There’s been all sorts of comments about Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy in the media and the social networks since he announced his decision to resign from the papacy. Unsurprisingly, the secular media has focused upon the events that have grabbed global attention like the clerical abuse scandal, Vatileaks and the Regensburg address. And equally unsurprisingly, the assessments of how well Benedict XVI dealt with these and similar issues have varied greatly.
I don’t think it’s unreasonable to weigh Benedict’s handling of these and other difficult matters that arose on his watch, but I also think that it is very easy to transpose a political view of leadership onto the papacy, and thus obscure the true nature of Benedict’s legacy. For while we need the pope to be an effective leader of the global institution that is the Church, the pope’s primary role is to be a spiritual leader. The pope is supposed to lead us to God.
The origins of this mission lie in the very words of Jesus himself, who tells Peter that when he has turned (literally ‘converted’) he is to strengthen his fellow disciples (Luke 22:32). This means that to understand Benedict’s legacy we need to look as much to his encyclicals and letters, to his homilies and weekly addresses, and to his apostolic visits to different countries as to his organizational management of the Church. And by that measure, BXVI seriously stacks up.
Again and again and again Benedict simply and eloquently pointed us to the heart of the Christian faith: to the encounter with Jesus Christ. From his first encyclical:
Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. (Deus Caritas Est #1)
And this encounter with Christ is at the one and the same time an encounter with the God who is love. From one of Benedict’s Q and A sessions with a group of priests:
Christianity is not a highly complicated collection of so many dogmas that it is impossible for anyone to know them all; it is not something exclusively for academicians who can study these things, but it is something simple: God exists and God is close in Jesus Christ.
Christianity is not a new philosophy or new morality. We are Christians only if we encounter Christ… Only in this personal relationship with Christ, only in this encounter with the Risen One do we really become Christians… Therefore, let us pray to the Lord to enlighten us, so that, in our world, he will grant us the encounter with his presence, and thus give us a lively faith, an open heart, and great charity for all, capable of renewing the world.
Many people perceive Christianity as something institutional — rather than as an encounter with Christ — which explains why they don’t see it as a source of joy.
Benedict XVI is one of the great theologians of the twentieth century, a truly great intellect capable of critically engaging with both sacred and secular currents of thought. Without denying or dismissing his theological contribution for a moment, I think that Benedict XVI’s greatest legacy is that he has been a pastor and a missionary, a spiritual father. And there is something about the simplicity with which this formidable theologian went about this that reminded us again and again that Christianity is Christ: that everything else that makes up the Catholic faith flows from our encounter with the Risen Lord. And Benedict did not simply speak about these things, but truly embodied them. He was and is a wonderful witness to the joy that this encounter with Christ brings.
Thank you Holy Father.