This past week, the world has witnessed a completely unprecedented event. The Pope has retired. Ok, fact-checkers. It has happened nine other times in history. The most recent occurrence was in 1415, when Gregory XII threw in the towel to try and unite the Western church in a time when the papacy was constantly contested. The “retirees” before Gregory XII had as much a choice in the matter as a CEO whose hand is caught in the proverbial cookie jar. When the Emperor suggests that you take a seat and become a “pope emeritus”, you take whatever Medieval severance package is available and you exit stage left.
In other words, Benedict XVI, who has now seen his last day as Holy Father for the world’s 1.8 billion Catholics, may well be the first surprise papal retiree in the history of the world. Now that is something.
It has been 8 years since the white smoke from the Vatican chimney signaled the selection of Joseph Ratzinger, a German cardinal for leadership of the church. And, to be honest, I haven’t made much of a habit of tuning in when he has something to say. I am a protestant, and as a protestant, I have been born into a tradition of tuning out the pope for the past five hundred years. When I catch him on a headline, provided it is not in competition with a baseball score, my eyes pass over his words.
I think that the first time his words stuck with me were from just yesterday.
The Lord gave us days of sun and of light breeze, days in which the fishing was good. There were also moments when there were stormy waters and headwinds . . . as if God was sleeping . . .
These past eight years have been about as light and breezy as a morning spent slowly headed into the Bermuda Triangle. The sexual scandals perpetuated by priests has, in the past decade gone from what at first seemed like a few isolated events to an avalanche of tragedy. The Catholic priesthood has been sufficiently scandalized, up to the point of the pope himself catching scrutiny for his delayed response. Much can and should be said about the matter of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church- and elsewhere.
Being the voice of God for a generation is a tall task in any time, but for Benedict XVI, I cannot imagine the call of standing up to the challenges he faced.
And as I read of his time in the storm, I am reminded of my own. The 85-year-old pontiff is at the end of his journey, and I, if God wills, am at the beginning of mine. And already, when the waters have been a little rough, I wonder if I can take any more. I wonder if my arms are up to the challenge of stabilizing the ship. I wonder if I will have the words to call out to those nearby to help me in my time of need. At this end of my journey, I wonder if I have what it takes. At his end, he can look back on his failures with repentance and his successes with gratitude.
But what if it seems God, as Benedict XVI has felt, is sleeping? I picture Peter and the others, lost at sea, all hands on deck. And Jesus is on his cushion. Asleep. The one with the power to speak and calm the sea. And he sleeps. How do you not feel abandoned? How do you fight your fight when the God, who “neither slumbers, nor sleeps” is taking a nap?
I hope that Joseph Ratzinger, at 85, knows more about this working and walking in faith than I do. I hope he has picked up the type of wisdom that is gained in suffering. In waiting. In the midst of the storm.
And I hope that I am learning it, too.