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.