When he emerged for his final general audience five years ago, Benedict XVI seemed taken aback. Struck by the size and warmth of the crowd in St Peter’s Square, he said: “I am truly moved and I see the Church alive!” Those words recalled his inaugural Mass, in 2005, when he reflected on the momentous last days of John Paul II. “It became wonderfully evident to us,” he said, “that the Church is alive – and the Church is young.”
These joyful exclamations challenge the widely held view of Benedict XVI as a pessimist. According to this caricature, he saw darkness descending over the world (especially Europe) and thought that only a smaller and purer Church could resist the coming barbarism. And yet at these crucial moments in his pontificate, he cried out with joy at the Church’s youth and vigour.
It is easy to sum up Benedict’s pontificate in numbers. The 265th pope reigned for eight years, wrote three encyclicals, made 24 trips outside Italy, canonised 45 saints and became the first pontiff to resign since Gregory XII in 1415. These figures don’t tell us the whole story, of course. To understand his legacy more deeply, it is worth reading his final general audience address. Two comments, in particular, stand out. In the first, he implicitly denied that he had resigned because he lacked trust in providence. On the contrary, he said, “At this moment I feel great confidence, because I know, we all know, that the Gospel word of truth is the Church’s strength, it is her life. The Gospel purifies and renews, it bears fruit, wherever the community of believers hears it and receives God’s grace in truth and charity. This is my confidence, this is my joy.” These words expressed his lifelong conviction that the Church draws all its vitality from the Gospel. When it is true to the Gospel, the Church flourishes; when it lacks faith, it withers.
His second observation was that, no matter what trials the Church endures, the Lord will never cease guiding it. “I have felt,” he said, “like St Peter with the Apostles in the boat on the Sea of Galilee: the Lord has given us so many days of sun and of light winds, days when the catch was abundant; there were also moments when the waters were rough and the winds against us, as throughout the Church’s history, and the Lord seemed to be sleeping. But I have always known that the Lord is in that boat, and I have always known that the barque of the Church is not mine but his.”
The belief that “the Church is not mine but his” propelled a naturally shy man into conflict with some of the most forceful personalities of the age. Benedict would not accept – indeed, in conscience could not accept – that the Church was an infinitely malleable institution which should give way wherever it clashed with modern mores. And yet, he was not, as his enemies insisted, seeking to “turn back the clock” to the pre-conciliar era. He developed a subtle theory, which he called a “hermeneutic of reform” and “of renewal in the continuity of the one subject– Church”, to explain how Catholicism could flourish in a rapidly changing world while remaining true to its tradition.
These two great ideas – that growth comes from fidelity to the Gospel, and the Church is not ours but God’s – galvanised many during Benedict XVI’s relatively brief pontificate. In his rare public statements since his resignation, he has expanded on these themes. When he finally falls silent, they will continue to inspire Catholics for decades to come.
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