Three years ago, on Feb. 28, Pope Benedict XVI left via helicopter from the Vatican to go to Castel Gandolfo. He has announced his resignation from the papacy a few weeks earlier. By the time he would return back to the Vatican, a new pope, Pope Francis, would have been elected and the world had a seismic shift. What can we consider the legacy of the eight-year pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI? It is far, far too early to tell, but perhaps we can give just three speculations:
His writings: It has become cliché to state that Pope Benedict was a professor and that Pope Francis is a pastor. It actually is a stereotype, and is inaccurate. There is a push in some circles to claim that Pope Benedict’s writings are so complex, so unwieldy, so difficult to comprehend that one needs a degree in theology from a university just to begin to grasp them, yet nothing could be further from the truth.
In his writings done as pope, (and here we are including his outstanding “Jesus of Nazareth” series, one which Pope Benedict clearly states is not part of magisterial teaching, but is indeed his own very personal reflections on Jesus), Pope Benedict demonstrates a remarkable clarity.
What were the topics of his encyclicals? Many at first speculated, falling into a caricature that the former cardinal prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would only write heavy, condemnatory texts, were shocked to see that he focused on the basics of the Christian faith, namely the theological virtues: love (“Deus caritas est,” 2005); hope (“Spe salvi,” 2007) and faith (“Lumen Fidei,” 2013, completed by and attributed to Pope Francis).
His papal exhortations were on the basis of the Christian life as well, “Sacramentum caritatis: On the Eucharist as the Source and Summit of the Church’s Life and Mission” (2007), “Verbum Domini: On the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church” (2010) and a very pastoral outreach to the people of Africa entitled “Africae munus: On the Church in Africa in Service to Reconciliation, Justice and Peace” (2011).
His papal Angelus and audience addresses were clear and concise, using the Apostles, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church as the lens to focus on the practical living of the faith. It would not come as a surprise that, one day, Joseph Ratzinger, master theologian, is also recognized as master pastor and named a Doctor of the Church due to his superior writings.
His consistent embrace of the dignity of the human person: Time and time again, Pope Benedict reminded us of the dignity of the human person in the light of a depersonalized age. He recognized and diagnosed the signs of the times: “We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as definitive and has as its highest value one’s own ego and one’s own desires…”
His resignation: Pope Benedict knew when his time as pope had come to an end. Contrary to rumors, he was not “forced out;” he simply knew that he did not have the energy and the stamina to continue, especially in light of the apostolic journeys he had planned. He set the stage for a new concept in the modern Church, that of a “Pope-Emeritus,” one that most likely will be followed in the future.
As we thank God for the gift that Pope Francis is for the Church, may we not forget Pope-Emeritus Benedict, “Father Benedict,” as he prefers to be called today and to pray for him daily, as well.