By now everyone knows that Pope Benedict XVI is stepping down from his position as pope at the end of the month. It has been on all the news media and many were stunned by the announcement. Since then there has been some discussion about what prompted Pope Benedict's decision and there have been many prognostications made as to who might be the next pope. In addition, there is a lot of commentary about what he will do for the rest of his life. But what many forget in all this conversation is that the Pope is really not who is in charge of our church. God is. The Holy Spirit, specifically. It has been that way from the beginning of the Church at that first Pentecost and it will always be that way. Therefore we remain in good hands.
When I taught, I would ask a somewhat trick question on one of my quizzes. (I rarely put trick questions on my tests, though I am sure my former students would argue that!) The question was point blank: "Who guides the Church?" Invariably about half of them would respond that it was the pope and I would mark it wrong. If I had said, "Who oversees the Church on earth?" then those who answered that it was the pope would have been correct. But the point was to remind them that the Church is ultimately guided by the Holy Spirit. My question may seem like a technicality, but the reality is that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ, Christ's representative on earth. The role of the Holy Spirit is to guide the Church, particularly the Magisterium. The Magisterium is the body of bishops whose role it is to oversee the Church, led by the Pope who is head bishop as bishop of Rome. The pope is under the influence and guidance of the Holy Spirit, as is the entire Church.
Pope Benedict is as aware as any other bishop that his role is to be open to the Holy Spirit and to constantly be discerning what the Spirit is calling for in His Church. The Church is holy, but not perfect; it is led by the Spirit who is God and therefore perfect, and it is populated by humans who are flawed and imperfect. Regardless of what one thinks of this particular pope's performance, he is the pope who the Spirit guided into office and the Spirit is guiding him out of office. I cannot imagine the amount of prayer and anguish that Pope Benedict went through to come to this decision. It is anguishing to say yes to this job in the first place.
When a pope is elected the Camerlengo (Chamberlain) approaches the man who has been chosen and says, “Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?" The pope-to-be responds: "Accepto." That is, "I accept." The minute he says that, he is pope! He then is asked what name he wants to be called and he responds with his chosen papal name, such as Pius, John, Benedict, etc. Following that he is whisked away to another room to get dressed into the white papal cassock and his formal papal vestments for the announcement ceremony. (The outside world still has no clue who is the new pope. They have seen white smoke and are waiting with great excitement.) Here is my point: the room he goes into to change his clothes is called the Room of Tears. It is called that for a reason. Usually the new pope is so overcome at what has just happened that he weeps. He is not necessarily weeping for joy. Usually he is overwhelmed at the fact that he is now carrying the entire church on his shoulders. It has to be a lonely job.
This is why I say Pope Benedict must have had anguish going into the job. He was 79 years of age and he wanted to retire when he went into the conclave. He came out of the conclave as pope. Now after almost 8 years, he is even more tired. Benedict is a brilliant man: he has to know that this will have a great effect upon the Church. I do not believe for a second that he was not praying over this for a long time, and that it was at a great cost of tears and anguish that he came to this conclusion. But I do think he did the heroic thing in stepping down if he felt he could no longer handle the rigors of such a position.
Today is the day we celebrate St. Valentine’s Day, but it is really the feast day of St. Cyril and St. Methodius. Cyril and Methodius were brothers who evangelized Hungary and what is now the Czech Republic. They translated the scriptures into Slavonic and invented a language in order to do it, (Cyrillic). They met with much hostility even from the church itself which misunderstood what they were doing. But because of heroic love they continued to spread the Good News. St. Valentine was said to have been arrested and martyred because he was marrying Christian couples in the third century when Christianity was illegal. His love was heroic in that he died for love in a twofold way: first, by upholding the sacramental power of love in marriage, and second, he died out of love for Jesus Christ, whom he refused to renounce when brought before the authorities.
Therefore, this day is a day when we should reflect on the nature of love. It is wonderful to remember in a special way those with whom we are in a romantic relationship. It is wonderful to remember our friends and family, those whom we care deeply about, by reminding them of our love today. But we should also remember the love that is given us by those who have gone before us in the name of love and those who are our leaders in the faith. Many saints wrote prolifically about love. I am also thinking of St. Thérèse and her Little Way. That was heroic love. I am thinking of St. John Vianney who loved his flock dearly and shared his love of God with them through his wonderful sermons. I am thinking of St. Pio, (Padre Pio) who was willing to suffer greatly for those who he loved so much, his spiritual children, as well as the many strangers he assisted spiritually. Mostly I am thinking of our Lord Jesus who said that no greater love exists then to lay down one's life for a friend.
I think Pope Benedict has laid down his life by being willing to serve, and I think he will continue to lay it down as he spends the rest of his days in prayer. He will no doubt be spending much of that time in prayer for the Church he loves and has served. Let us keep Benedict, who will return to his birth name, Joseph Ratzinger, in our prayers. He will need them. Let us learn by his example that sometimes doing the difficult thing is the right thing. Let us learn to have compassion for those who lead us: regardless if we agree with their actions or stances, or not, they do sacrifice much to work so tirelessly, such as Pope Benedict has done. Let us pray for the Cardinals who will be convening soon to elect the next pope. They, too, will have a difficult job. And finally let us remember who is really in charge: the Holy Spirit. Maybe we should all pray to the Holy Spirit each day, asking Him to guide our Church and our Church leaders. That would be our response of heroic love.
May we all turn to the Holy Spirit for guidance in our daily lives! May we trust that the Holy Spirit will guide our Church! May we turn to the Spirit of Love for an increase of love in our own hearts and actions! May we be open to the lessons God offers us in this Lenten season! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of the Lord who is Love. Peace!
The top photo is one I took in 2009 while in Rome on pilgrimage. Pope Benedict was giving his weekly blessing of all those gathered in the Square.
The icon is The Chair of St. Peter by Rev. William Hart McNichols. It can be found at
Heart Speaks to Heart