Next week many parish churches will be holding special services of thanksgiving to mark the end of the reign of Benedict XVI. In the past the end of Pope’s reign was marked by Requiem Masses and a funeral in Rome; but not this time. Now, for the first time ever, we can thank the Lord for all he has given us in the Papal reign now drawing to a close, without having to mark the death of a Pope.
So, what has Benedict given us? It is still to early to talk about what politicians call “legacy”, and Benedict is a pastor not a politician, but there are several things that he has left us which perhaps have changed the Church permanently for the better, and which we can keep in mind when we recite the Te Deum at the end of the month.
The first must be the Ordinariate. Benedict has been called the Pope of Christian Unity, and so he is. He has brought into unity a substantial stream of tradition that was diverted away from it at the Reformation. He has, in an important way, reintegrated part of the Body of Christ. The numbers in the Ordinariate are small, for the moment, but the principle it establishes is of incalculable value, and the ordinariates around the world will grow.
The second great achievement must be, though this may seem paradoxical, the negotiations with the Society of Saint Pius X. These have shown that the Pope has been devoted to rescuing the wandering sheep. These sheep in particular, unlike the Anglo-Catholics, have refused to be rescued, but chosen to stay outside the Roman fold. In so doing they consign themselves to oblivion, and they absolve both Church and Pope of the blame for their predicament. For in taking such time to negotiate with the SSPX, Pope Benedict has proven beyond reasonable doubt that the Society is not Catholic, despite its protestations to the contrary. Ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia.
While changing the Church’s relations with those outside, Benedict has also changed the atmosphere inside the Church too. He has placed huge and correct emphasis on the Liturgy, on the dignity of celebration, and on the importance of music. This is something that those who follow him will not be able to undo: there can be no “de-Ratzingerization”, for we have now all seen the way that the Liturgy can be celebrated, and having seen that, why should anyone want to go back to the old ways? A rising tide lifts all keels. Every parish in the English-speaking world is affected by the new translation of the Roman Missal and must be aware of the renewed interest in the ars celebrandi.
As a sign of this third great achievement, look at the status of the Extraordinary Form. It is now mainstream. It is no longer a relic, but part of the living tradition of the Church. People are now beginning to take more of an interest in liturgy – people, rather than liturgical experts. Benedict has inaugurated an era where the Church is becoming a liturgically literate Church.
Fourthly, the Pope has addressed much of his teaching towards the Old Continent, Europe. This does not mean he is not interested in the Americas or Africa or Asia; what it does mean is that he has an acute historical sense: the battle for Christianity was lost in Europe, and will be won again in Europe. The great defeat in the centuries following the French Revolution does not mean that we leave the field, but rather that this field needs to be reconquered. Just as the deChristianisation of Europe took centuries, so will its reChristianisation take many years. But for the Faith, there are no hopeless places, no no-go areas. In tackling secularisation and in refusing to accept defeat, Benedict has put new heart into the Church.
Finally, the Pope has shown us by his personal example how we are to deal with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. The enemies of the Church and the enemies of God are everywhere, even in the Vatican itself, as the Vatileaks scandal showed us. The importance of loyalty and discipline must not be underestimated; neither must the importance of courage. We must be prepared for storms to come. Benedict goes off into peaceful retirement, which is well-deserved; his successor will not be given an easy ride, but the courage of Benedict shows us the importance of holding firm, having faith, and not being intimidated.
For these reasons, and for many others, I, along with countless others, will be thanking God for Pope Benedict on Thursday night.