Today at the Vatican news website is an article explaining what must be learned from the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI, including his resignation: New Paths.
It was a surprise at his election when inspired by the father of western monasticism, he chose the name Benedict to revive the importance of his rule of life centred on the principle that nothing must be put before Christ. As Pope, Ratzinger has always disseminated and encouraged this rule as the primary reference point for every Christian and at every level of responsibility. And it was in the light of this rule that he defined himself immediately after his election as a humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord.
Regular readers know that I am always talking about finding our identity in Christ. Some say it is an “obsession” on my part, but those who say this mistake love for Jesus with “obsession.” Our identity in Christ is the most important thing there is, and we see it expressed time and time again from the Vatican and from this Pope, including in today’s article about his retirement.
“Catholic identity,” not “identity in Christ,” has become “the” issue among faithful Catholics these days. We are obsessed as a Church, it seems, with preserving our “Catholic identity” in our institutions. This is all well and good — indeed, it is very important — provided that we are clear that Catholic identity depends on each of us finding our identity in Jesus Christ — in following the will of God in all things, no matter what that requires us to suffer, as Jesus did. The Holy Father has given us, in his resignation, a prime example of finding our identity in Christ. As it says in the article today, on Ash Wednesday as we begin Lent, “Nothing must be put before Christ,” and as we see from the Holy Father, this includes even the Chair of St. Peter.
Certainly, the Chair of Peter is the seat of authority for all Catholics, and has been throughout the history of the Church. The first concrete example of this is the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, when the issue of circumcision was settled by the teaching of St. Peter. St. Paul could have started his own church, like Martin Luther did during the “Protestant Reformation” centuries later. He could have claimed authority over Peter among the Christians at Antioch. Instead, he traveled over 300 miles, before the days of Twitter and email, and before mass transit and automobiles, across the Mediterranean Sea to Jerusalem where the Church was seated in Council. It was St. Peter who delivered the correct teaching to settle the matter, which was affirmed by St. James, as was his place to do as the Bishop of Jerusalem at the time. This teaching of St. Peter on circumcision thus became doctrine for the entire Church worldwide, and remains Church teaching even now. This is our model for the Church today, with Pope Benedict XVI in the Chair of Peter. Though the world may reject this, it is the will of Jesus, having given Peter the keys, a symbol of authority, and having given all the apostles the authority to “bind and loose.”
So it is that we always turn to the Chair of Peter to resolve our disputes, which keeps the Church and her institutions “Catholic” meaning “universal.” This is why any Catholic may go to Mass anywhere in the world and it is essentially the same Mass. Understanding this reality is at the center of my conversion to Jesus, having found Him on the altar the first time I attended Mass 21 years ago today. Like St. Paul, I was many miles from home at the time, but I knew that what mattered was not my location, but that Jesus is in the Church everywhere, and that all is held together by the Chair of Peter. In two millennia, the Church has often clarified the Gospel as new issues have come along, as St. Peter did on the matter of circumcision, but not once has a direct contradiction been promulgated as doctrine.
If we fail in following the example of Acts 15, we are not being what God has called us to be as Catholics. This is why the preservation of “Catholic identity” is so important in our institutions. The Chair of Peter is an office that, though held by an individual, transcends the individual who is holding it in the hearts of all the faithful, including in the heart of any truly humble Pope who holds the office. It is precisely the understanding in our hearts of this transcendence that ensures there is no panic when the seat is vacant. In like manner, it is this transcendence that makes it possible for Pope Benedict XVI to understand that he is free to retire if he is unable to fulfill his duties. What makes it transcendent, though, is Jesus Christ. Not one of us, not even the Pope, is allowed to put our own will above God’s will.
This is a great lesson for all of us for Lent. No matter where you find yourself today, turn your heart to God and ask Him what it is that He wishes to make of you. Not our will, but God’s will, be done. Jesus Himself prayed in the Garden that the Cup (the Cross of Sacrifice) should pass from Him if it be the will of the Father. Let us follow His example and accept the Cup that the Father has in store for us this Lent, for it is only in accepting it that redemption will come.
May God bless Pope Benedict XVI and all of us as we enter the holy season of Lent.