While many of you who know me personally know that most of the times when I speak about Pope Benedict the 16th, I usually speak criticism of some kind. I often try to be diplomatic about it. Some times I make jokes. Other times I am very critical. As a mainline protestant pastor, Josef Ratzinger was never my favorite theologian. And so the often benign quips, “joey the rat,” “papa ratzi,” and “the red baron” were used to describe him when I was feeling particularly disgusted by his actions that suppressed priests and nuns doing good work that did not hold with his and John Paul the 2nd’s ideas of orthodoxy while making certain people who upheld their views immune from the appropriate discipline and legal actions for the harm they caused children and their families. Yes, it has been enough to make this preacher want to cuss.
Today, I want to consider the papal abdication now that it is official and the church of Rome is observing the time of allowing the throne of St. Peter to be empty. Today, I want to consider Josef Ratzinger, Benedict the 16th, Emeritus Pope as a Christian leader. I know as a theologian he demonstrates excellence of intellectual ability. But, I wish to ponder the demonstration of Spiritual leadership which was his last act as Pope. The best way to define this act is his withdrawal from the view of the world in order to pray and to contemplate.
Pastors and other ordained church leaders spend all of their time dealing with sin. We understand the difficulties of being a sinful person attempting to lead sinful people toward the kingdom of God and holiness. We pray. We preach, teach, and lead. We work and re-work budgets. We fast. We comfort. We confront. In other words, we do everything we can to put our souls in jeopardy. We face temptations that other people face and then some more. We make bad decisions. We have blind spots where our friends are concerned. As Pope Leo the 12th said upon being elected, “You are consigning me to Hell.”
There is a phenomenon among clergy that I continue to witness. There are those members of the various orders who upon retirement begin to say “what they want to rather than what they have to.” Many of them attempt to set the church right when they no longer risk positions and consequently have no authority to do so. Some become wildly liberal in their theology and politics whereas beforehand they never said anything of the like. These are the kinds of hypocrites Jesus warned us not to become. And yet, our own insecurities are the excuse we give for becoming that person. Others believe the maintenance of the structures of the church systems are so important that we dare not let go. And then we are relieved of the burden to find loss in our souls. Why? Because God was never truly a part of the sinful focus of our lives.
Caring for the human soul is the work of God and humanity. Josef Ratzinger like many of our colleagues wanted the authority to make something happen. He did not wish to have the true care of souls. Now, like St. Thomas Aquinas, his tasks have ended so that he may pursue something greater. He can contemplate his “pilgrimage” with God and work on repairing his soul. How many of us have so many things to do and to hide that we no longer care for our own souls or can be qualified to care for the souls of others? How many of us lack the courage to prepare our selves for the time when we must decide to confront or to comfort and to know the different need?
We Protestants can learn this lesson. We knew it once. But, the world system of marketability, production, and relevance has helped us ignore the care of the soul. Martin Luther claimed he prayed for four hours every day. He had too much to do not to pray.
I hope the Emeritus Pope finds the solace he now seeks.