Sunday, March 03, 2013

On "Being Released" – From the Pope-Emeritus, A Final Angelus

Before anything else, well, this Sunday morning just felt rather strange – even, indeed, amid the context of these last 20 days.

(Side-note: has it really been just 20 days since all this began?)

For the last eight years, see, every day here – whatever the season; whether at home or on the road – has begun the same way: wake up, and even before getting out of bed, reach for (depending on the evolution of the tools) the laptop, phone or iPad and find out what the day would look like by logging into the Bollettino to see what B16 was up to... because, as often as not, one of its contents would quickly turn these pages' best-laid plans on their head.

And now, all of a sudden, we don't have that anymore – the Chair of Peter is vacant, "His Fluffiness" is Pope-emeritus, and the eyes of the church and the wider world rightly turn toward the future. Still, at least on this end, only this morning did it fully "hit," because whatever would or wouldn't happen on any given day, even during those long summer stretches when all the rest would grind to a halt, without fail, every Sunday would bring the Angelus – the Pope's bite-sized meditations on the day's Gospel, a two-minute talk which often nailed the reading better than much of the weekend's preaching elsewhere.

Beyond a doubt, Benedict reveled mightily in these – if he didn't, the authorities of his Alpine holiday destinations in the early years wouldn't have needed to scramble to find the small rustic pavilions or outdoor stages nestled in forests where Papa Ratzi sought to keep up his Sunday "classroom" on those July weekends, lingering around afterward to greet the locals who showed up. 

For all the controversies, the drama, the struggles of these last years, for those of us who experienced the last pontificate day by day, moments like those are the ones we'll miss most.

Even for the fatigue and decline that spurred him to resign the papacy for the first time in centuries, for one who's an emblematic creature of Teutonic routine and order, it wouldn't be a surprise if B16 himself felt something off there was no window to go to today, no crowd to meet for the first time in over 400 Sundays. 

Still, that doesn't mean he can't have just one last word – in its way, a prophecy of what would follow, and a rare public thought on his least favorite topic to speak of: himself.

On 6 August 1978, Paul VI had written what would become an eerie reflection for his Angelus on Transfiguration Day, one which would only emerge following his death that night. While there's no precise parallel to that here, the most fitting thing seems to be a rewind back to 1997, and the closing passages of Milestones – the memoir then-Cardinal Ratzinger was urged to publish on the 30th anniversary of his ordination as archbishop of Munich.

Four years after the original event, of course, Joseph Ratzinger would be called to Rome. And now – after 32 years at center-stage in the global church – with his departure, the last great active figure to have a role at the Council has left the scene, resigning an office whose ascent to which he once compared to "the guillotine"... but, most of all, taking his leave in the way he had wished for so long.

For all the analyses of the last two Roman pontiffs – and everything we've seen over these weeks – the most accurate assessment came early on in Benedict's reign when Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the onetime Spanish bullfighter who ran John Paul II's media operation, mused that the Polish Pope was "a Pope of images," while his successor was "a Pope of words."

In that light, the following was already queued up to run as Thursday wound down, but the images of the day were just too powerful in speaking for themselves. 

Still, on our first Sunday without B16 – with immense thanks for these eight years, with all affection and prayers as our Fluffo begins "the last stage of [his] journey"... and in the most personal of ways, with this scribe's eternal gratitude for the most priceless and meaningful gift of my ecclesial life – we'd simply be remiss to let him go without his long-ago reflection on "the portrayal of my destiny," one whose fulfillment has now come to pass.....
"[Before my ordination as a bishop], there was the prayer before the Pillar of Our Lady in the heart of the Bavarian capital, the encounter with so many people who were welcoming this unknown person with a heartfelt warmth and joy that could not possibly have had to do with me personally but that once again showed me what a sacrament is: I was being greeted as bishop, as bearer of the Mystery of Christ, even if the majority were not explicitly conscious of this. The joy of the day was something really different from approval of a particular person, whose qualifications still had to be demonstrated. It was joy over the fact that this office, this service, was again present in a person who does not act and live for himself but for Him and therefore for all.  
This episcopal consecration brings me into the present period of my life. For the present is not a specific date but the Now of a human life. And this Now can be long or very short. For me, the Now of my life is still determined by what began in the cathedral in Munich that day with the laying on of hands for my consecration as bishop. This is why I cannot write any memoirs about it but can only attempt to fill in this Now. 
What am I to say at the conclusion of this biographical sketch? As my episcopal motto I selected the phrase from the Third Letter of John, “Co-worker of the Truth” [Cooperatores Veritatis]. For one, it seemed to be the connection between my previous task as teacher and my new mission. Despite all the differences in modality, what is involved was and remains the same: to follow the truth, to be at its service. And, because in today’s world the theme of truth has all but disappeared, because truth appears to be too great for man and yet everything falls apart if there is no truth, for these reasons this motto also seemed timely in the good sense of the word. For about a thousand years the coat of arms of the bishops of Freising has borne a crowned Moor, but no one is quite sure what it means. For me it is a sign of the universality of the Church, which knows no distinction of races or classes, since all of us “are one” in Christ (Gal 3:28).  
I selected for myself two additional symbols. The first of these was the shell, which first of all is simply a sign of our pilgrimage, of our being on the road: “We have here no lasting city.” But it also reminded me of the legend according to which one day Augustine, pondering the mystery of the Trinity, saw a child at the seashore playing with a shell, trying to put the water of the ocean into a little hole. Then he heard the words: This hole can no more contain the waters of the ocean than your intellect can comprehend the mystery of God. Thus, for me the shell points to my great master, Augustine, to my own theological work, and to the greatness of the mystery that extends farther than all our knowledge. 
The second symbol was the bear, which I took from the legend of Corbinian, founder-bishop of Freising. The story has it that, on the way to Rome, a bear tore the saint’s horse to pieces. Then Corbinian reprimanded the bear sternly for its crime and as punishment loaded on it the pack that the horse had been carrying. The bear had to haul the pack all the way to Rome, and only there was it released by the saint. The bear weighed down with the saint’s burden reminded me of one of Saint Augustine’s meditations on the Psalms. In verses 22 and 23 of Psalm 72 (73), he saw expressed both the burden and the hope of his life. What he finds in these verses and then comments is like a self-portrait, made before the face of God, and therefore not just a pious thought but an exegesis of his life and a light upon his road.
What Augustine writes in this connection became for me a portrayal of my own destiny. This psalm from the wisdom tradition shows the straits of faith that comes from the absence of earthly success. When you stand on the side of God, you do not necessarily stand on the side of success. Good fortune often seems to pamper precisely the cynics. How are we to understand this? The psalmist finds the answer by standing before God, in whose presence he grasps the ultimate insignificance of material wealth and success and recognizes what is truly necessary and what brings salvation. “Ut iumentum factus sum apud te et ego semper tecum.” Modern translations render the passage like this: “When my heart was bewildered. . . , I was stupid and ignorant, I was like a dumb beast before you. And yet I am always with you.” Augustine understood the word “beast” somewhat differently. The Latin word iumentum referred primarily to draft animals used for farmwork in the fields, and here he sees an image of himself under the burden of his episcopal service: “A draft animal am I before you, for you, and this is precisely how I abide with you.” He had chosen the life of a scholar, but God had chosen to make him into a “draft animal”—a good, sturdy ox to pull God’s cart in this world. How often did he protest vehemently against all the trifles that continually blocked his path and kept him from the great spiritual and intellectual work he knew to be his deepest calling! But this is where the psalm helps him avoid all bitterness: “Yes, indeed, I have become a draft animal, a beast of burden, an ox—and yet this is just the way in which I am with you, serving you, just the way in which you keep me in your hand.” Just as the draft animal is closest to the farmer, doing his work for him, so is Augustine closest to God precisely through such humble service, completely within God’s hand, completely his instrument. He could not be closer to his Lord or be more important to him. The laden bear that took the place of Saint Corbinian’s horse, or rather donkey—the bear that became his donkey against its will: Is this not an image of what I should do and of what I am? “A beast of burden have I become for you, and this is just the way for me to remain wholly yours and always abide with you.”  
What else could I say in detail about my years as a bishop? It is said of Corbinian that, once in Rome, he again released the bear to its freedom. The legend is not concerned about whether it went up into the Abruzzi or returned to the Alps. In the meantime I have carried my load to Rome and have now been wandering the streets of the Eternal City for a long time. I do not know when I will be released, but one thing I do know: that the exclamation applies to me too: “I have become your donkey, and in just this way am I with you.”
Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariae....