Benedict XVI is still a presence in the life of the Church. This is extraordinary for so many reasons.
Most Catholics assumed that he would be silent by now, either because he had retreated into Trappist silence or because, to employ a gentle euphemism, he was “no longer with us”. Instead, he is planning a final interview and in the past few days has been publicly declaring his loyalty to the Pope.
The nature of his latest comments, in effect trying to make life easier for his successor, should reassure any Catholics worried that Benedict in retirement would emerge as an “alternative pope” – and annoy ultra-traditionalists who had hoped that he would play this (non-existent) role.
We have been hearing from “Father Benedict”, as he likes to be known, rather than His Holiness Benedict XVI the Pope Emeritus, the cumbersome and confusing title with which he left office. This by now very elderly man is still in full possession of his faculties; he is putting them at the service of the Petrine ministry of Francis, which he upholds with special authority as an ex-pope but in which he does not share.
The question remains, however: are Benedict’s continuing if very occasional public statements intended exclusively to smooth Francis’s path? That seems unlikely. The Pope Emeritus wants to safeguard his legacy. Whether that legacy includes seeing off a “gay lobby” in the Vatican, as he now rather oddly maintains, is difficult to say. We would have a clearer idea if we could read the diaries that Benedict kept as pope; but he now says he is going to destroy them – probably wisely, despite the loss to future historians.
What we can say with confidence is that Joseph Ratzinger, one of the greatest theologians of our age, used his pontificate to deepen and enrich his thinking about man’s proper relationship to God, especially with respect to worship. Having been compelled by physical frailty to vacate the See of Peter, Benedict is justifiably anxious to preserve his gifts to the Church.
And he has been able to do so, with not just the support but the encouragement of the Pope. It is under Francis that we have seen – to pick just two examples from many – the appointment of Cardinal Robert Sarah to develop Benedict-inspired liturgies throughout the world, and here in England the foundation of the Benedict XVI Centre at St Mary’s University to explore and implement the ideas of this great pontiff. Had Benedict died or disappeared, these things might not have been possible; his quiet but productive retirement is a blessing indeed.
Unleashing God’s dogs
The Dominicans are on the move. Having recently started a number of “very small communities”, the English province is now focusing on fewer, but bigger ones. “A stronger, more Dominican community life,” they say, is “necessary in order to support the flourishing of the men and their mission.” In recent years, the Dominicans had taken on lots of responsibilities – but “a strain was being felt”.
The Dominicans are, in other words, playing to their strengths. It’s often been noted that the rise in Dominican vocations reflects two things: the attraction to community life, and the appeal of an apostolic vocation. (The same could be said of the Oratorians, who are also expanding.)
The Dominicans are now saying, in effect, that the two are linked: to do their apostolic work well, they need strong communities.
Religious orders are meant to be countercultural, and though this decision may look like a quiet reorganisation, it speaks volumes about the value of community life.
The amount politicians talk about “communities” only demonstrates that genuine community has become rarer and rarer. Britain is the loneliness capital in Europe, according to a 2014 study. Fewer than 60 per cent of us feel we know people in our community well, compared with nearly 80 per cent of Spaniards.
And while the problem greatly afflicts the elderly, the Mental Health Foundation says that it worries 18-34 year-olds even more.
In a world where being busy is a status symbol and individuals are ever more solitary, the Dominicans have chosen to build up community, rather than fragmenting, so as to achieve as many different things as possible.
In 1934, Ronald Knox told a congregation full of Dominicans that they should bring the virtues of the medieval age into the 20th century: “Your continuous tradition must link us with our past, if we are to find refuge from this over-mechanised, over-commercialised age; like a shaft bringing the fresh airs of the sea into a subway station.”
As the Dominicans celebrate their 800th year, their decision is a small reminder that community was something else the past did well, and that Catholics, clerical and lay, have a role in building it amid a lonely, competitive society.
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