An extraordinary and moving General Audience and his meeting with cardinals: these were the last great public moments of Benedict XVI’s Pontificate. It is the first Pontificate in history to end so quietly, without the drama of the Bishop of Rome’s death, without the upheavals that led to papal renunciations in the past, so distant in time and so different that they cannot be considered as real precedents. Today the Roman Pontiff is staying in “a new way” beside the Lord on the Cross, whom he has never abandoned in the course of his long and extraordinarily fruitful life, which now opens, more so than before, to the space reserved for prayer and meditation.
Yes, Benedict remains in the Church, close to the Successor of Peter who will be chosen by the Cardinals. It is true, they are a group of men. Yet, in a mysterious way, they are enlivened by the breath of the Spirit and motivated by a unique sense of responsibility which the College has shown it can honour, as history — especially at the end of the 18th century — demonstrates. For this reason Joseph Ratzinger, in a certain way, has returned to his election, by meeting on the last day of his Pontificate that College, more numerous than ever, which voted him in on 19 April 2005 after a few hours, even though he had in no way sought the papacy. “The Church never dies”, the medieval theologian Egidio Romano wrote, theorizing that “papal authority endures during the vacancy of the See” in the cardinals gathered to elect the Pontiff.
Benedict XVI spoke in St Peter's Square — packed with people and shining in the late wintry sun — about the Conclave held eight years ago: “Lord, why are you asking this of me and what are you asking of me?” was the question that troubled his heart at that moment and that found a first answer on the lips of the Pope himself when he said at the inaugural Mass of his Pontificate that his programme was to listen, together with the whole Church to the will of the Lord every day. And for eight years Christ has guided the Pope, as he said, adding that he had never felt alone “in bearing the joy and burden” of a role that is unique in the world. And this is because “the Pope belongs to everyone and a great many people feel very close to him”.
Benedict XVI has experienced this closeness, also visibly, since 11 February when, in full freedom, he publicly announced his renunciation but he has been aware of this closeness every day in the eight years of a Pontificate whose greatness history will recognize. This greatness was not sought; it was imposed, and not only in a spiritual dimension.
The Pope, elected when he was already quite elderly, told Peter Seewald that down the ages great Popes had alternated with little Popes, specifying with simplicity and no affectation that he felt he was a little Pope, an instrument in God's hands. Yet for this very reason, not only Catholics, not only Christians, nor only believers, but men and women from around the world in large numbers have always understood that they had before them a Pope from the ranks of the greatest, a great man of our time.
And the renunciation itself, a serious and new act which some people do not understand, has shown to all the meek but staunch courage and joyful serenity of this man: indeed not once has Benedict xvi shrunk from the wolves and he has never let himself be overcome by distress in the face of filth and scandals which, on the contrary, he has opposed with determination. Supported by many co-workers, as he has repeated several times, but especially by the prayers that have been said for him in the Church, as they were for the Apostle Peter. And perhaps his joyous serenity — which comes from trust in God and thus shines visibly from his face — is the most enduring legacy of this Pope, who concludes an unforgettable Pontificate peacefully and in a new way.
St. Peter’s Square
Sept. 22, 2019
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