Unless you have been on another planet, you will know that this week Washington, D.C. will welcome an important guest. For a city accustomed as it is to greeting significant persons, from those renowned for acts of heroism, academic ability, or sporting prowess, to heads of state (I believe the King of Spain dropped by 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue this week), there is a surprising amount of excitement as we prepare for the arrival of Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, on Tuesday. In an interview this week, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, in his capacity as the President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, underlined why this might be so: “The Holy Father,” he said, “comes as a pastor”. How true this is. As the Successor of Saint Peter, to whom Christ entrusted the power of binding and loosing hand-in-hand with the command to “feed my sheep”, the Holy Father stands in the shoes of the fisherman and as such is bound to exercise the pastoral office given him as the shepherd or pastor of the whole of Christ’s flock (Jn 21). As Peter was girded about and led to martyrdom, so his successors are called to set aside their own life in service of the universal Church as “the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful” (LG 23).
One of the most significant changes in the lives of those who have become Catholics, particularly through the gift of the ordinariates, is the beautiful realization of what it means to be fully a part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Christ. These four characteristics, inseparably linked with each other, ‘indicate essential features of the Church and her mission’, and so are necessary for us to correctly identify, in order to find the authentic Christian life in all its fullness, and thus the path to our salvation. United to our Redeemer through baptism, Christians are incorporated into his mystical body, the Church, in order that we might share in his passion, death, and resurrection. Our communion with God is made a reality by this very union with him in Christ, and thus his mystical body, first through the waters of the sacred font, and then by our continuing reliance on grace in the sacramental life of the Church. Our union with the Church is a sign and instrument of our communion with God, which is why—as an example—we confess our sins to a Priest; because our reconciliation to communion with God is by and through his holy Church.
John Allen has pointed out that Pope Benedict’s last address to the College of Cardinals this morning made direct reference to the writings of the twentieth century theologian, Romano Guardini. On a number of occasions Benedict XVI has included Guardini’s work in his own, not least in the title of his book as Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, which is also the title of one of Guardini’s central works. This morning, though, it was Guardini’s emphasis on the mystical nature of the Church (no doubt influenced as much by Pius XII’s Mystici Corporis as by Lumen Gentium) which the Pope chose to propose.
In her recent article, The Pope and the Philistines, Australian theologian Tracey Rowland reflected on the way in which Pope Benedict – negatively portrayed as a conservative, by some – has in fact sought to distance himself from the ‘administrative machinery’ of the Church. Instead, as this week, proposing the Church as ‘a living reality’, or ‘a living body, a community of brothers and sisters in the Body of Jesus Christ’ (General Audience, 27 February 2013). Emphasising not the structure the world sees, but the person into whom the baptised are incorporated.
Professor Rowland reminds us that in Called to Communion, the then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, ‘The more administrative machinery we construct […] the less place there is for the Spirit, the less place there is for the Lord, and the less freedom there is’. In many respects, we have seen this approach – a light-touch institutional bureaucracy – very clearly in his pontificate, and especially in his proposals for liturgical reform, each of which has been by personal example rather than institutional decree. If this has limited the implementation, then it is has – at least as much – enabled it to be a deep reform and renewal where it has found fertile soil.
It is typical of Benedict to leave us with this thought, because it reminds us again that not only is the office that he will soon leave not about him, but that the Church – and thus her mission – is not about us, rather (because it is fundamentally his body), it is about Jesus Christ. Again and again we have seen this in Pope Benedict’s writings and in his own life, and now in these final hours – in this final act as the Vicar of Christ – we see it again. ‘It is not I’, he says with St Paul, ‘but Christ living in me’ (cf. Gal. 2:20). May we strive to say the same.
This year we celebrate the feast of the Chair of Saint Peter with a particular poignancy as we prepare, in just under a week, for our beloved Holy Father to renounce the office which that very chair signifies. Pope Benedict XVI’s relatively short pontificate has been an astonishing moment in the life of the Church, but far from simply being a series of exciting events, it has also been a masterclass in the Christian life and, more specifically, in the nature of the papacy. Pope Benedict has shown us the primary role of the occupant of the Chair of Saint Peter: to point us to Christ.
How has this been achieved? We have seen it in the establishment of Personal Ordinariates – a fatherly hand extended in love to those who have sought his care; we have seen it in his gentle but decisive renewal of the sacred liturgy – always by example, never by force; we have seen it in his clear teaching, at once simple and profound – always true and always loving. And now, in this final action of his public ministry, we see it once more: ‘It is not I’, he says, ‘But Christ’. Joseph Ratzinger means nothing, the action tells us, except as a lens through whom can see more clearly the Lord whom he has served so faithfully.
Today, then, is a feast not of earthly ecclesiastical power, but of Christ. Today we celebrate the Lord’s abiding presence in the Church, made known to us in a particular way through the office of the successor of Saint Peter, the Pope, the Vicar of Christ. And we do so with sincere gratitude for the example of the current occupant of the Chair of Saint Peter, and in confident hope of the example of the next, because – as Pope Benedict has shown us – the office is greater than the man. We know that the Lord will not leave his flock abandoned – he is the Good Shepherd, how could he? Rather in the office of the Chair of Saint Peter he sends us a man whom he has entrusted with the task of gathering us in, so that, united in the one true fold, we may be so united to him.