BY MARK JOHNSON
The resignation of Pope Benedict xvi did a great service to the Church and also to Christianity.
This one act – regardless of speculation as to the reasons why – has enabled all of the People of God to once again sense the true ground upon which the papacy rests, and without which has no meaning whatsoever.
For too long the papacy had become a comforting and self-referential idol, more akin to secular notions of power such as monarchy than that relationship between Christ and ‘Peter’. Pope Benedict’s resignation did more to challenge the orderings of secularism than any of his literary efforts and speeches.
The pontificate of John Paul II did much to disguise the true ground of papal authority. There is no doubting his personal charisma. I experienced this myself when I went to the 1986 papal mass at Randwick racecourse in Sydney, and by sheer fluke – or not – came face to pope-mobiled face with Pope John Paul and the-then cardinal whilst circumnavigating the side-streets so to avoid the massive crowds, post-event. But that’s another story.
Simply to say that it was of no surprise that a figure like Karol Wojtyla could not only command the almost militaristic fervour of loyalists, as exhibited at such banner-waving World Youth Day events as at Czestochowa, but generate fascination and fervour across the globe. With an unerring instinct for the theatre of the moment, he managed to harvest popular culture’s energy for much of his pontificate.
In the eyes of the world, such a pope as John Paul was the Church. And for the faithful, he was the strong father that our cultivated fears and immaturity in such an uncertain world needed.
So what of the papacy of Benedict? He has been described as a ‘teaching pope’ who has left much incomplete. A papacy dwarfed by that of its predecessor.
Hopes are now expressed for a more ‘political pope’, perhaps one more media savvy, and certainly one who has the energy and focus to cleanse the Vatican and ecclesial structures of power. Secular priorities urgently swirl across our screens and consciousness.
But Benedict has achieved something that John Paul was not capable of: he stripped the papacy of its ‘Wizard of Oz’ role in the world, stripped it of its idolatry, and returned it to the icon that it most truly is.
How can the Church confront the ‘No Exit’ of an increasingly desperate secularism if the authority upon which its teaching mission lies becomes so misunderstood that the papacy becomes little more than just another vehicle for exotic celebrity? As trapped within the secular as any other idol of fascination? The subtleties of engagement with a spiritually immature and demanding world have compelled men to act the role of pope.
But the flights from the mundane truths of actual life and of Grace are inexhaustible. One man cannot perform so effectively to keep such a restless audience focussed, entertained – and ultimately distracted.
By stepping aside from the confected aura of a secular model of papacy, we see just a man, one that we formally knew as Joseph Ratzinger.
It is not a matter of ‘the king is dead, long live the king’, or of a political office that simply exists as its own end. It is not monarchy, presidency, or prime-ministership and their worldly authority that is the model here.
With the pope standing aside, we encounter that ground upon which the very mission of the Church lies – beyond the ownership of one person, one office and structure, and most especially beyond power as celebrated by the world and too often by the secular Church: an encounter with Jesus of Nazareth, ritually outcast and unique revelation of the God of widows and orphans.
The authority given by the friend of sinners so to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God to the poor and that, too, which casts the mighty from their thrones and sends the rich away empty, is what Benedict’s standing aside has let be seen again.
Benedict has shown himself to be only a man, and the papacy only an office, both too easily prone to being mirrors of the world’s voracious need for violence and self-assertion.
He has stepped aside so that we can again glimpse that which alone inspires and sustains faith, hope, love and purpose. With this resignation, we have all been drawn into a space of uncertainty. We are again invited to ‘come and see’, and to relinquish our certainties so to again trust.
This resignation was truly the action of a Vicar of Christ.
Mark Johnson teaches in the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, where he is a PhD candidate.
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