Like most Catholics, I woke on the morning of February 11, 2013, to a different sort of alarm. Nothing in my past—indeed, very little in history—had prepared me for what I found in the news that day.
To many people, the pope resigning seemed an impossibility, like a square circle.
But that wasn’t my particular problem. As a theologian, I knew it could be done. In fact, the conditions had been publicly rehearsed by no less an authority than Benedict XVI in interviews with the media.
A pope’s resignation was not my problem. My problem was with this pope resigning.
He has been part of my life since early in my adulthood. I discovered Joseph Ratzinger’s work while I was still a Presbyterian minister. His books were a secret pleasure, and they showed me (and later my wife, Kimberly) the way home to Rome.
As a Catholic, I was profoundly influenced by his biblical theology and his use of “covenant” as an interpretive key to unlock the mysteries of faith and the secrets of Scripture. I’ve written many books, but few authorial moments have pleased me so much as the day I presented the pontiff with a copy of my book Covenant and Communion: The Biblical Theology of Pope Benedict XVI.
On the morning of February 11, and well into the evening, I found almost unbearable the thought of this man fading from my life.
And I felt this, I believe, in communion with millions and probably billions of Catholics. He has always been there for us. He has always been present.
At the Second Vatican Council, he was there, and he played an active role, not as a bishop, but as an expert adviser to one of Europe’s most influential bishops. Young Joseph Ratzinger played an important role in the drafting of two key council documents.
Through the 1960s he was present as one of the world’s leading theologians. It was Joseph Ratzinger who emerged as the most articulate voice of the authentic teaching of the Council.
He never tried to steal the spotlight, but he was always there for us. As a professor, he was there for his students, too. He was a theologian who raised up a generation of brilliant theologians. And he has remained a fatherly presence in their lives, extending his influence through their work, and now through the work of their students as well.
It was a life he loved, but he gave it up when Pope Paul VI called him to be a bishop and then created him a cardinal. While he had been a powerful presence to his fellow theologians, in the 1970s and 1980s he became a universal churchman — a presence for the whole Church, speaking plain sense at a time when nonsense abounded. He was there for all of us, speaking up, with the gentleness of true authority.
He was always there for Blessed John Paul II. He was that pope’s most trusted adviser and his dear friend. Repeatedly the Polish pope refused the German cardinal’s resignation.
When John Paul went to glory, the identity of his successor seemed self-evident to the cardinals who met in conclave. Since then, Pope Benedict has been a presence in the world — a witness, a judge, a counselor. A father. Our Holy Father.
When I awoke on February 11, the thought that he would no longer be there seemed unbearable. Yet he will be there.
It’s not as if he’s retiring to the Virgin Islands to avoid the taxman. He’s retiring to a monastery to give the rest of his days to prayer — for us. For you and me.
As a theologian I have a certain reverence for theology, the science of sciences, the science of God, and so I respect Pope Benedict’s accomplishments in the field we share.
As a Catholic I honor the office of bishop as I should honor the persons of the Apostles themselves.
How can I begrudge the man his decisive movement into the contemplative life, which is an anticipation of the life of heaven?
He will be there for us. He will be there for me.
I know what we’ll all be giving up for Lent this year. Yet I know it will be our gain.