Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Defending Benedict

Holding down the fort over at Catholic Exchange today...

This morning I was feeling pretty close to a native here in my new land. Eschewing a lukewarm/cold shower for a spritz of perfume and a leopard-print scarf, I left my 2 little terrors in the capable hands of my foreign nanny (aka my little sister) and made my way downstairs and out the front doors of our apartment building, umbrella in hand.

I headed out the street into a beautiful Roman spring day, complete with hurricane force winds and horizontal rain. Feeling confirmed in my decision to spend no more than 2 Euro on any umbrella ever again, I watched with detached resignation as the cheery red number I'd chosen this morning flipped inside out, spines snapping with the force of the wind. Never mind that, a little rain never hurt anything, and I only had to drop off dry cleaning, grab coffee, and grocery shop for a family of 5, without a car. But I digress.

After successfully negotiating the cost of removing cafe e cioccolato from most of my husband's dress shirts, I decided to duck into the bar down the street for a quick espresso to fortify my grocery shopping muscles. After slamming my coffee with near-Roman speed, I stepped back out into the elements, only to be greeted and waved over to a table filled with acquaintances. One of the plus sides to city living is how very small a neighborhood becomes, and thus, despite the language barrier and enormous age difference, I've made 'friends' with several regular faces at the surrounding shops and cafes. 

I held up a cigarette with a questioning gesture and 4 lighters were promptly brandished, confirming my suspicion that indeed, everyone in Italy smokes. As we puffed away and caught up on the weekend's happenings, I put my infantile Italian to work and started soliciting opinions on our nouvo Papa, Francesco. Immediately eyes lit up and hands started flying as a consensus of approval was voiced in enthusiastic Italian.

"Molto simplice, molto piccante...uno bello Papa"

I agreed wholeheartedly, thoroughly relishing this phenomenon of being openly and unabashedly Catholic in public. Italy does some things better than America does, and public displays of religious affection is most definitely high on that list. From the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus hanging over the fishmonger's stall in the market to the conspicuous images of the Madonna and Child adorning buildings and walls throughout the city, it is evident that we are living in a Catholic country. At least in appearance.

No sooner had the cries of adulation over Pope Francis' election subsided than one of my companions face darkened as she spat the name 'Ratzinger,' shaking her head and asking me what I thought of the man. I was somewhat taken aback by the change of mood - weren't we just celebrating the Pope? I smiled and admitted I'd loved that Pope, too. And Giovanni Paulo II, the one before him. Pushing my luck with the past tense, I awkwardly explained my love for 'all the Popes,' attempting to convey my esteem for the Office of Peter.

I must not have succeeded, for the unfavorable ratings for Pope Benedict continued on.

"Si, si," said my Italian friend, "Papa JP was magnifico..." but Papa Benedetto, or 'Ratzinger,' as they insisted on calling him, had apparently not won their favor.

This was an almost entirely foreign idea to me, contrasting the personalities of different Popes and proclaiming preference or dislike of one or the other. Coming from somewhat farther away than down the street from St. Peter's, I'd grown up knowing the Pope as a leader, a father, and a tangible representation of Christ's leadership here on earth. These people had known him as the guy down the street in the Big White House, and they had very definite opinions on his personality, his management style, and even his accent.

The contrast was especially striking when I realized that I, too, have been guilty of a little bit of this 'cult of personality' business these past few days. I stumbled in my poor Italian to convey my love for both Pope Benedict, now Bishop Emeritus of Rome, and for Pope Francis, his successor. I tried explaining the courage I thought Benedict had demonstrated in his resignation of the papacy; they parried with charges of corruption at the Vatican bank. Certo, I agreed, but he was a holy man, and he was our Pope, and there is some real work to be done in cleaning up the Curia.

They begrudgingly admitted that perhaps not all Benedict's legacy was scandal and excess, but it was apparent they far preferred their new Papa to their former.

I made my way to the grocery store wondering what this all means for the Catholicism, that in our media-saturated age, a person's personality can make or break another person's opinion of the very nature of God and His Church. There was no mention by these friends of mine if they planned to attend Mass on Sundays again...or indeed if they had ever stopped. But there did seem to be a renewed hopefulness and excitement in their eyes when they spoke of Papa Francesco. And I agree! I love him, I really do. I have lapped up eagerly every story of humility, every endearing image to hit the web these past 5 days, and every homily he has preached since his election last Wednesday night.

But I loved Pope Benedict, too. And while he might not have had the same magnetic attraction that this new Servant of the Servants possesses, I think it's important to keep in mind that very much of public opinion is shaped and deliberately cultivated by a media trying to tell a story. Do you think Pope Francesco is a humble man filled with charity and simplicity? I think so, too. But it doesn't hurt that the media seems to agree with that narrative, at least for now.

Did you think Pope Benedict was an aloof, power-tripping, money-hungry aristocrat with an inflexible view of the human person and a profound incomprehension of the state of modern man? Well I didn't...but if I were letting CNN or MSNBC shape my view of him, I sure might have.

The point is, they're both only human. And their different humans, at that. Different personalities, different strengths, different backgrounds, different struggles...what united them, and what unites those of us who follow them, is love of Christ and His Church. And if we love Him, then we must obey Him, for love without obedience is lip service. And if He saw fit to appoint a broken, humble, and even sinful man (self-admittedly!) from Galilee to take the first watch, then who are we to question it?

Popes don't have to be particularly likeable. They don't even have to be holy, actually. They just have to keep the Ship on course. That's the whole idea of papal infallibility, in a nutshell. In matters of faith and morals, the Pope cannot err...because he does not deviate from the appointed course, namely, the Sacred Tradition and the Dogma of the Faith.

This is the only possible explanation for a 2,000 year old roster including saints like Peter, Gregory and maybe one day even JPII...and more than a few bad apples, too. But thanks be to God, the Church doesn't need a celebrity or even a great saint to keep Her upright...she just needs someone who is willing to go to the Cross in Her defense.

And even if the Holy Father isn't a guy you'd want to have to dinner, that isn't really what counts in the end; and we shouldn't let the media fool us into thinking otherwise, even when they're giving two thumbs way up for the new guy.

In the end, for all of us, there's only one Guy whose approval we ought to be seeking. And the Pope is really just the Mr. Carson to His Downton Abbey. Which is why he really doesn't have the authority to authorize menu changes or other major household restructurings, if you catch my drift.

He's only the butler, after all.


  1. LOVE this post. I have to admit, I wasn't thrilled with Pope Benedict at first, but I really did grow to respect and love him, too. He was a GREAT theologian and his encyclicals were profound. I think it is much easier to love Pope Francis, but you are so right . . . popes don't have to be likable, they just have to do their job.

    Sadly, I see the same thing happening with priests at a local level. If a certain priest isn't overly likeable or charismatic, parishioners sometimes drift away. But that's not what this is about! Priests aren't perfect, and neither is the pope. But we still need them to help bring us into deeper relationship with Christ through the sacraments and their teaching of the faith.

  2. Jenny, great piece, I loved this! And, I am happy to hear you are making friends with the neighbors : )

  3. a) I love that you're having conversations in Italian at a cafe with your Roman neighbors.
    b) I'm scandalized that you smoke.;)
    c) I was excited when Ratzinger was elected because the little I knew of him was that he was orthodox and intelligent and those are two things our world needs. As he continued in his papacy I was grateful for how much he seemed to want to tell us "God loves you!" and not in an over-my-head-ala-JPII kind of way.
    d) God is good to us and has blessed His Church with many good popes recently. I am excited to see what Pope Francis will do and how he will be used by the Holy Spirit.

  4. Beautiful! Funny thing is is that I have only heard criticism of Pope Francis and nothing against Benedict. I think it is so frustrating either way. I love both of them, for different reasons.

  5. I mean, I didn't think it could get any better and then you referenced DA. Crystal clear.

    Also, I had a friend tell me that the reason she thinks that she didn't immediately fall in love with Bennie was because she was still mourning JPII. I bet that was the case for many people, and that is why he didn't get the same reception. Or maybe not. I don't know.

  6. http://www.piercedhands.com/hes-just-the-pope/

    It's so sad to hear bad opinions of Pope Benedict :( People really let the media sell them a sour former Nazi with no love for anything, when the man goes and writes his first encyclical on LOVE, of all things!

    I just hope that this popular opinion of Pope Francis holds steady once people realize that just because he loves the poor doesn't mean he's the champion of all liberal values - Church teaching on contraception, gay marriage, abortion, women's ordination, etc. ain't gonna change!

  7. Wow! I think it is funny because I have only been surrounded by hesitancy (at best) in regards to Francis and mourning for the loss of Benedict. We attend the Traditional Mass and so many/most of our friends are "traddies" and very worried about the Mass and general "pomp and circumstance" of the Holy Office. ON the other hand, I see many more secular friends rejoicing that finally the poorest of the poor are being given attention.

    As Chesterton said, the Church is big enough for both the Franciscans and Dominicans! The beauty o the Church is that She encompasses all virtue and many different paths to holiness and sanctity.

  8. Yes! Such great points about this dangerous modern "cult of personality" that has grown up around the Pope. I completely agree with your statement that the Pope doesn't need to be likeable or even very holy. That said, I have such a hard time understanding how people *didn't* like Benedict. It makes me hurt for him to hear some of the nasty things people have been saying about him. Of course, even if he knew, I'm sure he's modest enough not to be offended.

  9. You make a cigarette sound good. . .especially after coffee! (Former smoker here.) Anyway, I loved this article. I have been disappointed in some negative comments made about His Holiness Benedict XVI. I think each pope contributes something of value--not to mention that the Holy Spirit is guiding the Church.

  10. Thank you! Thank you!

    I agree with you, the Church is a family and they are our beloved Papas regardless of their personalities. I love JPII because I grew up with him, love my Papa Benedict because his mind has inspired me and love our current Papa just because. I do think Papa Benedict is misunderstood, but you only need to read his homilies/ encyclicals and books to love him. I am absolutely grateful for the simplicity and deepness of his words. I feel he is talking to me every time I read something of his and I think it is because he loves us so much that wants to touch us. He has absolutely inspired my faith and I am grateful because I am certain he prayed for me to come back home and I did!

    Too bad many people did not read Papa Benedict and just keep in their minds the picture from the TV or someone else’s opinion of him.

    P.S. I am also from Denver

  11. awesome post! you're so badass...smoking with the romans and keeping them in check over Pope Benedict. it makes me so sad he's being so maligned in the press in comparison to pope francis who just has a different personality.


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