A year ago today, my brother Dan—who’s in the seminary—got a phone call very early in the morning. You see, he was working in a cardinal’s office at the time. “Forgive us for calling so early,” the caller said, “but it’s not every day that a pope resigns!” “What?!?!?” my brother sputtered.
We all know what that was about, though at this point in time, the singularity of Benedict’s resignation is pretty deeply buried under the media reporting on Pope Francis. I’ve been wanting to write a post on Pope Francis for a while. He’s blowing me away –and killing me at the same time (this kind of killing: http://catholicstand.com/pope-francis-is-killing-me/). I love Pope Francis, and I am deeply inspired by him.
But anyone paying any attention knows that he is usually contrasted sharply with his predecessor.
Naturally—the narrative is much more interesting that way. Though I recently saw a great little video on Patheos, comparing the two men and suggesting that they exemplify two different traditions within the Church (the priestly and the prophetic respectively : http://www.patheos.com/blogs/standingonmyhead/2014/02/do-the-pope-benedict-and-francis-clash.html), the spin is not usually so positive.
Today, Pope Francis asked that we pray for former Pope Benedict--which seems like a good moment to note some of the surprising similarities between the two men. Most particularly, their humility. I remember when Benedict was first elected. Initially, people were all over him, complaining about him being “God’s Rottweiler” and all that. What was the first encyclical he issued? Deus Caritas Est. All about God’s love and charity, where he even addressed erotic desire, venturing rather substantially into the eros category, and defended erotic love against some heavy-weight detractors in the Christian tradition--and lingered significantly on social concerns as well. (Note that my understanding of this is wholly indebted to brilliant theologian friends and former colleagues. I read papal encyclicals with lots of help). The historical revisionists are already out there trying to dismantle Benedict’s legacy, but those of us who remember his pontificate know better. The man was orthodox, yes. But his orthodoxy already was pushing the limits. He was so confident in his tradition, and so prayerfully certain of his relationship with Christ, that he did deeply radical things. Like resigning. I mean, really, who does that? Benedict was not a splashy kind of guy, and so his dramatic gestures get dismissed easily. But let’s remember, this was a man who bucked centuries of tradition to resign. Yes, yes, now that we look back we can cite historical precedent and comments that Benedict had made and in hindsight it’s understandable and acceptable and what have you-- but it is and was a deeply radical gesture. Benedict was orthodox—but radically so. And so is Francis (pace Rolling Stone). But while the emphasis during Benedict’s pontificate was on the orthodox, with Francis it’s on the radical part of the equation.
Which brings me to what inspires me so much in both popes: their humility and boldness in listening to the promptings of the Spirit. And man, do they listen! Benedict, with his entirely unexpected decision, opened the way for Francis. So to those who would reject Benedict, I would like to recall that without him there would be no Francis. And for those who are having a hard time with Francis, it was Benedict’s decision that made this happen. If we have issues, I think we need to take it straight to the top. For my part, I feel radically blessed in both men. And excited about where the Spirit will take us from here.