

One of our sisters in the U. S. e-mailed me:
“I totally think it [the renunciation] is keeping with his creative streak. What I mean is that first of all he is a theologian, and that is the job description of a theologian: find different ways to present truth and at times dig out truth from long forgotten corners, brush it off and present it to a contemporary people.
     “His role as a theologian has developed a mindset in him to openly analyze the truth in relation to the past and the present. A theologian is given to creative insight that most of us just don’t discover. I think that is partly why he was willing to make the decision. Reaching back to the past, he developed an unprecedented solution, at least in terms of the last few centuries. He remained faithful to being original, flexible, honest, and therefore, creative.”
Sr. Bernadette and me with don Rocca
History bears this out, too. In my estimation, the centerpiece of this blog article is in following written interview I had with Pauline historian Fr. Giancarlo Rocca, whom I introduced you to in my last article. The insights into our own community’s story that he integrates with recent events give us a way to live these moments in our Church with both trust and a personal sense of responsibility:

PF: One Catholic news source said that throughout the Church’s history so far, four popes have resigned. The most recent took place in the fifteenth century. Besides the modern context, what makes this one different?

“Judging from the numerous cases—many more than four* —in which pontiffs have resigned or were forced to resign from their ministry, I think that that the issues are varied and can be grouped into three broad categories: politics, personal motivations, and problems linked to issues within the Church.

“Those in the political category are the most easily identified. Until around the year 1000, there were several cases of forced resignation, when emperors decided to depose and exile popes, who at times named a successor. This was the case with Clement I, martyr and saint, Pontian, Silverius, and Benedict IX, not to mention the “anti-popes” elected, again for political reasons, like Felix (who replaced the legitimate Pope Liberius) and then later on, with Sylvester III and Gregory VI.

“The case of Celestine V (1209?-1296) is different. He is the pope certainly best known for his resignation, after holding the office of Peter for less than four months. His case was not political, but personal, religious. Celestine V was a hermit, loved solitude, realized that the culture of the Roman Curia was not for him, wanted to return to his cell, and so, chose to abdicate.

“Different still are the many cases of “anti-popes” during the so-called Avignon Papacy. These were deposed by the various councils of the time (Pisa and Constance in the 15th century), as in the case of Gregory XII vs. John XXIII.** Though they involved the civil powers of the time, these cases were due to strife within the Church.

“Despite the health factor, Pope Benedict XVI’s renunciation of the Petrine ministry is certainly closer to that of Celestine V. It almost seems that Benedict XVI has confirmed what he had said on the occasion of the famous Via Crucis, before being elected pope: the Church is stained and needs to be purified. I have tried to do what I could, according to my possibilities and my strength. Now that my powers have diminished, it is up to you. The Church is you too.”

PF: Some, like John Paul II’s former secretary, Cardinal Stanislaus Dziwisz, have suggested that, by renouncing his office, Pope Benedict is “coming down from the cross”—whether that cross is the burden of office, of accountability before the world, or of old age. What is your reading of the event?

“Cardinal Dziwisz has made it clear he did not at all intend to criticize the position taken by Pope Benedict XVI. When it comes to key issues in our lives, our decisions weigh heavy on us, too, as does the inevitable loneliness connected with them. We have to make these decisions for ourselves, knowing that others may or may not understand. That risk remains, as does the potential for second thoughts. In other words, the cross weighs heavy, perhaps even heavier.

“Personally, I think that the decision of Pope Benedict XVI brings us face-to-face with our responsibilities. In this sense, it doesn’t pay to discuss why Pope Benedict XVI decided to resign. Indeed, regardless of his motivations, the question for us is: What does this resignation mean for us? What I mean by that is, the wisdom of the ages is still valid: We can benefit from everything that happens to us. Like the Greek god Hermes, we wield  a magic wand that can profitably turn whatever happens to us—health, disease, friendships, disappointments, anything—into gold.”

PF: Has a papal resignation ever solved any problems of the Church in the world? Will Benedict’s renunciation help to iron out any difficulties that believers face today? Is there a hopeful sign in what he has decided to do?

“Voluntary or involuntary, the resignation of popes throughout history has not changed the character of the Church in which, Jesus said, the wheat and the weeds grow together until harvest. Good and evil are always mixed. An intervention helps to diminish evil in its excesses, not to eradicate it completely. Evil exists because there is good. If evil were to triumph, evil would destroy everything, including itself, and there would be nothing. Life goes on, and the Church goes on, just because goodness is still in the majority.

“There are times, however, when evil is too much and a strong jolt is needed. It’s a little like our personal lives, when things get as low as they can go; then from the bottom of the well, life surges, and downfall is transformed into renewal.”

Fr. Alberione with John XXIII
PF: Fr. Alberione’s attachment to the pope was notable, even, some might say, extreme in its expression, at least to modern ears. For example, in a 1955 sermon to the Daughters of St. Paul, he urged the sisters (and all Paulines) to “have a papal mentality.” How are we to interpret this today?

“I would say that Fr. Alberione did not hesitate to accept the decisions of the pope, even when some of his requests were not agreed to. For example, between 1921 and 1927, he constantly proposed, as a characteristic of his men and women religious, the vow of fidelity to the pope (like the Jesuits), but the then-Sacred Congregation for Religious objected that such a vow was unnecessary, since it was included in the vow of obedience. Alberione acquiesced; his adherence to the pontiff and that of his institutes was unquestioned.

“He was able, however, to distinguish between the pontiff’s direct intervention and the workings of the Curia, or better, of the different Roman Congregations with which he dealt. Lover of history that he was, he knew that they could modify their opinion with a change in circumstances and persons. When he had the opportunity, Fr. Alberione worked to again clarify his ideas even to the ecclesiastical authorities. This is how the vow of fidelity to the pope was reintroduced into the Pauline Constitutions.

“The same thing happened regarding the apostolate of the press, which in the 1920’s the Sacred Congregation for Religious considered inappropriate for a religious congregation. It’s still this way for other issues, but then again, this is how it is for many other founders and saints.”

PF: Pure speculation here, but would you hazard a guess anyway: How do you think Fr. Alberione would have reacted, responded, in our day to the news of Benedict’s resignation? How do you think he would have engaged us in the mission to “confirm the faith” of the Church?

“I think that a certain event in the life of Fr. Alberione can offer us a way of responding to the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. It happened that the Holy See intervened very forcefully in the life of one of his institutes. This is how Alberione reacted, and he recommended that his religious do the same: 1) The Holy See has intervened, as we all know. The fact is undeniable. 2) It is useless to talk about why and how the Holy See has decided to intervene in our lives, losing much time and energy with inevitable gossip and discussion. 3) Rather, let us see what this intervention, which makes us suffer, can teach us, seeing if we did what we could.

“It seems to me that Alberione’s reaction can tell us how he would have reacted to the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI: 1) We all know that he resigned and wanted to resign. 2) It’s useless to talk about why and how he decided to do this. 3) Let us see if we have done what we could and if his resignation does not require us to examine our conscience.”

I’ve started to make that particular examen of conscience, just processing the thoughts and feelings of these days, listening for the Spirit’s message that will make me more like Jesus. Unlike some of the superficial reactions I’ve run across, truth takes center stage here, if I allow God’s presence—now comforting, now disconcerting—to reveal itself through those events and through my response. This is magisterium at its most personal level.

Yesterday evening I heard on Radio Vaticana that Pope Benedict would post his last tweet (see right sidebar) and close his Twitter account at 5:00, just before climbing into the helicopter that would take him to the papal residence at Castel Gandolfo for the duration of the Church’s transition. So a few minutes after 5, I ventured out onto the terrace of our generalate in the southwest section of Rome and waited with rosary in hand. Soon enough, I spotted the helicopter rise above the horizon over Vatican City. It flew toward us, then circled slowly over the city before heading southeast to the Alban Hills. I hoped he knew I was praying for him; I knew he was praying for me—after a long day in the classroom.

I’ve found several online and print resources on Pope Benedict XVI at, at the U.S. bishops’ Web site and at the “Legacy” page of the Daughters of St. Paul site. John Allen’s blog, All Things Catholic, is a perennially reliable commentary, sizzling with the immediacy of a journalist in Rome. Brother Aloysius Milella, SSP, (Br. Al) sent me the link to an article by George Rutler, “Benedict’s Decision in the Light of Eternity,” which he considers one of the better articles out there. I agree.
* A list of pontiffs who left office can be found in the Annuario Pontificio, or Pontifical Yearbook. In addition, a wealth of information is contained in the various encyclopedias on the history of the papacy.
** Obviously this is not the John XXIII of the Second Vatican Council. This one was deposed 600 years earlier. His rival, the legitimate Pope Gregory XII, resigned for the unity of the Church, paving the way for the election of Martin V, who actually restored unity.
St. Peter's Square; don Rocca: Margaret J. Obrovac, FSP
Jesus before Pilate: Courtesy of
Fr. Alberione with John XXIII:  

1 comment:

  1. SHE WAS THERE... in the heart of the city, for the Angeles, Benedict XVI's departure to Castel Gandolfo, and like us awaits white smoke & ringing bells! It's an extrordinary privlege to be studying in Rome for anyone at this point in time, and Sr. Margaret is very kind to take "study time" to share this news. God bless you Sr. Margaret and please know how I much I enjoy reading your posts. ~ Carol Anne Wright, Cooperator


Your turn! Share your good word with us.