“Pope Benedict quit. Good. He was utterly bereft of charm, tone-deaf, and a protector of priests who abused children. He’d been a member of Hitler Youth. In addition to this woeful résumé, he had no use for women.”
– John Patrick Shanley- NY Times, Feb. 11, 2013
Wow. So, not exactly the words I had on my mind when I heard that the Holy Father was humbly stepping aside from his beautiful, but so very difficult, ministry. But we need to be aware that there are those voices, very compelling voices, voices that draw a lot of attention to themselves, and that are, without any critical reflection, really quite believable. And we need to know what others are saying, because we cannot hide from them. We’ve got to be unafraid to see that not everyone has had the same experience of the Pope, the Church, and even God, as we have (I mean, my first thought about this quote is that the rudest thing that’s said is to call the Pope “tone-deaf.” He’s actually a tremendously talented pianist. It’s just one of many statements in that article that seem to be made out of frustration and misunderstanding).
But the reason I’m writing this is not to defend the Pope against a New York Times writer that has been hurt by the Church in his own experience of life and whom we Catholics have not shown that what he believes about the Church is a misunderstanding. There are far wiser and far more eloquent voices than mine to do so.
I’m writing this because I need to be convinced myself of the lesson Pope Benedict XVI is truly teaching us. And I hope it is something helpful to you, too: Amidst all the criticism from a society that has a tough time understanding why we Catholics are the way we are, the humility it took the Holy Father to admit his frailty and inability to be Pope as we need him to be, is a living out of John the Baptist’s profound words of humility about Jesus: “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30).
And isn’t that just the lesson we need to keep in front of us this Lent. What a gift it is to learn such a lesson in such an extraordinary time! We’re being humbled as a Church because of the abuse scandal. And we’ve just publicly put dirty, black ashes on our faces, telling those around us not that we are proud, stubborn Catholics. Rather, we’ve begun a time of humility, a time of growth, and a time of putting our own selves aside for the love of God.
Here at the Seminary, one of our classes during each Spring semester is called Field Education. It’s not so much a class as it’s a chance for ministry. Pretty much in the spirit of Mark 6:7-13 (ok, so we’re not driving out demons in quite the same way), we go out together two by two, working at different assignments throughout the Ventura and Santa Barbara region. My own placement this semester is literally five minutes away from the Seminary (so it could feel like I’m not really going out) and my ministry is talking on the phone to homebound seniors (so I could feel like I’m not really interacting with them). But I’ll tell you what, it’s been rare when I’ve felt like I’ve been doing more for somebody during ministry than when I’m listening to these men and women who have no one else to talk to. I was worried and anxious about this assignment because I’m way more comfortable talking with someone face to face, or doing something way more hands on, and I’ve never been one who’s been entirely comfortable talking on the phone. I definitely felt like they got the wrong guy for the job!
But then this lesson of humility has been changing my mind every time I go to my field ed. No, I’m not going to be able to fix every problem that someone brings to me. No, I don’t need to offer advice to everybody who comes to me, as if I had all the answers. But, yes, I can listen to these people, and yes, that will make a difference in their day, maybe even their whole week. I’m learning that it’s rarely ever me that makes someone’s day (as a seminarian it can be easy to forget that, with all the love and support we get, which can be taken for granted easily), but sometimes they just need someone to listen to them. And the only way I am going to be able to listen to them and let them know that they are being heard, is if I put myself, my desire to actively fix things all the time, and my want to be known as someone who can give great advice, aside, and let Him increase in me, while I myself decrease.
We’ve been placed in an incredible moment in the life of our Church, and the Pope, I really believe, could give us no greater lesson at this time than those words of John the Baptist. Therefore, Lent can become not some practice in isolation and building up our selves, by feeling good about what we’ve given up, or what we’ve added on. Rather, it can become a time to love and encourage those around us, and allow ourselves to be loved and encouraged by them as well. We can learn what it means for our own self-interests to decrease, while our love of God increases. And that’s one of the many lessons I’ve learned from Pope Benedict during these last few days. We’re getting ready for the celebration of a new Pope, and we’re getting ready for the Feast of Feasts, Easter. So I encourage you all to see what the Holy Father has made abundantly clear in such a radical way by stepping aside graciously, humbly, from one of the most powerful roles the Church, even the world, has ever known. My prayer for you is that you may decrease, and Christ may increase. Please pray the same for me, that I may in no way distract you from Christ, that you may be drawn not just to me, but to the One who “humbled himself, obediently accepting even death, death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).