I had just finished another mediocre cafeteria meal when I stopped by a television in the student center. On the screen was a smokestack and a few wisps of white smoke. I vaguely recalled that this was some sort of signal (however meager compared to the bat signal) that a new pope had been elected.
I waited there, and others slowly joined me.
And when most of them walked away despondent, I knew something substantial had just happened.
This was nearly 8 years ago. I was fresh off my re-version to the faith, a kid who paid little attention to religion class during years of Catholic school (and honestly, nobody did), who didn’t really understand why anyone would want to go to see an old man moved about Toronto in an odd motorized vehicle, and who made fun of anyone who outwardly displayed any sort of religious sentiment.
Then, that freshman year of college, I encountered Christ, or better said, finally allowed Christ, the Truth, in to my life.
That Spring, I was also fresh off of realizing that the Church wasn’t this fluffy little thing on a felt banner – go figure. In fact, it is comprised of human beings who could be quite divisive, and often were. There was this stuff called conservative Catholicism and other stuff known as liberal or even “liberation theology.” It was all quite new to me. What I did know is that my fundamentals of religious studies class was anti-Catholic, and that I sensed that notion all around.
And I hated it.
So I loved this new Pope who was called the Vatican Watchdog, and who cracked down on heretics with the full weight of the Church’s doctrine. I especially loved this new Pope because he made my religious studies teacher squirm and the campus ministry department freak out – as “he wasn’t into liberation theology.”
At that time, I didn’t realize the danger (and error) of the polarized p
olitical tension within the Church (liberal vs. conservative). I also didn’t really know this Ratzinger guy, just what the media was saying about him. And, I didn’t understand the fullness and beauty of Vatican II – I just despised its “spirit.”
I was all about a crusade…a personal attempt to identify and crush the liberal agenda in the Church. And, I had a new Pope who would lead the way.
This way of thinking about the Church could only last so long, because human ambition runs dry when lacking communion with Christ and the will of God.
This is exactly what the Pope taught me.
As I spent more and more time reading his stuff, I discovered a man with a profound intellect, and insatiable desire for the truth, and a deep love for the Church and her teachings (i.e. age old orthodoxy as opposed to vapid and fleeting ideology). In short, I discovered a man who was far more in love with Christ than he was a ruthless watchdog who gave heretics the boot. In fact, it was his love of Christ whom he encountered in the Church that gave him the strength and courage to be able to confront the modern mentality, the dictatorship of relativism, and the secular ideology within the Church, in order to bring the fullness Gospel to the modern world so desperately in need.
I saw the Pope as less of a commander-and-chief, and more a true father in the faith.
He led me with his gestures, his ecumenical presence, his courage, and his patience. He led me because he encountered Christ and he testified to that Fact before the world. And, he leads me now in one of the most profound acts of humility I have ever witnessed:
“After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours.”
Though filled with a certain sadness upon hearing this news yesterday, I was more than awestruck at the courage this man has in recognizing his capacity and in following God’s will. In our utilitarian culture, how often do we see this type of humility?
This single action, this final gesture, recapitulates this entire journey that I have had with the Pope: he is a man of tremendous courage, and remarkable humility. His concern is not about taking out a political enemy, but bowing before and abiding in the Truth that encounters us and sets us free. His concern is not with lofty ideology or staunch moralism, but “the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”