A Weary Pope Rejoices: Remembering the Humility of Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI demonstrated the heroic virtue of humility in every aspect of his life of service.

Over a year ago, the world bid a fond adieu to Pope Benedict XVI, who passed away on December 31st, 2022, the eve of the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God. In his insightful and invaluable reflection on the life of service to Pope Benedict XVI, Who Believes is Not Alone: My Life Beside Benedict XVI, Archbishop Georg Gänswein responds to the queries relating to Benedict’s eventual beatification and canonization, suggesting that we 

let all questions about his long life settle first, particularly surrounding his pontificate and years as emeritus pontiff, so that the heroic virtues of Joseph Ratzinger—which, I repeat are unquestionable—may appear with utter transparency and may be demonstrated and shared by all. (p. 256)

Undoubtedly, one of the heroic virtues that shines forth is his humility with respect to serving joyfully every office he held, to proclaiming the truth in charity in dialogue with others, to preserving continuity in the celebration of the sacred liturgy, and, finally, in resigning from his office as the Supreme Pontiff.

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The Call to Humility

During the Mass which marked the beginning of his Petrine ministry as the Bishop of Rome, Benedict XVI gave a beautiful homily reflecting upon the symbolism of the pallium and the fisherman’s ring.

Benedict characterizes the pallium as a symbol of the yoke of Christ that is placed on the shoulders of the Bishop of Rome, who is, first and foremost, the Servant of the Servants of God.

God’s yoke is God’s will, which we accept. And this will does not weigh down on us, oppressing us and taking away our freedom. To know what God wants, to know where the path of life is found—this was Israel’s joy, this was her great privilege. It is also our joy: God’s will does not alienate us, it purifies us—even if this can be painful—and so it leads us to ourselves. (April 24, 2005)

Pope Benedict XVI was clearly the reluctant, introverted professor, who wanted to retire quietly to a life of reading, writing, and playing his piano. On more than one occasion, Pope St. John Paul II would not accept the request of the then-Cardinal Ratzinger to retire from his position as prefect of the office which was formerly known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). In obedience to his brethren in the College of Cardinals, Ratzinger accepted the office of pope as entrusted to him as a yoke of Christ that he embraced as a path toward both joy and purification.

In the same homily referenced above, Benedict comments: 

The task of the shepherd, the task of the fisher of men, can often seem wearisome. But it is beautiful and wonderful, because it is truly a service to joy, to God’s joy which longs to break into the world. 

These lines illustrate the wearisome yet beautiful burden for every pope. They receive an office in which they are called upon to evangelize the entire world as fishers of men (Luke 5:1-11), which can be wearisome and a cause for joy simultaneously.

The Humble Co-Worker of the Truth

As a professor and as the prefect for the CDF he demonstrated the virtue of humility through his ability to listen to others well. One of his former doctoral students, Fr. Vincent Twomey, described him as “quintessentially a listener.” In academic seminars, he allowed each participant to voice their opinions. Likewise, as head of the CDF, every person in the office, beginning with the youngest official, was required to offer their view points. 

As both a professor and as a prefect he listened carefully and offered a summary and synthesis of every viewpoint. Benedict also masterfully addressed how a view might be better formulated using the views of others as his point of departure. As a master conductor, he drew the views of others together into a symphony of the truth. 

Benedict was always committed to his episcopal motto to serve the Church as “co-workers of the Truth” (3 John 1:8), which is reflected not only in the manner in which he served his students and those who worked in the CDF, but is evident in his ability to engage others in discussions, debates, and letters. He consistently received and addressed the questions, queries, critiques, and objections of fellow Catholics, Christians, people of other religions, and nonbelievers. Benedict held firmly to the notion that reason (the logos) is a gift that we receive fully through the use of faith and reason. The primacy of the logos remains a perennial teaching in Benedict’s thought, which precludes any paradigm shift that would subordinate the truth to ethos in any form. 

Humble Obedience to the Sacred Liturgy

Throughout his life and his writings, Benedict XVI placed great emphasis on the importance of celebrating the liturgy with reverence and continuity with the Tradition of the Church. In The Spirit of the Liturgy, Ratzinger underscores the limits of papal authority in relation to the liturgy: 

The pope’s authority is bound to the tradition of faith, and that also applies to the liturgy. It is not “manufactured” by the authorities. Even the pope can only be a humble servant of its faithful development and abiding integrity and identity. 

The pope must exercise humility and restraint with respect to the sacred liturgy. 

Pope Benedict XVI’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum should be received in this context. Pope Benedict was generous toward the celebration of the Roman Rite according to the 1962 Missal of St. John XXIII (the Traditional Latin Mass) because he wanted to preserve the continuity between the usus antiquior and the more recent Missal of St. Paul VI/St. John Paul II (the Novus Ordo). 

In his humility, Benedict XVI wanted to preserve the celebration of the usus antiquior for the pastoral good of the faithful. He makes this clear in his letter to the bishops that accompanied Summorum Pontificum: “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.” 

Even the pope remains a servant who must allow the full treasure of the Tradition celebrated in the liturgy to be accessible to the faithful. In time, the Church will continue to benefit from the liturgical theology of Pope Benedict, which can potentially bring about renewal in continuity with the Tradition. 

The Humble Ascent of a Pontiff

When we consider the virtue of humility in the life of Benedict XVI, then we may have a better understanding of his resignation from the office (even if we may have many unanswered questions). In a homily for a group of Italian youth in Loreto, he offered these insights into the path of humility: 

[T]he way of humility is not the way of renunciation but that of courage. It is not the result of a defeat but the result of a victory of love over selfishness and of grace over sin. In following Christ and imitating Mary, we must have the courage of humility; we must entrust ourselves humbly to the Lord, because only in this way will we be able to become docile instruments in his hands and allow him to do great things in us. (September 2, 2007)

There can be no doubt that Benedict made the decision to resign from the Office of St. Peter not as a rejection of the yoke of Christ but as a courageous form of humility that embraced the Lord’s will regardless of what others would say. 

Benedict’s humility allows the light of Christ to shine with greater clarity within the Church in that he highlights that he was a mere Servant of Servants entrusted with the office for a period of time. In this respect, the act of resignation may come to be viewed as a safeguard against the hyperinflation of any papacy or a model of some much needed more reserved papal style. His consistency in walking the path of humility throughout his life as a priest professor, a bishop, the Cardinal Prefect for the CDF, the pope, and the pope emeritus is a stark contrast with the narcissistic pride that can easily consume any of us who are not vigilant.

It is fitting that Pope Benedict imitated one of the exhortations for abbots from The Rule of St. Benedict, which is relevant for all spiritual fathers: “be of service rather than be served” (Chapter 64). In his last Wednesday Audience, Pope Benedict made it known that he was called “to scale the mountain” by serving the Church by greater devotion to prayer and meditation in a way that was more suited to his age and strength (February 27, 2013). Benedict XVI was a faithful father who did not abandon his children. He humbly recognized his limitations and embraced the life of prayer, highlighting it as the better portion that will not be taken away from him (Luke 10:41). He became a frail father who had to entrust the Church to his faithful children. 

Let us continue to pray for the repose of the weary pope and hope that he now rejoices with the Incarnate Logos and the communion of saints in the eternal Liturgy.

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tagged as: Pope Benedict XVI

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