I am Joseph, your brother.
“Benedict XVI Leaves the Papacy,” reads the stunning headline of the Vatican’s L’Osservatore Romano. Monday’s announcement of Pope Benedict’s resignation caught many in the Roman Catholic Church and the world by surprise. But perhaps it shouldn’t have. Pope Benedict XVI submitted his resignation freely, in accordance with Canon 332 of the church’s Code of Canon Law. It is an unprecedented decision in modern history and offers the church and the world a profound teaching moment. It is perfectly in line with one of the greatest teachers of the faith that the church has ever known.
I remember the day of his election to the papacy on April 19, 2005. “After the great Pope John Paul II, the cardinals have elected me, a simple and humble labourer in the vineyard of the Lord.” With these words an ecstatic but nervous-looking Benedict XVI prefaced his first Urbi et Orbi (to the city and to the world) blessing. People were surprised to hear the new Pope describe himself as “simple and humble.” Yet that is exactly who he is and who he has been for the church, especially over the past eight years of his Petrine Ministry.
He was pigeonholed from the beginning as the “conservative” pope. On that election day, I said publicly that he was perhaps the most misunderstood leader we have had in the church. His resignation is one of the boldest, most liberal decisions that any pope has ever taken. He has set a new course for the church.
For the past eight years on the chair of Peter, Pope Benedict turned to Scripture far more than doctrine, making connections between the early Christians and people of our time struggling to live their faith. He tackled contemporary social and political issues by emphasizing a few main principles: that human rights rest on human dignity, that people come before profits, that the right to life is an ancient measure of humanity and not just a Catholic teaching, and that efforts to exclude God from civil affairs are corroding modern society. “A world emptied of God, a world that has forgotten God, loses life and falls into a culture of death.” Ultimately, for Benedict, Christianity is an encounter with beauty; the possibility of a more authentic, more exciting life. His mantra was about friendship with Jesus and with God.
I have known Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and now Pope Benedict XVI for many years. I have been with him in Rome, Germany, Australia and the United States. His extraordinary intelligence, kindness, gentleness, clarity of thought and expression moved me as a young seminarian and over the past 26 years of ordained priestly ministry. His masterful homilies, talks and reflections were and remain a source of great spiritual nourishment for me and for millions of people.
When he took possession of the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran nearly eight years ago, he said: “The one who holds the office of the Petrine Ministry must be aware that he is a frail and weak human being – just as his own powers are frail and weak – and is constantly in need of purification and conversion.” Monday, he showed us that he took those words to heart and put them into practice.
In the Old Testament, we find the moving story of Joseph, who, after generations of family turmoil, disunity and even hate, united his family in forgiveness and love. In emotional scenes that could easily be part of a great opera, Joseph questions his brothers, who do not recognize him, about their beloved father, still grieving over the supposed death of his missing son. When he confronts them and sees that they have undergone a change of heart, he embraces them and utters the immortal words, “I am Joseph, your brother” (Genesis 45:4).
Pope Benedict has shown us in a remarkable way that he is indeed Joseph, our brother. The occasion of his resignation stands as an important moment in the life of the Catholic Church and in the life of the world. It is a time to take stock, a time to give thanks for this brilliant pastor and a time to learn eternal lessons from a great teacher.
Father Thomas Rosica is CEO of the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation and a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.