Friday, February 28, 2014

A tribute to Pope Benedict

Poster in Paray-le-Monial, France, where I was on February 28, 2013
On April 19, 2005, I was in a meeting with area parish leaders, when the news of white smoke broke through. A few minutes later, I was whooping with joy. Everyone around me was wailing and gnashing teeth. I recorded that moment on this blog a year later.

Now, nearly nine years later, on the anniversary of the end of the Pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI, I find myself in a reflective, heavy mood.

Joseph Ratzinger has had an incredible impact on my life. There was a time, I am ashamed to say, that I shared that cartoonish view of him that John Allen published, in the early days of his career with the Reporter, in his 2000 biography of the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Allen later publicly regretted that view. In the intervening years, my own journey into the heart of the Church, of learning to "think with the Church" (sentire cum ecclesia) was inextricably tied up with the writings of this quiet, gentle, Bavarian theologian. I remember reading the Ratzinger Report, in a dusty copy I'd found in used bookstore. His wisdom and humility shone through right there (and I've welcomed with delight every book-length interview that has come forth since). His views on biblical hermeneutics shaped my own work during my graduate studies in biblical studies. I followed his riposte with Cardinal Kasper in the pages of America with eager interest. There was that simply delightful collection of meditations on the Mother of God (Daughter Zion). The homily he gave (one of his last public acts before his election) at the funeral of Msgr. Luigi Giussani in 2005, caught me like a fishhook, and introduced me to the movement that has itself had such a deep impact on my life. The reading only ratcheted up when he was elected to the See of Peter. His autobiography (Milestones) is quite moving. There was that fascinating journal of his from the Council (Meditations on Vatican II). And I keep going back to his various Wednesday catecheses still (most recently, while visiting the tomb of his hero, St. Augustine, in Pavia, on the first day of this year). His homilies and talks during the various apostolic journeys (I'd single out England, Germany and the U.S. in particular) were devoured as they appeared on the internet. I loved the Jesus of Nazareth trilogy (a model of the proper use of the historical-critical method, in a faithful and illuminating way). His encyclicals were breathtaking! Spe Salvi is among my absolute favorites. And when Deus Caritas Est came out, everyone commented how it didn't fit the caricature that the media simply could not shake. (But do remember, how much everyone fell for him on his visit to the U.S.! How he disarmed all his critics when he went to England to beatify John Newman!) In seminary, Benedict's writings appeared in pretty much every class. Called to Communion is a short but powerful meditation on the church and the priesthood, among my favorites. As are Many Religions, One Covenant and Truth & Tolerance, on pluralism and inter-religious dialogue. Even after his resignation, the letter he wrote to an atheist scientist (first translated on this blog, then at the Register! The entire correspondence has been published in a book in Italian recently) was received with great joy.

However, there is one book that stands out, for me, amidst all these. Ratzinger's The Spirit of the Liturgy is a classic. And on first reading it, it was as if the proverbial scales fell off my eyes. The one idea that has embedded itself deeply in me, an idea that permeates this book, is the idea of the givenness of the liturgy, of it not being in the control, at the beck-and-call, so to speak, of any local congregation or minister. We are not the masters and shapers of the liturgy. We are shaped by the liturgy, at the heart of which is the encounter with Christ and His Sacrifice. This is God's action, in which the Son is offered up to the Father in the Spirit, and Christ comes to us, again and again, offering his poor and sacred humanity as the vehicle, as the path, for our salvation. "The Spirit of the Liturgy" is something that I return to every so often. I have just finished reading it again, my first time as a priest.

It is especially when it comes to the liturgy that Pope Benedict has shaped me so much. Not just by his writings, but by the example he gave so beautifully as Supreme Pontiff, by his teaching, by his witness, by the motu proprio that gave every Latin-rite priest the freedom to offer Mass in the usus antiquior, and not least by his clear articulation of that principle of the hermeneutic of continuity (applicable to things wider than the liturgy, of course), first described in his first Christmas address to the Roman Curia.

It is through the beauty of the liturgy that Christ first caught me, and where Jesus first revealed Himself to me. If I am at all known as a priest who loves the Holy Mass, then I will consider that the highest of compliments indeed. And if that is indeed the case, the credit will lie, humanly speaking, with Pope Benedict. It is particularly in this regard that I am, what they call, a "Benedict priest."

In Called to Communion Joseph Ratzinger talks about the Christian life, particularly that of the priest, as an expropriation of self, which is just another way of talking about the denial of self, of putting on the new man, of giving our self away, of losing one's life in order to find it. Of course, it is Christ who lived this perfectly. He is not only our exemplar and model, but, united to Him, we live out this expropriation. Or better, our lives are offered up as a logikein latrian, a spiritual sacrifice, and united to his sacrifice, in God's mercy, our sacrifice has value. It is in the liturgy that we encounter Christ's sacrifice, and that our own lives are offered up, united to the Sacred Victim. It is in the liturgy that this expropriation comes alive, so to speak.

I have never meet Pope Benedict. (I suspect that will have to wait, please God, till eternity.) It is a deeply human privilege to be taught by one whom one has never met, through his writings. I am ever so grateful to the Lord for his life, for his continuing "yes" to the Lord, for his humility and courage. In this past year he has exemplified so beautifully that work of mercy, to bear wrongs patiently. He inspired me to take seriously the possibility of holiness; he helped me fall in love with the beauty and joy of orthodoxy, of the Christian faith, that is, ultimately, with Christ. He has shaped me in such profound ways as a seminarian and as a priest.

At the conclusion of the Tridentine Mass, the priest says this short prayer silently,

PLACEAT tibi, sancta Trinitas, obsequium servitutis meae: et praesta; ut sacrificium, quod oculis tuae maiestatis indignus obtuli, tibi sit acceptabile, mihique et omnibus, pro quibus illud obtuli, sit, te miserante, propitiabile. Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.

MAY the tribute of my humble ministry be pleasing to Thee, Holy Trinity. Grant that the sacrifice which I, unworthy as I am, have offered in the presence of Thy majesty may be acceptable to Thee. Through Thy mercy may it bring forgiveness to me and to all for whom I have offered it: through Christ our Lord. Amen.

It should indeed be the prayer of every Christian, that his life be an offering acceptable to the Holy Trinity. In God's infinite mercy, united to Christ, that is indeed what happens! I sense that this is indeed how Joseph Ratzinger, that humble coworker in the vineyard of the Lord, and cooperator of truth, would want to see the tribute of his ministry -- as always united to Christ, and drawing all its efficacy from Him, for the eternal glory of the Most Holy Trinity.

Thank you, Holy Father. 

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