Valedictory to Pope Benedict XVI
What made me weep, as I watched television coverage of Pope Benedict’s visit, was the simple act of the pope giving communion to people. The news media relayed many over-the-top comments about what the pope’s visit meant: “It’s like Jesus coming to America.” I wrote a panegyric myself about Benedict’s gifts. But Pope Benedict’s leadership and his teachings and all the pomp and circumstance of the visit would have meant nothing if it were not for the Body and Blood of Christ that unites us to God and to one another. These elements have nothing to do with Benedict specifically and everything to do with each of us in our humanity universally. That’s the indescribable beauty of Christianity—it’s not about Benedict, it’s about the glory of the Lord and how by God’s grace we share in God’s glory.
Benedict distributing communion showed that God’s outpouring of love in Jesus Christ compels us to give that same love to others. As the pope, Benedict is whisked around the world, with his every step attended to and aided by phalanxes of helpers. Like presidents, like royalty, like celebrities, he has his court, his retainers, and his entourage. Unlike most of these figures, though, his identity is based not in the power he exercises but in the service he renders. Not what he initiates, but what he does with what he has been given.
This could be seen most clearly in the common and unexceptionable action of Benedict being a priest. We saw that Benedict’s priesthood was essentially like any other. His role as a priest did not elevate him above the crowd but positioned him face-to-face with person after person as literally these persons’ servant—their sacramental waiter.
Benedict’s priesthood, in turn, is based in the same commitment every Christian makes, to give one’s life as a living sacrifice to God; to place one’s life in God’s care; to find one’s destiny in obedience to God.
Seeing Benedict giving communion did not induce the sentimental pleasure we sometimes take in the great condescending to the mean—he wasn’t out there being Princess Diana. That’s mostly play-acting and we know it, and we are glad to know it because it allows our own illusions of greatness to flourish. Might we not measure our greatness too, one day, by the heights from which we will stoop to help the poor? (Before retreating rapidly, of course, into luxuriant privilege.) No, the beauty of Benedict giving communion to anybody and everybody consisted in a true identification, because this identification is based on a transcendent reality that favors Benedict and his communicants exactly alike. God alone loves us all equally.
At the end of the Mass at St. Patrick’s, when Pope Benedict was congratulated on completing the first three years of his papacy, Benedict remembered the first leader of the Church—Peter. Peter was a man with his faults; an outright betrayer of Jesus in the Lord’s most critical hour, in fact. Yet, Peter was the rock on which Jesus Christ founded his Church. Likewise, Benedict confessed to being a man with his frailties, who found himself, as best he could, responding to Christ’s call in his position as pope.
I had the sense that Benedict wanted to say so much more, but limitations of the occasion and his German nature prevented this. He wanted to say, I thought, that he was only a man, only a priest, only a follower after the same Christ that every Christian follows. And that he found himself overwhelmed at times by the responsibilities of the papacy, unsure of his adequacy to the task, fearful that he might betray the Lord as well.
He didn’t need to say this finally, as we watched him hand what he had been given, the Body and Blood of Christ, to others. That said it all.