Yesterday, speaking quietly in Latin, Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation. Within minutes the world was awash with speculation. First, was it true? Then, what was the real reason for his resignation? And finally, what were the implications for the Church? It was the best-kept secret of the digital age, but once it was out it spread like wildfire. Everyone became an instant expert on the papacy and began broadcasting their little nuggets of knowledge to all and sundry.
Anyone who saw the video of the pope making his announcement must surely have concluded that what the pope said was actually true: at 85 he is feeling the burden of his years and believes he can best serve the Church by making way for another. The voice was a little indistinct, the Latin phrases a trifle slurred, as though reading his prepared statement was an effort. It was, however, a typically clear and charitable statement, marked with the personal humility which has been so much a feature of Benedict XVI’s pontificate. He is, first and foremost, a scholar pope, with all the strengths and some of the weaknesses that implies.
Inevitably, some looked back to the occasion in 2009 when Benedict XVI laid his pallium on the tomb of Celestine V and wondered whether it was more than a pious gesture, a hint of what was to come; others, myself among them, noted that the resignation statement had been signed on 10 February, feast of St Scholastica (St Benedict’s twin sister, a model of prayer), released on 11 February, feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, the Day of the Sick, and timed so that a new pope could be in place by Holy Week, the Great Week of the Church’s liturgical year. A scholar pope, alert to the significance of history and liturgy, is quite capable of holding all these things in mind, but I believe the statement Benedict XVI issued is probably the simplest and least crafted of all his writings. It is the statement of a man who must answer to God not only for his own soul but also for the soul of every other member of the Church. Sometimes, people say exactly what they mean, especially when their true audience is God.
Today is Shrove Tuesday, so I shall resist the temptation to dredge up my own selection of facts and fancies and concentrate instead on how I see the link between yesterday’s announcement and the holy season we are about to celebrate.
We were powerfully reminded yesterday that the Church is a universal institution. How small and sometimes silly looked the ‘national’ reactions of some individuals, the vapid theorising about who the next pope ‘should’ be and the agenda the commentator would like to see being pursued! Lent is a reminder that salvation is not just about us. Our Lenten observance is not an arrangement between the two superpowers (God and us), it is something of truly cosmic significance: it involves others and unites past, present and future. We may think that what we are doing concerns our own personal salvation and nothing more, but that is an impossibility. We journey to God together, as a people, as a Church; so our personal penances, our attempts to make up for the negligences of other times, our turning away from sin, are all part of this greater movement towards God. That is one reason why our living Lent as well as we can is so important. What we do affects others.
We were also reminded yesterday of the importance of prayer, charity and gratitude in the life of every Christian. The penances we have chosen for ourselves this Lent may be dangerous. They may make us smug and self-satisfied if we are able to persevere with them, or conversely, they may make us cantankerous or depressed if we can’t. The penances God chooses to send us, however, won’t be dangerous at all. They will open us up to the mystery of his being in a way that nothing of our own devising ever could. They will evoke prayer and charity, if we accept them in the right way; they will stretch us, confound us, make us grow. The question is, are we ready for them, prepared to welcome them with gratitude? If we spend the forty days of Lent listening for the voice of the Lord in everything, prepared to embrace his will in everything, however contrary, we shall make a good Lent — but it won’t be a bit like what we had intended. It will be so much bigger.
One further point from yesterday that applies to Lent. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of his desire to continue serving the Church though a life of prayer. Every Christian life should be a life of prayer, but we are apt to make it very complicated. During Lent we Benedictines return to a primitive mode of monastic existence. One of the things we do is read through a book of the Bible in a very simple way. The books are assigned by the superior (i.e. not chosen by ourselves) and read straight through as lectio divina (i.e. slowly and prayerfully, without recourse to a 1,001 interpretative articles or commentaries). For the academically inclined, that can be quite hard. It isn’t a case of laying aside our critical faculties in favour of becoming holy asparagus, more a case of attuning our ear to a different kind of speech, of slowing down, becoming less busy.
So, instead of reading a whole host of good books about prayer, try spending a few more minutes in silence before the Lord. Instead of devouring a library on the subject of scripture, read scripture itself, but do so in a more reflective manner, chewing over the words until you find one that stays with you through the day. Make this Lent one in which you come to know the Lord; and remember, you can only do so in his way, and at a moment of his choosing.
In community, I assign books of the bible to our oblates and associates at the beginning of Lent. If you would like me to assign one to you, please email or use the contact form at the head of this site.