What Benedict has to teach us

As Benedict flew away today, he was leaving behind not only his life of the last eight years, but what he has known for over thirty.  Rome had become his home, and until 2005, the streets were his streets, the cafes were his cafes, Cantina Tirolese was his German restaurant.  After 2005, his world became a little smaller, but he could still visit the sites of the city — the Spanish Steps on December 8th, the Colosseum on Good Friday, the Basilica of John Lateran on Corpus Christi.

When he returns to Rome, his world will be even smaller: a mere 4300 square feet in the Vatican Gardens.

I don’t think we’ll ever see Pope Benedict again.  When he told us “goodnight,” at the loggia of Castel Gandolfo and turned to walk inside, that was it.  I could be wrong, but it was my belief before yesterday, and yesterday’s Audience address confirmed it.  He’s serious when he says he is going to live a life in the model of St. Benedict.  I think that means no public appearances, no traveling, nothing.

The rest of his life will be spent as a monastic, in prayer and penance for the Church.  He does not return to his own “private life,” he insisted, but remains in the service of the Church.

It is a concept that even Catholics are not fully grasping.  He’s not retiring like a bishop does, to continue to live in the diocese and show up at various events and fill in for sacraments and whatnot.  Most importantly, he’s not going back to Germany to retire with his brother, as he always longed to do.  He’s remaining in the Vatican — why?  Because he’s continuing his service to the Church… just in a different way.

He is continuing his work in the vineyard.

Our modern society doesn’t understand that because they don’t understand the contemplative life.  They don’t understand prayer.  Since Benedict isn’t “active,” his work must be over.

On the contrary.

After spending the last two years teaching us about prayer — that was the central theme of his audiences since May 4, 2011 — he is now crowning that catechesis with his example.  Prayer is the most powerful action on this earth.

We like tangible things.  We feel we’ve accomplished something when we see the fruits of our labor.  If there’s a problem, we want to do something to fix it.

So it’s hard for us (especially post-Enlightment us) to wrap our minds around the power of prayer. Its power is supernatural, invisible, and impossible to quantify or measure.  We may not even know its effects this side of heaven.  So our material, worldly selves find it very hard to believe that prayer is the most effective thing we could possibly do. Even good Catholics often express that a young person entering a cloistered monastery seems a bit of a waste.  What are you doing to advance the Gospel?  How are you making the world a better place?  Isn’t it a waste of your God-given talents?

I remember trying to tell someone that I thought the Mass before the March for Life was far more important than the actual March.  She protested that no one saw the crowds at the Mass, the March could influence policy and public opinion, we had to be present in the public arena, etc, etc, etc.  I tried to point out that while I believed in the March, my prayers at the Mass were far more powerful than any speech or demonstration, regardless of how successful the demonstration might be.  I’m not sure she got the point.

Nothing you do is more powerful than prayer.  Nothing.

Today, Benedict began serving the Church in a radical, supernatural way.  He began a life of dedicated to prayer.  After the conclave is over and his successor is chosen, he’ll return to the Vatican – not to the apostolic palace, but to the small monastery in the Vatican Gardens.  Not because he loves the Gardens or because he wants a nice relaxing retirement.  But because he takes up the work of the women who had previously lived in that monastery — the work of saving the Church through prayer.

In one of his Wednesday audiences when he was beginning his catechesis on prayer, he spoke about intercession and the role of mediator, first through the story of Abraham and Sodom & Gomorrah (May 18, 2011), and then through the story of Moses (June 1, 2011). I couldn’t help but think about Benedict himself when reading his words about the mediator interceding for the people, even when it means sacrificing himself:

“With prayer, wanting what God wanted, the intercessor entered more and more deeply into knowledge of the Lord and of his mercy, and became capable of a love that extended even to the total gift of himself. In Moses, on the summit of the mountain face to face with God, who made himself an intercessor for his people and offered himself — ‘blot me out'” (General Audience, 1 June 2011).

Benedict has done the same.  He has lifted that host at Mass and said, “This is My Body,” while simultaneously giving his own body, his own health, to Christ for His Church.  And that hasn’t ended.  Yes, he has resigned the papacy because of his old age, and anyone who looks at him sees a man who has given his life and health for Christ.  But he has not retired to go rest.  He will continue to pour out his life for Christ and His Church — in the hidden contemplative life.

“The Lord is calling me ‘to scale the mountain’, to devote myself even more to prayer and meditation. But this does not mean abandoning the Church; indeed, if God asks me this it is precisely so that I may continue to serve her with the same dedication and the same love with which I have tried to do so until now, but in a way more suited to my age and strength.” (General Audience, 27 February 2013)

Over the past twenty months, Benedict taught us how to pray.  And now he is teaching us about the power of prayer.  Unfortunately, it’s a lesson no one seems to be talking about.


ti vogliamo bene, Papa!

The coverage was amazing — the sweeping shots of Rome, the sunset over Castel Gandolfo just as the CTV cameras were finishing live coverage.  I only avoided completely losing it in tears thanks to the commentators, whose statements were at times erroneous or unintentionally humorous and took my mind off the fact that this was the last time I was probably ever going to see my beloved friend.


I took this picture on Palm Sunday in 2008, and it is how I will always remember him.  Beautiful, eloquent, and fatherly.

I already miss him.

A last goodbye

Sixteen days ago I was woken up, like so many others, with earth-shattering news.  I proceeded to go through my morning in a fog, getting to work without really knowing how I got dressed, did my makeup, and drove in traffic.  I didn’t have an appetite and didn’t taste my breakfast.

The fog has lifted, but nothing had sunk in.  This morning my alarm went off at 4am so I could watch part of his last audience.  I printed off the text of his address to read in the chapel.  And then it all hit me.

As I read the address through my tears, I was taken back eight years.  I was sitting in a classroom in Rome and hearing from my Italian professor John Paul’s last words to the crowds who had come under his window to pray by his deathbed with him.

Vi ho cercato… The words were etched on my heart that day, and have never left me.

I have sought you.  And you have come to me.  For this, I thank you.

The parting words of the only Pope I had never known.  The beginning of a roller coaster that would see me sleeping in the streets awaiting a funeral and laughing through tears after white smoke, and would eventually lead me to study theology and work for the Church I loved.

As I read Pope Benedict’s final address, an unusually-personal account of his own roller coaster, I found the same reassurance in his last words.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I am truly moved, and in you I see the church is alive!

I always felt slightly foolish for feeling like I knew Pope Benedict.  But I felt close to him after reading his writings and then living in Rome in 2008 and seeing him every week. I felt like I knew him.  Over the past eight years, whether it was watching Midnight Mass on television or sitting with him for a concert, I felt like he was my friend.

And now I realize I’m not alone in that thought.

Please take time to read his beautiful address in its entirety- this last lecture of sorts.  I cannot comment on it more; words fail me tonight.

Pope Benedict XVI sits on a garden bench during his annual holiday in Bressanone

Here allow me to return once again to April 19, 2005. The gravity of the decision was precisely in the fact that from that moment on I was committed always and forever by the Lord. Always – he, who assumes the Petrine ministry no longer has any privacy. He belongs always and totally to everyone, to the whole Church. His life is, so to speak, totally deprived of the private sphere. I have felt, and I feel even in this very moment, that one receives one’s life precisely when he offers it as a gift. I said before that many people who love the Lord also love the Successor of Saint Peter and are fond of him, that the Pope has truly brothers and sisters, sons and daughters all over the world, and that he feels safe in the embrace of their communion, because he no longer belongs to himself, but he belongs to all and all are truly his own.

The “always” is also a “forever” – there is no returning to private life. My decision to forgo the exercise of active ministry, does not revoke this. I do not return to private life, to a life of travel, meetings, receptions, conferences and so on. I do not abandon the cross, but remain in a new way near to the Crucified Lord. I no longer wield the power of the office for the government of the Church, but in the service of prayer I remain, so to speak, within St. Peter’s bounds. St. Benedict, whose name I bear as Pope, shall be a great example in this for me. He showed us the way to a life which, active or passive, belongs wholly to the work of God

Gianfranco Ravasi

After getting this brilliant idea to Papabile of the Day a week or so ago, yesterday I found out that John Allen is doing the same.  I highly recommend checking out his series, even though it does require going to the National Catholic Reporter’s website.  To say that John Allen knows his stuff when it comes to the Vatican is an understatement.  There are few other Americans who know the Italians, Rome, and the Vatican like John does.  Many Americans think they know the Vatican, but unless you live in Rome, you can’t.  John is a gem.  I may not agree with everything he says (and I think it would be in his best interest to write for another paper), but he’s a true journalist, in the best sense of the word.

With John’s series in mind, I’m not going to even attempt to give you an exhaustive account of each man I choose.  I’ll just give you some biographical notes, some reasons why I think each man has a chance of getting elected, and some reasons why I think he might not.

Cardinal Ravasi

The first thing in the Cardinal’s favor is that he’s from Italy.  While I don’t buy the idea that the Italian factions are going to unite and put forward a candidate, I also think there are strong Italian “candidates” and I wouldn’t be surprised if our stretch of non-Italians was over for awhile.

For a few years before becoming Cardinal, Ravasi wrote a daily column in an Italian Catholic newspaper.  Called “Morning Prayer,” it combined a short meditation or thought for the day with quotes from a variety of people — saints, authors, Scripture, philosophers.  If you follow Ravasi on twitter (@CardRavasi_en) you’ll see a similar theme to his tweets.

He spent most of his life as a professor and collaborated with the future Cardinal Martini. Martini is not known as a conservative, and although Ravasi is probably more “conservative” than Martini, it still struck some as odd that Ravasi found a fan in Pope Benedict.  However, anyone who really knows Benedict knows that he doesn’t put people in “liberal” and “conservative” boxes and knows truth when he sees it.  So he clearly saw something in Ravasi- and continues to, as well.

In 2007 Ravasi was asked by Pope Benedict to write the meditations for the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday at the Colosseum.  (Something that Benedict himself did in 2005, when John Paul II prayed them with us for the last time, days before his death.)  Soon after that, in the fall of 2007, Benedict appointed Ravasi as President of the Pontifical Council for Culture Culture.

If Ravasi has made waves in that position, it’s because he is a firm believer in dialogue – even with non-believers.  Under his leadership, the Pontifical Council for Cultural began an initiative called “Courtyard of the Gentiles” to dialogue with the secular culture, and events have been held in cities like Stockholm and Paris — places not known for their religiosity these days.

While he’s taken some heat for the ways he’s chosen to reach out (many say to stop dialoguing and start converting), it’s something very close to the heart of Benedict, who in his 2009 Christmas Greeting to the Curia reminded them: “Today, in addition to interreligious dialogue, there should be a dialogue with those to whom religion is something foreign, to whom God is unknown and who nevertheless do not want to be left merely Godless, but rather to draw near to him, albeit as the Unknown.”

(Just a note– that Christmas greeting every year is one of the best ways to see what’s on Benedict’s mind and where the Church is headed.  Every one is a gem.)

Ravasi was the first churchman I followed on Twitter (Christmas of 2011), not really knowing who he was.  I’ve since found that he’s rather well-known for his willingness to engage the world in these different avenues (a good quality for someone in charge of the Pontifical Council for Culture) and he’s been on Twitter since 2011.

He notes, “We need to remember that communicating faith doesn’t just take place through sermons. It can be achieved through the 140 characters of a Twitter message.”

This isn’t without potential for controversy.  Earlier this year one of his tweets featured a quote from an Amy Winehouse song.  I did a double-take.  Was an Italian Curia member really just quoting Amy Winehouse?  Yep.  He’s not afraid to engage the culture… and while I’m pretty sure that’s a check mark on the “pro” side of the list, it may be a check mark on the “con” side as well.

Outside of the Italians and his group of followers on Twitter, I’m not sure anyone would know is name if it wasn’t for the fact that he was chosen by Benedict to preach the Lenten retreat for the Roman Curia.  Last week the Vatican offices were closed and the Curia attended the spiritual reflections — it was expected that Benedict would attend every session.

So… the entire Curia just spent the week listening to this man.  Could that impact the ballots cast?  Seems very possible.

I like the fact that he’s willing to engage the culture and think outside the box.  This is crucial to the New Evangelization.  We have always had the Gospel.  But we have not always preached  that Gospel in the most fruitful ways.  Think of Paul at the Areopagus.  (which is exactly what Benedict referenced in that Curia address).  You have to know your audience. Pope Benedict using Twitter has shown us that he also believes the Church has to preach the Gospel in new ways.

Why Ravasi won’t be the next Pope… He’s been a professor all his life, not an administrator.  There are serious problems in the administration of the Vatican State and the Curial offices, and an administrator Pope is an urgent need.

Papabile of the Day

I thought it would be fun to do a series on Cardinals who may be changing their name come the middle of March.  When I was living over there in 2005 I studied the Cardinals pretty diligently, trying to figure out who had the makings of our next Pope.  L’Osservatore Romano had an issue with pictures and short bios of all the cardinal electors, and we spent our time in St. Peter’s Square waiting for smoke, glancing through the “program” of sorts to see if we could guess who might come out on the loggia in a few days or a few hours.  All our studying was pretty pointless in the end.

So here we go.  The cardinals are probably doing a little studying of their own right now.  So let’s join them.

I was going to start with Cardinal Julian Herranz Casado.  I went to a small Mass celebrated by him in Rome in 2008, and all I could think of when I heard he was celebrating Mass was that I had put a lot of “points” on him when we were betting on the election in 2005.  That was before we knew that was once grounds for excommunication.

I don’t remember all the reasons I thought he was papabile in 2005, although I was intrigued by the fact that he was in Opus Dei.  (Not for any conspiratorial reasons, but just because I think the new movements in the Church are part of Her future.)  This time around, I was intrigued by the fact that he was one of three Cardinals chosen by the Holy Father to chair the three-Cardinal commission to investigate the leaks in the Vatican.

Then I looked a little harder and realized he was over 80.  Since I have doubts that the Cardinals will elect someone not with them in the Sistine Chapel, Herranz got cut from my list.

If you want to play along, you can find the full list of cardinal electors here.