This week’s unexpected and nearly-unprecedented announcement by Pope Benedict XVI that he will abdicate the papacy at the end of this month is just now settling in to the hearts and minds of millions of Catholics throughout the world. While many feelings, thoughts and questions abound, I wonder if we might reflect for a moment on the examples of humility and abandonment that Pope Benedict is offering to us and to the world.
So many of us—myself very much included—seek power and prestige, do we not? Most of us, when given the opportunity, will seek our own interests first and then, maybe, seek the interests of others. I am considering the issue of leadership on the national level and I truly cannot find many examples of political rulers abdicating the power of their throne, rather so many of them—even today—abuse the power that has been entrusted to them; not many industrial leaders will simply walk away from the corporation that’s making millions of dollars no matter what its ethical practices; few philanthropists give away their fortune to charity while still alive.
And with many other examples, we can see that Pope Benedict’s decision is fairly unique: he is handing over the prestige of his popularity, the publicity of his holy way of live, the power of his office as Peter’s successor…all to enter into a cloistered existence, removed from the public for the remainder of his days, to humbly pray for the good of the Church and all of her people. He is abandoning his current ministry in order to re-claim a ministry of supreme value: humble prayer before God and on behalf of others. These are the reasons I would suggest he is humbly abandoning the goods of this world in order to care for the goods of the spiritual world.
It is probably no coincidence that such an act is being taken up now. Did you hear the three temptations in today’s gospel? The devil appeals to our selfish tendencies in order to draw us away from God.
- When we all desire pleasure and comfort (“Tell this stone to turn into a loaf”), sometimes we need to rightly place that desire aside (“Man lives not on bread alone”).
- We all desire to be self-sufficient, to have power to do whatever we want, whenever we want, free from limitations (“I shall give you all this power” says the tempter), but only God is self-sufficient. Our existence depends on Him – we need Him to sustain and guide us (Christ responds, “God alone must you serve”).
- We all desire recognition, popularity and praise (surely a dive from the Temple parapet would have gained Jesus instant fame), but these are no substitute for the true meaning and happiness given by humble friendship with God.
The devil wants us to keep “self” at the center of our lives, but we are invited to keep God as our center, always seeking to know and to follow ‘Goodness’ itself, ‘virtue’ itself, ‘holiness’ itself. For, from our first reading, we’ve recounted the faithfulness of God to us; from our second reading, we’ve recalled how God himself is the only source of our salvation.
Pope Benedict acknowledges this week his frailties and his incapacity to lead…accepting now a role of humble service for the good of us all. And so, the Christian virtues of humility and obedience teach us, yet again, to give ourselves over to the source of all good, of all virtue, and of all holiness.
May our Holy Father Benedict be blessed in his humble suffering and service, and may each of us learn from our Good Pastor.