For Pope Benedict, In Appreciation
In 1292, after more than two years of trying, the Catholic Cardinals still found themselves unable to agree on the selection of a new Pope. Two years earlier, Nicholas IV had died and the Cardinals had met to choose a successor. Unity, however, proved elusive, and the process dragged out for two years. Finally, in frustration, a hermit of holy reputation, Pietro da Morrone, sent the Cardinals a letter warning of divine vengeance if they failed to act and to speedily choose a successor.
When his letter reached the Cardinals, the dean of the college cried out, "In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, I elect brother Pietro da Morrone!” The rest of the Cardinals quickly ratified his seemingly inspired choice and Pietro da Morrone reluctantly became Pope Celestine V. He served as Pope only a short time, resigning only five months later. His pontificate, whatever suffering it brought the reluctant hermit, served its purpose. The impasse among the Cardinals ended and, at his death, the Cardinals elected Pope Boniface VIII.
With the news of Pope Benedict’s recent passing, the story of Pope Celestine is well worth reflecting on. Pope Benedict himself seems to have had a great deal of sympathy for the medieval Pope. He visited his tomb several times and, one of those times, left his pallium on Celestine’s tomb. Like Celestine, Pope Benedict was a shy and quiet man and, though not a hermit, he was surely more comfortable among his studies and writing, rather than the task of the Papal office.
Though he served longer than Pope Celestine, Benedict XVI was like him in one extraordinary way: his extraordinary renunciation of papal power. In our fallen world, the renunciation of power is one of the more difficult testimonies an individual can offer the world. Whether the Pope’s decision was ultimately the right one is more than we, on this side of eternity, can know. And though some of us may feel his service was too brief, we cannot but be grateful for what he did.
In a time where continental style philosophy had infected much modern theology, leading to sloppy, unclear, poor work that far deviated from the clarity of one like St. Thomas Aquinas, Pope Benedict was a theologian with a clear and precise mind to study, love, and defend the True Faith. His predecessor Pope John Paul II recognized this and named him as Prefect of the Congregation to the Doctrine of the Faith. There some of his opponents gave him the moniker “God’s rottweiler” for his defense of the faith. It was, however, a ridiculous moniker; for Benedict neither bit not barked and was remarkable only for his extreme patience, kindness, and devotion to the Church and her teachings.
His clear mind saw the great threat of a secular society that had lost touch with its Christian roots in favor of a theoretical and practical atheism. Watching the increase of relativism and its necessary rejection of reason, he sought to defend reason and the need for reason to include reference to God, saying in 2006
“A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.”
For Benedict, neither faith nor reason could be excluded from that other, as one keen analysis of his great Regensburg address noted. Aquinas had established centuries before that reason can establish the existence of God, but that philosophy is “completed” by the light of Christ; they spring both from the divine Logos, the source of all Truth, and provide mutual benefits.
And yet, this exclusion of faith from reason was (and still is) exactly what was happening at universities across the West. In the 19th century Pope Leo XIII decried the trend, but the separation continued to widen. By Pope Benedict’s time, what has always been the most important question and subject of all–God–was not only diminished, but was being left out entirely. . And, as God was left out of reason (as reason came to be seen as the antithesis of faith), reason itself fell prey to the “dictatorship of relativism.” Without the unity and direction provided by faith, reason became aimless, useless, self-contradictory.
Benedict fought this “dictatorship of relativism” in other places as well. His encyclical Spe Salvi was especially striking to me. Ultimately, he understood that:
A world without God is a world without hope (cf. Eph 2:12). Only God can create justice. And faith gives us the certainty that he does so. The image of the Last Judgment is not primarily an image of terror, but an image of hope; for us it may even be the decisive image of hope. Is it not also a frightening image? I would say: it is an image that evokes responsibility, an image, therefore, of that fear of which Saint Hilary spoke when he said that all our fear has its place in lov. God is justice and creates justice. This is our consolation and our hope.
If our world seems to have too often lived without hope, it is only because it has forgotten God–or rather, because it has deliberately tried to cut God out of human thought and life. Again, Benedict XVI wanted to remind modern man that the attempt to live without reference to God, could bring only cruelty, contradiction, and heartache. So for his life, work, and service, above all his service to the Truth, we should all be grateful.
Eternal Rest grant unto him, O Lord.