I had my son, Jude, on April 4, 2005. My spine was punctured during the epidural (which hurts like the devil) and that boy nursed like a vampire, so those first few days remain hazy. One vivid thread that runs through that time, however, are televised images from Rome as the Conclave selected Pope Benedict XVI to succeed Pope John Paul II.
Fast forward eight years to this week. On Monday morning I received a text message from my best friend that read, “Whoa. The pope is resigning.”
Two thoughts immediately ran through my mind.
The first, “Oh, God, what did he do? What made him have to resign?”
This type of knee-jerk reaction is not unusual for Catholics, those in Boston particularly. In the wake of the clergy sex abuse scandal, we are still a crisis-weary bunch. News of a resignation has been all too often followed by embarrassing or disheartening revelations.
My next thought, “Jude turns eight in April. Didn’t they say Benedict would be an eight-year Pope? I wonder if he’s been planning this all along.”
When Benedict was elected, I subscribed to a widely-discussed belief that he was a caretaker Pope, one who would hold the position long enough to ensure a truly conservative College of Cardinals for the next 30 to 50 years — think of it as having the ability to appoint several Supreme Court Justices without Senate confirmation — and to ensure that the Church was ready for its first African or Latin American Pope. Those who believed as I did said that Benedict would serve seven or eight years. That part came true, as did the finalization of a stolidly conservative College of Cardinals. As for preparing the way for a Pope of color, I guess we’re about to find out.
I was concerned about the choice of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger as the 265th Pope from the beginning. Prior to his election, he had been the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In 2000, a highly visible Jubilee Year, he presided over the release of a document called Dominus Iesus, that essentially failed to recognize other religions as true churches and reasserted Roman Catholicism as the one path to salvation. This was during the heart of globalization, and it drove interfaith dialogue away at a time when people needed to come together.
His deep teachings on love in his Papal Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, and on charity in Caritas in Veritate notwithstanding, under Benedict, I often felt frustrated by the Vatican’s preference for focusing on sex, marriage and the role of women in the Church, rather than on poverty and social justice issues — areas where the Church was a spiritual front-runner for decades. Welcome to the great Western Catholic fissure of the 21st Century.
Over the course of his tenure, my feelings about Pope Benedict didn’t change much.
Until, that is, last year when I saw him deliver a papal mass in Havana, Cuba. The Pope stood smack in the middle of Revolutionary Square with Raul Castro and his lackeys in the front row and condemned the Castro regime on the grounds of religious oppression and human rights. It was subtle, with quotes such as:
The right to freedom of religion, both in its private and in its public dimension, manifests the unity of the human person, who is at once a citizen and a believer… Strengthening religious freedom consolidates social bonds, nourishes the hope of a better world, creates favorable conditions for peace and harmonious development, while at the same time establishing solid foundations for securing the rights of future generations.
But the messages were there, and they were delivered in a place previously reserved for Fidel Castro himself to speak. Pope Benedict’s words were not condemnatory enough for many, but I found his willingness to “speak truth to power” refreshing.
I’ll never forget watching Raul Castro after the mass walk all the way back up the steps to the altar and wag his finger angrily at the Pope for what had to be a full minute. I didn’t hear what the Cuban leader said, but he wasn’t happy. I was proud of my Pope for at least condemning the regime enough to upset him. It was a moment of leadership, and a side of the Pope I had never seen.
Benedict’s resignation is another such moment. After reading his statement, I kept thinking of George Washington’s refusal to run for a third term, lest the presidency become too much like the monarchy it replaced. Very, very few men could or would voluntarily give up power supposedly conferred by God himself. Indeed, this is the first abdication of the papacy in 600 years.
Leadership is what the Catholic Church, and all of us, need today. And though in my eyes, it took him too many years to get there, Benedict’s recent actions — including his decision to step down — give me hope that we might see such leadership moments from his successor.
I am grateful for Pope Benedict’s decision, and hope that the 266th Successor of Saint Peter may yet surprise me and the next generation of Catholics, too.
Editor’s note: Tiziana Dearing served as the first woman president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston from 2007 to 2010.