Patriarch of Moscow’s Letter to Benedict XVI

patriarch_kirill_and_pope_benedict_5The Society of St John Chrysostom has translated the message sent by Kirill, Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, to Benedict XVI, on 1 March. Given that historically the Russian Orthodox have not had a whole lot of nice things to say about the Church of Rome, the warm and fraternal tone of this message is yet another example of the progress made in Benedict’s pontificate in the field of true ecumenism. Not so long ago this message would not have been conceivable. This follows after the equally warm message sent by Bartholomew, Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople. Patriarch Kirill’s message is worth reading, because one day it will be seen as a little but significant piece of history.

Your Holiness!

In these exceptional days for you, I would like to express the feelings of brotherly love in Christ and respect.

The decision to leave the position of Bishop of Rome, which you, with humility and simplicity, announced on February 11 this year, has found a ready response in the hearts of millions of Catholics.

We have always been close to your consistent ministry, marked by uncompromisingness in matters of faith and unswerving adherence to the living Tradition of the Church. At a time when the ideology of permissiveness and moral relativism tries to dislodge the moral values of life, you boldly raised your voice in defence of the ideals of the Gospel, the high dignity of man and his vocation to freedom from sin.

I have warm memories of our meeting when you were elected to the Roman See. During your ministry we received a positive impetus in the relations between our Churches, responding to the modern world as a witness to Christ crucified and risen. I sincerely hope what developed during your active participation, a good trusting relationship between the Orthodox and the Catholics, will continue to grow with your successor.

Please accept my sincere wishes for good health, long life and help from above in prayer and in your theological writings.

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace” (Romans 15:13).

With love in the Lord,

+ Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia

Gosh it’s good.

Re-visiting “One does not get down from the cross”

Now that Benedict’s abdication has taken effect, and as the cardinals gather to prepare for the conclave, the murmuring of those critical of Benedict’s decision are getting a little louder. Cardinal Pell voiced the fears of many that an abdication might place future popes under unprecedented pressure to abdicate in the face of loud secular or even curial opposition. There is more from the rumour mill that the cardinals are resolving to insist that the new pope undertake never to resign. Cardinal Dziwisz’s comments on Bl John Paul II’s reigning till death even when illness had made him a mere shell of the man he had been – “One does not come down from the Cross” – have been mischievously construed by the press as an attack on Benedict.

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Benedict XVI seems himself to have been conscious of Dziwisz’s words and of Bl John Paul II’s example. In his final audience last Wednesday he said,

 I do not return to private life, to a life of travel, meetings, receptions, conferences, and so on. I am not abandoning the cross, but remaining in a new way at the side of the crucified Lord.

Bl John Paul II was a unique man, and Benedict XVI knows this better than anyone else. Benedict knows he cannot be another JP II. Benedict XVI is himself a unique man. He recognizes his own gifts and weaknesses and acts accordingly. Part of the reason why JP II was able to carry the Church and the world with him in those anguished last years if his pontificate was that he had been pope for the best part of a generation. His extrovert, warm personality and his gift for commanding the world stage as a personality to be reckoned with, meant that we could only feel sympathy for him as he battled on valiantly. Our sympathy was not dimmed by the knowledge of many of us that aspects of the governance of the Church were suffering even as JP II gave wonderful witness of the value of human life and human suffering as a sharing in the Cross of Christ.

What Benedict is teaching us is that there are many ways of sharing the Cross of Christ, of keeping it at the centre of our Christian lives. We are called to carry the Cross at some stage(s) of our lives. JP II felt himself to be called to be on the Cross himself, as it were. But not all of us are called to that way of anchoring the Cross in our lives. JP II’s witness was a very particular and special identification with Christ.

Benedict proposes another rich identification we can make with regard to the Cross. He sees his life now not as being on the Cross with Christ, but standing by the Cross, at the feet of Christ. In this he seems to identify with Mary and the Beloved Disciple. who stood by the Cross after most had abandoned him.

 When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. John 19:26-27

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Here one fruit of the Cross is highlighted: from the Cross Christ gives us a home, with his mother, a motherhood that is exercised by the Church. Benedict’s teaching to us is that by being in the Church we have begun to make the Cross the cornerstone (to mix images) of our lives. Benedict feels himself too old and unfit to the immense task of guiding the Church in such demanding times, which is itself a sharing in the Cross. Instead he is embracing the Cross in a more contemplative, less active way, standing by it and gazing upon it, attentive to its message.

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Benedict XVI has chosen to be cloistered with the Cross for the rest of his days. He reminds us that whether we feel ourselves to be in the Cross with Christ, or simply standing in its shadow, always the Cross is central to the life of a Christian. In fact, without the Cross there is no Christianity, and there is no Church. We are all called to shoulder the Cross, like Simon of Cyrene, at some stage of our lives. We are also all called to keep our gaze firmly fixed on the Cross, as we stand in its shadow.

To be in the Church is to abide in the shadow of the Cross. Benedict XVI has not strength enough now to carry the Cross as he formerly did. It is enough for him to remain in its shadow, his eyes undistractedly fixed on the Cross in the cloister of Golgotha. That too is a gift to the Church. Maybe, just maybe, as one has suggested to me, Benedict’s example might inspire more young men and women to embrace the contemplation of the Cross in the cloisters of the Church’s monasteries. What rich fruit that would be indeed.

 

Papam non habemus – oremus

It is finished.

We thirst.

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep and say, “Spare thy people, O LORD, and make not thy heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?'”  (Joel 2:15-17)

 

Vale, Papa Ratzi

 

In Thanksgiving

O God, who in your wondrous providence
chose your servant Benedict XVI
to preside over your Church,
we give you most hearty thanks
for the years of his faithful service, praying that,
after having served as the Vicar of your Son on earth,
he may enjoy your abundant blessing in this life
and, at life’s end, be received by your Son into eternal glory.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

For the Election of a Pope

O God, eternal Shepherd,
who govern your flock with unfailing care,
grant in your boundless fatherly love
a pastor for your Church
who will please you by his holiness
and to us show watchful care.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Come on everyone – a tonic for papally-induced melancholy

This day is going to be sad. Let’s beat the melancholy with a good old sing-along.  If you are on a bus or train, at your desk at work, in the smallest room in the house (and I know for a fact this blog assists people during bowel evacuations) – embarrassment be damned, let’s sing together:

A poignant last word from Benedict XVI

last general audience benedict XVI

Normally the Pope holds his Wednesday general audiences in the Paul VI Hall, which seats several thousand. Today, for his last audience, Benedict moved to the piazza of St Peter’s to allow approximatley 200,000 faithful to join him. There was brilliant sunshine. He made a lap or two one last time in an open-sided popemobile.

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During the audience he said,

In recent months, I felt that my strength had decreased, and I asked God earnestly in prayer to enlighten me with his light to guide me to the right decision, not for my sake, but for the good of the Church. I have taken this step in full awareness of its gravity and also its novelty, but with a deep peace of mind. Loving the Church also means having the courage to make tough choices, and suffering for them, always holding as first the good of the Church and not oneself.

My misgivings notwithstanding, I have to acknowledge something magisterial in his decision. We must simply trust him, and more, trust the God he serves. Also, he said,

The “always” is also a “forever” – there can be no return to private life. My decision to renounce the exercise of active ministry does not deny this fact. I am not returning to private life, to a life of travel, meetings, receptions, conferences and so on. I am not abandoning the cross, but I am remaining at the foot of the Crucified Lord. I will no longer hold the power of the office for the government of the Church, but by rendering the service of prayer I shall rest, so to speak, in the domain of St. Peter. St. Benedict, whose name I bear as Pope, is a great example of this. He showed us the way to a life which, active or passive, belongs wholly to the work of God.

Cardinal Dziwisz of Krakow, one-time secretary to Pope Bl John Paul II, obliquely rebuked Pope Benedict in the wake of the announcement of the papal abdication by stating, with JPII in mind, that “one does not come down from the cross”. Pope Benedict seems almost to be answering the Cardinal’s rebuke by stating he is not abandoning the cross, but remaining at the foot of the cross. This seems to reveal a profound and sensitive humility. Benedict sees himself not as Christ, but as Christ’s faithful disciple who, with Mary, remained at the foot of Christ’s cross when all others had fled. He will now, like a Benedictine, give his last days over fully to contemplation of the Cross in prayer, and in the “work of God”, the liturgy (and, we can at least hope, in writing). In this passage he seems to signal that he intends to remain in the Vatican, the domain of St Peter, as his cloister for contemplation, as the Golgotha on which he can contemplate the crucified Lord.

Vale, Sancte Pater!

Pope Benedict XVI bows in front of the c

Probing the enduring legacy of Benedict XVI, good and bad

Over the next few weeks and beyond we can expect to see a lot about the legacy of Pope Benedict’s pontificate. Indeed much is already emerging. For example, as noted here and here, the statements issued by Orthodox and Protestant leaders suggest a pontificate that has seen a strong development in authentic ecumenism. An article released by Vatican Radio highlights what so many of us see as one of the great marks of the Benedictine pontificate, his teaching on and celebration of the liturgy. After Benedict the liturgical cat is out of the bag and there will be no putting it back. Indeed, who can forget his last Ash Wednesday Mass, hard in the wake of his stunning announcement, when having briefly indulged spontaneous and heart-felt applause from the congregation, he reminded us all of what should always inform our liturgy – a focus on God not man: “Thank you.Now let us return to prayer”.

Another aspect largely unrecognised is Pope Benedict’s cleaning up of the episcopal college. He has sacked several bishops, most spectacularly the lamentable Bishop Morris of Toowoomba, Australia. But it seems he did a lot more behind the scenes, confronting bishops who were grossly mismanaging their dioceses and convincing them to resign. By the very nature of things, it is a legacy that will not be open to the public gaze, but it may prove real enough in time.

Yet it strikes me that there are two aspects of this pontificate that need to be more carefully examined by those more competent than I.

One emerges from the course of Pope Benedict’s pontificate, the other from its end, yet even the former has a clear marker in the days following the announcement of abdication. One is positive, the other negative (though it pains me to say so).

From the outset of his pontificate Pope Benedict signalled that the Second Vatican Council needed to be re-appraised. His comments did not arise from any deep-seated dissatisfaction with the Council itself, but with its subsequent interpretation and application. For Benedict, as for anyone who knows even a little about the Church the growth of its Christian life, the Council could never have marked a point at which it could be said “Everything has changed, it is a revolution in the Church, we are leaving behind all the outdated baggage and becoming relevant to the modern world”. This attitude, which so many of us have experienced, he saw as revealing an interpretation of the Council through the lens of radical change, or the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture“. But the Pope made it clear that this was not an only an inadequate interpretation of the Council; it was to misunderstand it. Instead, the only valid way to interpret and apply the texts of the Council (as opposed to the nebulous and shape-changing “spirit” of the Council) was through the “hermeneutic of reform, of renewal in …continuity”. The Council operated within the historical faith it had received, developing it organically according to the perceived needs of the day. It did not rewrite the Church’s constitution.

At the end of his pontificate Pope Benedict returned to the theme of the Council in his address to the clergy and seminarians of Rome on 14 February, a few days after his announcement. Extempore, he gave “a few thoughts on the Second Vatican Council, as I saw it.”  He spoke of the “Rhine Alliance” that came to the Council with a clear agenda to be addressed: liturgy, ecclesiology, revelation and ecumenism. The liturgy was the starting point, the first document in fact, and Pope Benedict saw this is as exactly right:

I find now, looking back, that it was a very good idea to begin with the liturgy, because in this way the primacy of God could appear, the primacy of adoration. “Operi Dei nihil praeponatur“: this phrase from the Rule of Saint Benedict (cf. 43:3 [- “prefer nothing to the work of God”]) thus emerges as the supreme rule of the Council.

Here is not the place to examine his speech in great detail, though it must be and will be here. But suffice it to go to his closing remarks, in which we find the words which reveal his legacy as he sees it. He spoke of there being, in practice, two Councils: the Vatican “Council of the Fathers” that debated and enacted the conciliar documents, and the Vatican “Council of the media”.

I would now like to add yet a third point: there was the Council of the Fathers – the real Council – but there was also the Council of the media. It was almost a Council apart, and the world perceived the Council through the latter, through the media. Thus, the Council that reached the people with immediate effect was that of the media, not that of the Fathers.

So while the Fathers concentrated on issues for a particular, ecclesial reason, using the hermeneutic of reform and continuity, this was largely lost in the reporting of the media, which presented its own version of the Council according to a “political hermeneutic”:

 … the Council of the journalists, naturally, was not conducted within the faith, but within the categories of today’s media, namely apart from faith, with a different hermeneutic. It was a political hermeneutic: for the media, the Council was a political struggle, a power struggle between different trends in the Church. It was obvious that the media would take the side of those who seemed to them more closely allied with their world… We know that this Council of the media was accessible to everyone. Therefore, this was the dominant one, the more effective one, and it created so many disasters, so many problems, so much suffering: seminaries closed, convents closed, banal liturgy … and the real Council had difficulty establishing itself and taking shape; the virtual Council was stronger than the real Council.

This is sit-up-and-take-note stuff! Such is the power of the media, and was even then – perhaps more so given there were no Twitter, Facebook, blogs etc – that even ordinary Catholics only heard of the Council through the distorted and highly politicized lens of the media. What the media said was happening is what people thought was happening. So, while the Church is making great strides in getting its voice heard through the modern media, it is still crude in some of its attempts, naive and often ineffectual. If the Church is to get its true message to the world, and to its own members, then it needs to embrace and master the modern media and wield them effectively in the New Evangelization. But underpinning this is the need to reclaim the Council for what it was, not what it has been made out to be. Its nebulous, politicized “spirit” must give way to the reality of what it actually taught. The “virtual council” must yield to the real Council. This Pope Benedict finally declared to be the mission of the Year of Faith which initiates the New Evangelization:

 It seems to me that, 50 years after the Council, we see that this virtual Council is broken, is lost, and there now appears the true Council with all its spiritual force. And it is our task, especially in this Year of Faith, on the basis of this Year of Faith, to work so that the true Council, with its power of the Holy Spirit, be accomplished and the Church be truly renewed.

This is Benedict’s legacy as he sees it: reclaiming Vatican II in its integrity, according to a valid interpretation that accords with the continuity and tradition of the Church and not the fads of a particular time. All his acts regarding liturgy, episcopacy, ecumenism and the like were expressions of his desire, announced at the beginning and at the end of his pontificate, to prosper the real Council, and silence the the media’s virtual one.

Alas, there is perhaps another legacy, arising from his abdication that perhaps he has not foreseen, or at least not in all its potential force.

Surely he must have thought of it. My first reaction on hearing of his impending abdication, after the shock and the horror, was to worry for the future of the papacy itself: if one pope can retire so easily, what pressures might be brought to bear on future popes who are unpopular with the media or the curia. How might they be coerced into retiring “for the good of the Church”. One of the great strengths of the papacy was its enduring till death. One had to deal with a pope as he was, because one was stuck with him. Of course, some popes were too annoying to various factions in time past and so were murdered or illegally deposed or exiled. But that itself is sobering for the Church, emboldening true reformers; and of course, it is a sin of such gravity that the perpetrators were revealed for what they were.

But to retire seems to set a precedent inviting the removal of inconvenient popes. And now it seems I am not so silly in my fears. Cardinal Pell has given voice to exactly these worries himself in an interview. And he is right to worry. Now that no leader is immune from the immense pressure that can be brought to be by a vociferous media (however small the minority it represents), can we really expect a pope to remain psychologically immune from those same pressures?

Sadly Cardinal Pell seems to have turned on Benedict, damning him with faint praise for his theology and clear disdain at his abilities in government. Cardinal Pell, not without some justification perhaps, prefers a pope who is a master politician and power player… much like himself. He could have at least waited till after Benedict’s pontificate had officially ended.

It is not only Cardinal Pell expressing such worries. In fact a Google search will show that many are expressing fears for future popes and the pressures that might be brought to bear on them when they become ill, unpopular or inconvenient. We can only pray that Pope Benedict – no fool and no vacillating servant of God, a fine theologian with a spirituality and personal integrity beyond reproach – has done what was right for him and that it will be possible for future popes to serve until death. Let his retirement not become a precedent, and not be a part of his otherwise rich legacy to the Church. Pope Benedict has surprised us before, and wonderfully. Maybe his decision is a vehicle for another wonderful surprise, from God himself.

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Whatever happens, we have so much to give thanks for in Pope Benedict XVI. But I am still dreading tomorrow night.

Papal updates – with a dash of confusion

A few days back it was reported on Romereports.com, and duly reported here, that Cardinal Cocopalmerio, President of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, had announced that Pope Benedict’s style in retirement would be “His Holiness, Benedict XVI, Bishop-Emeritus of Rome”. It all seemed very sensible and fitting.

Today the Vatican spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi SJ, informed a press conference that the style in retirement would be “His Holiness, Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus”. But he said it could also be “His Holiness, Benedict XVI, Pontiff Emeritus”. So, it appears he will not be a Bishop Emeritus, but a Pope Emeritus… or is it Pontiff Emeritus? It seems he is not quite sure. In which case, I am not sure why he was making this announcement. “Pontiff-Emeritus” sounds, to be quite honest, a little off-key, and Pope-Emeritus sounds almost equally discordant. Cardinal Cocopalmerio’s version made so much sense. Which is right? Who knows!

Other details he revealed were either rather obvious or a little trivial. Benedict will no longer wear the Fisherman’s Ring, which will be destroyed as it would after a reigning pope’s death. He will no longer wear the mozetta, which, while a  decorous symbol of authority, it is one so unfamiliar to the majority of the faithful as to make its singling out a tad de trop. Likewise was the revelation that he would no longer wear red shoes. A little more newsworthy was that from the moment the abdication takes effect Benedict’s close security will be in the hands of the Vatican Gendarmerie rather than the Swiss Guard.

Fr Lombardi gave a strong hint that the conclave might even commence next week. I am taking this with a small dose of salt given the quality of the rest of the announcements he made, especially the uncertainty as to Benedict’s post-abdication style. In fact the press conference, at least as reported, struck me as quite unenlightening. Does poor Fr Lombardi feel he has to hold a conference every day? Or has he been told to do so? If so, it is not very media-savvy to announce trivia and vagaries and confusions.

Che strano…