The world is gripped by the shock of this week’s announcement from Rome. This blog was born as an idea a few months back, and I had intended to launch it on the feast of The Annunciation, but as the title suggests, the Incarnation continues today, in our time. I think no current story more aptly illustrates this truth than the news of the Holy Father‘s renunciation of the papacy. And so, I offer some personal initial reflections, which, although incomplete, might through their writing, begin to guide our understanding of this historic event.
The Church certainly faces many challenges, and the media has once more begun to capitalize on the news from Rome this week, to make front-page headlines of these. But if one looks closely at the full arc of history, we see that the struggles we face today are no different in their intensity than those of the past. And so, as we begin to reflect on the significance of the Holy Father’s decision to renounce the care of the See of Peter, entrusted to him by God through His Church, I am personally brought back to the 14th century, and to the life and words of a woman, the saintly Catherine of Siena, Doctor of the Church, who was for her times what we need again in ours today: a courageous defender of the papacy, of its beauty and dignity in the face of division, derision and scandal.
There is a poignant reflection, written by Benedict XVI himself, on the occasion of her feast in 2010. At that time the decision he announced this week may not have been a pressing priority on his mind, but he offered then some prescient thoughts in reflecting on her heroic life, which brought to bear on the announcement the world received on the 11th of February 2013, might begin to illumine our own reflections:
‘The Sienese Saint always invited the sacred ministers, including the Pope whom she called “sweet Christ on earth”, to be faithful to their responsibilities, motivated always and only by her profound and constant love of the Church. She said before she died: “in leaving my body, truly I have consumed and given my life in the Church and for the Holy Church, which is for me a most unique grace” (Raimondo da Capua, S. Caterina da Siena, Legenda maior, n. 363).’
‘To be faithful…’
What is fidelity in the world we live in? It seems impossible to live ‘fidelity’ in modernity. One need only look at the countless examples of broken commitment in our world to see that this is no easy task. A possible answer to this question is that fidelity is humility in action: that kind of selflessness that looks at a personal vow, or a promise of such vast proportion and responsibility as that made by the Successor of Peter, and says, “yes, I will, with full freedom, choose what is set before me, in light of my own capacity or incapacity, of my desires or lack thereof, and do it well.’ Fidelity is in effect freedom, exercised rightly, and with self-effacing generosity.
It is possible to propose then, that the renunciation of the Holy Father is an example of heroic fidelity. I received the news that many did, with initial disbelief. And then, a slowly creeping understanding emerged that this is a man who reports to no one else but Christ Himself. The Pastor of the Sheep had to converse with the Son of Man to come to make the decision he did ‘for the good of the Church.’ The realization emerged that now he will willingly and freely decide to watch and wait for the Holy Spirit he so trusts, to act in shepherding the flock that had been entrusted to his care.
Coming from a mind of such theological sophistication, and a heart of such profound humility, this level of confidence is perhaps the greatest gift of his papacy to the world. Much will be said in the weeks and years to come of this historical decision, but each reflection will need to converge on the courage and trust that the Holy Father has exhibited in Christ Himself, and left for us to witness.
Fundamentally, his renunciation of the papacy is analogous to the sacrificial offering of Christ on the Cross, and so becomes for us, a profound example of obedience in a world that renounces nothing. It is only so, that we can refer to this Pope, as Saint Catherine dared refer to Gregory XI, as our ‘Sweet Christ on Earth.’ Our task now is to behave as Simon the Cyrenean did on that Calvarian pilgrimage, and accompany this Holy Father as he prepares to lay down the weight of the Office of Peter on a modern Golgotha.
The road to Calvary is not easy, and each human life participates in the Passion at some point. It is in these moments of deep personal difficulty, that the power of the cross and the need for conversion is most evident. Like Christ and with Saint Catherine it can be said of Benedict XVI that he ‘[has] consumed and given [his] life in the Church and for the holy Church,’ and this will surely have its own reward in the economy of grace.
As we witness these final days of service of the Shepherd of Rome, and embark on our own Lenten pilgrimages of grace, let us not forget that Christ himself came among us as Redeemer in the flesh, to show us that all things are possible in Him. The Incarnation continues– today—in this Priest and Vicar of Christ. And for him, surely, the Mother of the Savior will mightily intercede.