OPINION: Christchurch priest Father John O'Connor offers his reflections on Pope Benedict XVI, who shocked the Catholic world when he announced his resignation this week.
Even Pope Benedict's closest advisers were surprised when he announced this week that he would step down from the papal office at 8am on Friday, March 1, New Zealand time.
The pope, however, had indicated the possibility of a papal resignation. In a 2010 interview, he was asked if he would consider retiring. His response was clear: "One can resign at a peaceful moment or when one simply cannot go on".
"If a pope clearly realises that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign."
While it is too early to know how history will judge the 265th successor of St Peter, there are some clear, strong and consistent themes in the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI.
Pope Benedict is not given to a nostalgic romanticising of a past era. Instead he acknowledges that there were elements in the church in the early years of last century that were unnecessary and unhelpful.
In a journey of almost 2000 years, the church had accrued some ideas and practices that were more about an earthly institution than about the person of Jesus Christ. As a theologian, a cardinal and, in almost eight years as pope, he has sought to refocus the church on the person of Jesus.
In his first teaching in the days immediately after his April 2005 election, Pope Benedict proclaimed, "Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.
"There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him".
In his well-received first encyclical God is Love at Christmas in 2005, he wrote, "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".
"Since God has first loved us, love is no longer a mere 'command'; it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us."
After the death of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger, as Dean of the College of Cardinals, addressed the cardinals just hours before they entered the conclave to elect a new pope. In response to his words, some commentators removed Ratzinger's name from their lists of papabile, thinking that there was no way the cardinals would choose such an unambiguous and robust teacher.
In his address, he had called Catholics to full maturity.
"We should not remain infants in faith . . . tossed by waves and swept along by every wind of teaching arising from human trickery."
He continued, "Having a clear faith, based on the Creed of the Church, is often labelled today as a fundamentalism, whereas relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and swept along by every wind of teaching, looks like the only attitude acceptable to today's standards.
"We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognise anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires."
He then reminded the world of new horizons that the church offers the world.
"We have a different goal: the Son of God, the ultimate human. He is the measure of true humanism; being an 'adult' means having a faith which does not follow the waves of today's fashions or the latest novelties - a faith that is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ is adult and mature. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us the knowledge to judge true from false and deceit from truth."
Within two days, Cardinal Ratzinger emerged from the conclave as Pope Benedict XVI.
In his first homily as pope, he reflected on the experience of people in these early years of the 21st century.
"So many people are living in the desert. And there are so many kinds of desert. There is the desert of poverty, the desert of hunger and thirst, the desert of abandonment, of loneliness, of destroyed love. There is the desert of God's darkness, the emptiness of souls no longer aware of their dignity or the goal of human life. The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast.
"If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation."
He believes that if Catholics get the liturgy of the church right, everything else will fall into place.
In his memoir, he comments: "I am convinced that the crisis in the church that we are experiencing today is, to a large extent, due to the disintegration of the liturgy".
The pope's concern is that the liturgy, especially the mass, is often reduced to a comfortable and affirming creation of like-minded people. In his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, he clarifies his concern: "Not surprisingly, people try to reduce this newly created role by assigning all kinds of liturgical functions to different individuals and entrusting the 'creative' planning of the liturgy to groups of people who like to, and are supposed to, 'make a contribution of their own'."
Less and less is God in the picture. More and more important is what is done by the humans who meet here and do not like to subject themselves to a "pre- determined pattern".
Benedict's central concern is that with God "less and less" in the picture of the liturgy and of human life, contemporary fashions, likes and dislikes toss us about and sweep us along.
Benedict has reminded Catholics often that the liturgy of the church, when celebrated by the people of the church, is the church's greatest asset.
The liturgy does not need to be humanly created, since it has been divinely gifted.
The task of Catholics is to receive this ultimate gift gratefully, and to celebrate it faithfully.
In July 2008, several hundred young people from the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch met with the pope at the World Youth Days in Sydney.
The lives of many of them were changed forever as they were moved to hear this encouragement: "My dear young friends, I want to invite you to 'dare to love'. Do not desire anything less for your life than a love that is strong and beautiful, a love that is capable of making the whole of your existence a joyful undertaking of giving yourselves as a gift to God and your brothers and sisters, in imitation of the One who defeated hatred and death for ever through love."
Father John C O'Connor is a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch, parish priest of the Hurunui District and Chatham Islands and author of the blog Food for Faith.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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