Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Legacy of Pope Benedict: Sanctifying

On this Third Sunday of Easter, on which we proclaim St. John's account of the Petrine Primacy, and the eve of Pope Benedict XVI's fifth anniversary as Bishop of Rome, it seems fitting to reflect at this time on the legacy (thus far) of the 265th Successor of Peter.

It must be said at the outset that the "performance" of the Roman Pontiff ought to be judged and analyzed primarily according to supernatural criteria, apart from which the papacy is unintelligible anyway. These supernatural criteria can be summarized by one proposition: The Pope is on Earth to help all men get to Heaven. He has no other task than that. Everything he does - from the most sublime dogmatic declaration to the most mundane diplomatic encounter - is ordered finally to the "feeding of the sheep." This is the response of the Universal Pastor to the Lord's question: "Do you love me?" It is his task in obedience to the direct command of the Shepherd and Guardian of our souls, Jesus Christ.

With this in mind, we will consider, in the following reflections on Pope Benedict's first five years, the Pope's legacy in relation to the three munera of his pastoral office: the sanctifying office of priest, the teaching office of prophet, and the governing office of king. Jesus Christ, in His sacred humanity, was Priest, Prophet, and King, and in these fundamental characteristics of His identity and mission the Church participates: his Vicar on Earth, in the first place, and all the baptized, each according to the nature and demands of his state in life. The activities associated with these munera, then, will serve as our primary ways of understanding and interpreting the pastoral work of Pope Benedict XVI over the past five years. In this way, we will be able to understand Pope Benedict according to the properly supernatural terms without which he cannot be understood in a Catholic way.

The primary duty of a priest is to sanctify his people. This is done through the sacraments of the Church - which Pope Benedict celebrates often for his people - and through the life of personal holiness of the priest, whereby he merits (congruously) actual graces for his flock by praying and doing penance for them. In this regard there can be no doubt: indeed, it is an almost-universally recognized certainty that we have in Pope Benedict another saintly Bishop of Rome who, like his holy predecessors, prays and suffers joyfully and generously each day out of love for his flock. This personal holiness is the center of the serenity and gentleness of Pope Benedict and it is the source of his spiritual strength as he lives out his sometimes-difficult pastoral duties as Supreme Pontiff.

The sanctifying office, as we said, has everything to do with the sacraments, which form, along with the Liturgy of the Hours and sacramentals, part of the Church's Sacred Liturgy. It is often said that the theology of Joseph Ratzinger cannot be understood apart from his view of the Sacred Liturgy and its central and irreplaceable location in the life of the Church. The same, it seems, can be said of the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI, for it is clear that the Pope has made the Liturgy a primary pastoral concern during these five years. In this way, it may be safely opined that he has begun to initiate what Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J., has called the "reform of the reform." Much has been written, including on this blog, about Pope Benedict's method of implementing this reform. He has led by example (e.g.: celebrating Mass ad orientem daily in his private chapel and, on occasion, in the Sistine Chapel, requiring kneeling and reception on the tongue for the distribution of Holy Communion, placing the crucifix in the center of the altar as the common focal point for priest and people, using seven altar candles, restoring the traditional papal crosier, wearing ancient vestments, making use of cardinal deacons, limiting concelebration to certain rare occasions, and many others) more than he has legislated substantive change (the universal indult for the Missal of 1962, the Roman Breviary, the Roman Ritual, etc. given in Summorum Pontificum). While there is still clarifying and implementing to be done (even at the "Vatican" level), Benedict's writings and addresses on the Sacred Liturgy (particularly Sacramentum Caritatis and his homilies at the Chrism Masses) have imparted to his brother priests and to all Christians his clear theological (and potentially juridical) vision of the Sacred Liturgy in the life of the Church.

It would be a mistake, however, to regard Pope Benedict's initiative in the reform of the Liturgy as either the indulgence of a religious aesthete or the rigidity of a religious traditionalist. Rather, his love for the Sacred Liturgy - and for the fullness of the ceremonial tradition of the Roman Church - flows from both his personal holiness and his deep theological conviction. Benedict XVI is a servant of the Church's tradition. He seeks not to impose an ideologically-skewed liturgical vision, but rather to affirm the perennial nature of the Roman Liturgy (which can, indeed, be temporarily corrupted "on the ground" by sinful or misguided human beings). In this, he is both a proponent of the primacy of the "spirit of the Liturgy" and the importance of the "organic development of the Roman Rite." For him, the Liturgy is primarily about the interior life of the Christian, such that, in the famous saying of Evelyn Waugh, "only God knows who is participating at Mass." And far from an ossified expression of one particular era, he views the Church's rites as a living tradition, developing from within, however, according to their own Apostolically-endowed logic.

This is Part One of a three-part series celebrating the fifth anniversary of the elevation to the Chair of Peter of Pope Benedict XVI. Parts Two (on teaching) and Three (on governing) will follow in the days to come.


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