Benedict XVI: an appreciation

April 21, 2008

When I think back over these past few days, during which Pope Benedict XVI delivered so many speeches and made so many gestures, I am surprised to find that what comes most to my mind did not appear on any planner’s program, for it was a brief moment that passed without comment. At St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, the Pope processed up the main aisle and mounted the steps to the altar, and as he walked, dressed in his magnificent vestments, surrounded by the variously smiling and solemn faces of consecrated sisters and brothers, the thought came to me: “This same scene could have happened three, or five, or eight, or twelve hundred years ago”. It was as though a window opened, not on New York City in 2008, but on the whole history of Christian practice and devotion, for Benedict walked among them as an embodiment of that long tradition, the instantiation in flesh and blood of an ancient promise.

The Church can be seen under different aspects. There is the hierarchical Church, the Church in her formal structure, tier upon tier of bishops and archbishops, terminating ultimately in the Bishop of Rome. And there is the charismatic Church, the living traditions of sacraments, devotion, prayer, preaching, and charity that are the marks of her faith and action in the world. John Paul II referred to these two sides of the Church as the Petrine and Marian, respectively. The first is the skeleton, and the second the heart and flesh. It may be difficult to remember, in the semi-carnival atmosphere of a papal visit, that it is the Marian Church that has priority; the Petrine office and its authority, embodied in the Pope, exist only to serve this higher purpose, which is the salvation — the restoring to health — of souls. The preeminence of the Marian gifts is such that even the hierarchy is more effective and more truly itself to the extent that it is animated by them.

We have been blessed in my lifetime with Popes who have united in exemplary fashion the Petrine office to which they were called and the Marian virtues: wisdom, discernment, faith, hope, love. In such cases the papacy becomes more than a safeguard or a bulwark; it becomes a powerful force for good, not only within the Church, but for all. This was clearly seen in the life of John Paul II, and I think it becomes more and more evident that it is also true of Benedict XVI. Consider what we have seen in these past few days: this pastor stood before representatives of the nations of the earth and reminded us, lucidly and learnedly, of the philosophical foundations on which our commitment to human dignity and equality rests, and warned us of the perils of forsaking those foundations; he gathered around him members of the world’s great religions and spoke of peace, freedom, and the need for faith and reason to inform one another; he spoke directly to young people, encouraging them to lose neither heart nor focus, and challenging them to love truth in all its richness, living lives of inner depth and spiritual ambition. What other public figure can both command such an audience and is willing to engage such questions? Who else on the world stage is able to do so with comparable intelligence and good will? I can think of no one.

When Benedict passed up the central aisle of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, therefore, and those assembled crossed themselves as he passed, or reached out hands to grasp and kiss his ring, they were paying homage to this great gift. It is the office, not primarily the man, that they honour, yet the man does make a difference, for the grandeur of the gift shines forth more readily when a good man bears the mantle. It seems to me that the more we know this man, the more reasons we have to give thanks.

I, for one, am most edified.

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