Normally the death and funeral of a successor of St. Peter takes place within the context of a major distraction. The routine shock that comes even when death is expected, the grief that accompanies the realization that in this world we will never again hear the deceased pope’s voice, the realization for Catholics of being in some way temporarily spiritually orphaned — all inexorably and impatiently give way, despite the traditional nine days of mourning, to the dynamics of an upcoming conclave and the inevitable prognostications, aspirations and anxieties as to who will be the next to bear the responsibility of the Petrine office.
Not for Pope Benedict. One of the consequences of his renunciation of the papacy in February 2013 — although perhaps not recognized or deemed important at the time of his historic announcement — was that his death and funeral would not take place with the attendant intrigues involved in replacing the supreme pontiff, a reigning head of state, and a global spiritual father.
They would be more “normal,” in the sense that the whole Christian world would be able to pray with fewer diversions for divine mercy that “the Lord may admit [him] to the eternal dwellings, despite all [his] sins and shortcomings,” as he asked us to do in his spiritual testament. It would be an opportunity to thank God for the gift of his life and for the multitude of ways that God through him has blessed our lives. It would be a chance to focus on another form of succession than on the chair of St. Peter, namely, about receiving, living and transmitting the legacy of virtues, experiences and teachings the man who became Pope Benedict XVI richly bequeathed us.
Pope Benedict XVI was the greatest theologian to occupy Peter’s chair since at least Pope St. Gregory the Great (440-461). He used his gifts, first, to shore up the faith of German university students looking for the truth in the immediate aftermath of the ideological intellectual terrorism of the Nazis and the compounded traumas of World War II. As the theological expert and ghost writer of Cologne Cardinal Josef Frings at the Second Vatican Council, he played major roles not only in the overall direction of the Council but in the composition of its major documents, particularly the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum. After the Council, when various theologians and others in the Church, intoxicated by the so-called “spirit” of the Council that they sought to use as a justification to discard anything in the faith they didn’t understand, appreciate or like, he served on the International Theological Commission and co-founded the journal Communio, to do theology in communion with the Church. As Archbishop of Munich-Freising, he sought to implement the authentic teachings of the Council during a time of cultural seismic shifts and confusion. During his nearly 25 years as the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he sought to help the Church transmit with clarity and beauty the teachings of the Church in response to the questions of the age, and with courage, kindness and firmness corrected heterodox ideas and theologians.
When he was elected the 265th Peter in 2005 at the age of 78, he was well aware not only of the enormous demands of the office, but of his strengths and weaknesses before the three-fold task of the papacy to teach, sanctify and govern.
At a physical level, he had already had two strokes, a pacemaker for 20 years, prostate problems, degenerative joint disease and was slowly beginning to lose sight in one eye. He knew what he lacked in terms of the energy, training and administrative and managerial skill sets needed for the task of governance, something that would prove problematic over the 2,873 days of his papacy, as he was betrayed by those close to him, as many within the Vatican tried to advance their own agendas, and as several unforced errors took place to his and the Church’s embarrassment. The enormous physical demands needed to effectively to govern the Church was one of the major factors that led him to renounce the papacy for the good of the Church. It would be hard enough for an 85-year-old to run a bustling parish, not to mention a world-wide Church, and humbly and courageously he recognized he could not do it well.
But he was also aware of his leadership strengths and sought to use them fully in the service of the Church. He saw as his principal task to lead us to God.
He did that, first, through his teaching. Rather than teaching a world-wide doctoral seminar for theological scholars, he — like his spiritual mentor St. Augustine (354-430) upon becoming Bishop of Hippo — decided to put all his training to use in teaching everyone the foundations of Christian faith and life. He wrote two encyclicals on charity (2005, 2009), another on hope (2007), a third on faith (2013, published by Pope Francis), an exhortation on the Eucharist (2007) and another on the Word of God (2011). He dedicated catechetical series to the Psalms and Canticles of the Liturgy of the Hours, the apostles, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, St. Paul’s life and writings, great male and female saints, prayer and faith. He gave great annual Christmas addresses to children and regular talks to young people. He regularly engaged in question-and-answer sessions with clergy and other groups. He celebrated Holy Years dedicated to the Eucharist, St. Paul, the priesthood, and faith. And he used his vacation time to work on a trilogy dedicated to helping us to get to know the real Jesus of Nazareth after various scholars had injured the faith of many by importing philosophical biases and ideologies to their work.
He likewise led liturgically. He labored to bring back a true and fitting worship to the celebration of the Mass, after decades of liturgical confusion. The Mass, he taught by word, writing and witness, is fundamentally theocentric: priests and people are called to focus on God, rather than remaining a self-enclosed circle worshiping themselves. His homilies were doxological, focused above all on God and His glory, and less on us and what we must do. He formed priests in the “art of celebrating the Mass,” which means aligning their minds, hearts, soul, strength and all they are, body and soul, to the prayers being directed toward God the Father and in loving adoration of the Word-made-flesh. And he helped the faithful to grasp what “active participation” really means: not external activity during Mass but greater and more devout awareness of what is taking place and how it applies to daily life.
More than anything, he sought to lead us to God through prayer. Not only did he give us between 2011-12 the greatest papal catechesis on prayer in Church history, but his renunciation of the papal office to “devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer” shows that he considered prayer even more important than the exercise of the papacy. His last decade was a living illustration of what Jesus taught Martha and Mary in Bethany, that the “one thing necessary” and “better part” is not what we do for Him but the friendship we form with Him in His presence (Lk 10:38-42).
The day after he was elected, Pope Benedict returned to the Sistine Chapel with the Cardinals who elected him and told them: “I undertake … the ‘Petrine’ ministry at the service of the Universal Church, with humble abandon to the hands of the Providence of God. And it is to Christ in the first place that I renew my total and trustworthy adhesion: ‘In you, Lord, have I put my hope: and I will never hope for You in vain.’”
Those words, taken from the beginning of Psalm 71, the Church prays in the last lines of the Te Deum, the hymn used on Sundays and Solemnities and other major occasions. They’re used by the Church every December 31 as well, when during Vespers at St. Peter’s, the Church thanks God for the graces of the year coming to a close and expresses its trust and hope in Him for the year upcoming.
It’s fitting that as the Lord Jesus came for His faithful vicar on Dec. 31, 2022, those words would be resonating within the heart of His Mystical Body. His homily from exactly 14 years earlier serve not only as a fitting valedictory to his inaugural words as well as well as exclamation point on his life of faith and longing for God:
“Our great hope as believers is eternal life in communion with Christ and the whole family of God. This great hope gives us the strength to face and to overcome the difficulties of life in this world. … God never abandons us if we entrust ourselves to Him and follow His teachings. …Full of trust, we shall then be able to sing at the end of the Te Deum: … ‘In You, Lord, is our hope: and we shall never hope in vain.’ Yes, Lord, in You we hope, today and forever. You are our hope. Amen!”