When he emerged for his final general audience five years ago, Benedict XVI seemed taken aback. Struck by the size and warmth of the crowd in St Peter’s Square, he said: “I am truly moved and I see the Church alive!” Those words recalled his inaugural Mass, in 2005, when he reflected on the momentous last days of John Paul II. “It became wonderfully evident to us,” he said, “that the Church is alive – and the Church is young.”
These joyful exclamations challenge the widely held view of Benedict XVI as a pessimist. According to this caricature, he saw darkness descending over the world (especially Europe) and thought that only a smaller and purer Church could resist the coming barbarism. And yet at these crucial moments in his pontificate, he cried out with joy at the Church’s youth and vigour.
It is easy to sum up Benedict’s pontificate in numbers. The 265th pope reigned for eight years, wrote three encyclicals, made 24 trips outside Italy, canonised 45 saints and became the first pontiff to resign since Gregory XII in 1415. These figures don’t tell us the whole story, of course. To understand his legacy more deeply, it is worth reading his final general audience address. Two comments, in particular, stand out. In the first, he implicitly denied that he had resigned because he lacked trust in providence. On the contrary, he said, “At this moment I feel great confidence, because I know, we all know, that the Gospel word of truth is the Church’s strength, it is her life. The Gospel purifies and renews, it bears fruit, wherever the community of believers hears it and receives God’s grace in truth and charity. This is my confidence, this is my joy.” These words expressed his lifelong conviction that the Church draws all its vitality from the Gospel. When it is true to the Gospel, the Church flourishes; when it lacks faith, it withers.
His second observation was that, no matter what trials the Church endures, the Lord will never cease guiding it. “I have felt,” he said, “like St Peter with the Apostles in the boat on the Sea of Galilee: the Lord has given us so many days of sun and of light winds, days when the catch was abundant; there were also moments when the waters were rough and the winds against us, as throughout the Church’s history, and the Lord seemed to be sleeping. But I have always known that the Lord is in that boat, and I have always known that the barque of the Church is not mine but his.”
The belief that “the Church is not mine but his” propelled a naturally shy man into conflict with some of the most forceful personalities of the age. Benedict would not accept – indeed, in conscience could not accept – that the Church was an infinitely malleable institution which should give way wherever it clashed with modern mores. And yet, he was not, as his enemies insisted, seeking to “turn back the clock” to the pre-conciliar era. He developed a subtle theory, which he called a “hermeneutic of reform” and “of renewal in the continuity of the one subject– Church”, to explain how Catholicism could flourish in a rapidly changing world while remaining true to its tradition.
These two great ideas – that growth comes from fidelity to the Gospel, and the Church is not ours but God’s – galvanised many during Benedict XVI’s relatively brief pontificate. In his rare public statements since his resignation, he has expanded on these themes. When he finally falls silent, they will continue to inspire Catholics for decades to come.
Paul VI will be canonised later this year, according to Pope Francis. Announcing this news to the priests of the Rome diocese, Francis remarked that two recent popes, John XXIII and John Paul II, were already canonised, while John Paul I’s Cause for beatification had opened. “And Benedict and I are on the waiting list,” he joked. “Pray for us!”
Joking apart, the recent trend of canonising popes does make some Catholics uncomfortable. Historically, very few popes have been raised to the altars. That the last four deceased popes should be saints is highly unusual. Canonisation should not be seen as some sort of posthumous honour, akin to the deification accorded Roman emperors. Moreover, a considerable period of time generally needs to pass before one can fully evaluate a pope’s reign. In addition, recent papal canonisations could give the false impression that Catholics somehow idolise the papacy, which would confirm the worst suppositions of our Orthodox and Protestant brethren.
Nevertheless, the canonisation of Pope Paul VI should be a cause of joy for the Church. Blessed Paul has already shown himself to be a powerful intercessor in heaven, having recently brought about the healing of an unborn child in the fifth month of pregnancy. The mother, originally from the province of Verona, had an illness that risked her own life and the life of her unborn child, and was advised to have an abortion. A few days after the beatification of Paul VI on October 19, 2014, she went to pray to him at the Shrine of Holy Mary of Grace in Brescia. The baby girl was later born in good health, and remains healthy today. This miracle should be a powerful symbol to the people of today of the sanctity of life in the womb.
Paul VI will always be the pope of Humanae Vitae. His canonisation should draw people to consider once more the wisdom of that encyclical, whose 50th anniversary falls this year, and help the Church to deepen its appreciation of the enduring value of his teaching.
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