These were the words that crossed Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s mind during the Conclave of 2005, after the final vote for John Paul II’s successor — at the moment he realized the succession to the See of Peter would fall to him. This was his deep, groaning, visceral prayer to God in that moment, wafting up toward Heaven like the white smoke that heralded his election. How many times have we all prayed variations of this same sentiment? The Pope is human, too.
But he dutifully complied, in his own understated way. While the mainstream media spun on, dismissing him as an antiquated “mere placesaver” after the gargantuan papacy of John Paul II, he sought the Still, Small Voice that allowed him to be our still, small voice during these blessed 8 years.
How fitting his first encyclical was entitled “Deus Caritas Est” (“God Is Love”), because all the great lessons he has given over the years can be distilled into that one fact.
His still, small voice served as all these voices:
- The voice of the teacher, the professor, whose simple, elegant words explained the most vexing of theological debates.
- The voice of the penitent, who made it a point to meet personally with the victims of abuse every time he visited the United States, to beg forgiveness for the “filth” (his own description) of his brother priests.
- The voice of bravery standing up for truth in “politically incorrect” situations. As in his brilliant Regensburg Address.
- The voice of “dialogue” — to Lefevbrists and arch-conservatives, to Lutherans, to Episcopal priests, to the Eastern Orthodox Churches.
Millions speculate on his reasoning for renouncing the See of Peter. The last thing he wants, or that he believes the church needs, is another deathwatch at St Peter’s Square, wasting energy and attention that are better spent in evangelizing the world. Nothing will compare to JP2’s deathwatch and funeral — arguably the largest funeral in all of history. But he is not bowing out of because of pride, that he is not as “popular” as JP2 — he does this out of humility, always recognizing that his Petrine ministry was fundamentally different than that of the gregarious JP2. More introspective. More monastic. More eremitic.
He senses an urgency in the Church in today’s globalized world — an urgency characteristic of modern times and one which he is eager to hasten and hand on the torch. He has molded the College of Cardinals, guided by the Holy Spirit, into a body of men who can bring the Church beyond “modern [and post-modern] times” and evangelize this finite world of immortal souls through the timelessness of the Catholic Church. He knows the ‘Papabili’ are ready.
He has always seen himself as the old European guard. He — the once prisoner of war, on the “wrong side” of World War II — knows that the New World is the center of gravity of today’s Church. And pushing forward into the New World, he has faith that this rejuvenated Church will spark the Old. Ressourcement through Aggiornamento. His own original idea from the Second Vatican Council come full circle.
And now, having served and given himself for the Lord’s Church, he awaits the only reward he has ever desired: the Face of The Lord.
We can honor his service to us through prayer, and by study of his writings: encyclicals, Wednesday audiences (particularly his series on the Church Fathers), and his mainstream publications. We will find so much that we have taken for granted these past 8 years — treasures we may never have noticed, were it not for his great act of humility.
Benedict XVI is telling us the time has come. Christ must increase; he must decrease.