As the world focuses in on Rome for the papal conclave, many are discussing what qualities are needed in the next Successor of Saint Peter. Our televisions are filled with pundits — some knowledgeable, others not — discussing the needs of the Church as we move into the future.
But it seems to me that there has been a voice missing in this conversation: that of the young.
This is unfortunate, because implicit in many of these discussions is the notion that Benedict’s papacy was somehow a failure.
I think many of us would disagree. And we should know, because perhaps more than anyone, our lives were affected by Joseph Ratzinger. We were too young to be part of the “JP II (John Paul II) generation.” Instead, we came to age in the era of Benedict.
And indeed that era was different. The rock star pope was replaced by the introvert pope; the poet by the academic.
But his quiet voice didn’t decrease his ability to affect the young faithful. In fact, it amplified it.
“Listening” to Benedict
There was a saying that became popular in Rome during these past eight years of Benedict’s pontificate. It went something like this: The young people used to come to St. Peter’s Square to see John Paul, but they come to listen to Benedict.
And listen they did. Benedict, who was once castigated by the media as “God’s Rottweiler,” has pricked the ears of young people across the world with his eloquent writings about the purpose of living, the dignity of all human persons — especially the poor and marginalized — and the contributions religion can make in a pluralistic society.
Who would have expected “God’s Rottweiler” to dedicate his first major encyclical to human love? In it, he writes that being a Christian “is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, [with true love] which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
Though Benedict’s papacy was marred by public relations nightmares, when he himself spoke people responded. His foreign apostolic trips were mostly successful, especially his trips to the United States in 2008, to the United Kingdom in 2010, and to Mexico and Cuba in 2012. Each time, Benedict exceeded public expectations.
Of particular note is his trip to the United Kingdom.
There, Benedict delivered a speech in Westminster Hall, standing in the same spot where Saint Thomas More was tried and condemned to death in 1535. In an audience featuring all the living former prime ministers of England and the elite of British civil society, Benedict gave an address that received enthusiastic reviews. Even secular agnostics described the speech as “bloody brilliant.” Upon his departure, Prime Minister David Cameron said the Holy Father had compelled the increasingly secular English society, especially its youth, “to sit up and listen.”
Benedict’s words — and especially his questions — have struck us in a way that is perhaps even more poignant than those of his predecessor:
Where do I find standards to live by, what are the criteria that govern responsible cooperation in building the present and the future of our world? On whom can I rely? To whom shall I entrust myself? Where is the [person] who can offer me the response capable of satisfying my heart’s deepest desires?
His questions probe our hearts, especially in a time where such questions are buried under an ever-increasing “globalization of superficiality” that doesn’t allow time and space for the deeper questions of life.
The fact that we ask questions like these means that we realize our journey is not over until we meet the One who has the power to establish that universal Kingdom of justice and peace to which all people aspire, but which they are unable to build by themselves. Asking such questions also means searching for Someone who can neither deceive nor be deceived, and who therefore can offer a certainty so solid that we can live for it and, if need be, even die for it.
Benedict has lived and, quite frankly, is now dying for his Church. He lived and is now dying for that “Kingdom of justice and peace,” which is the primary goal of all human activity.
While Benedict’s speeches, encyclicals, homilies and books have taught us much, his last action was the greatest lesson of his pontificate. In renouncing the throne of Saint Peter, Benedict has taught a world obsessed with the cult of personality that the greatest heroes are the ones who give it all up for the sake of others.
Benedict’s message with his resignation was simple: I love you. I choose you. Your wellbeing matters to me more than anything else.
I’m not sure I could name all the qualities that we need in the next pope. There are probably too many to list. But I do know this: I sure hope he has just a portion of the pastoral love and humility that Benedict has shown us.
Thank you, Holy Father. We, the children of your generation, the generation of Benedict the Meek, will never forget you. You will always be in our prayers, and we will remember what you taught us in word and — most importantly — in deed: “the happiness that you [seek], the happiness you have a right to enjoy has a name and a face: it is Jesus of Nazareth… [and] in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed.”