“Mortality is the Divine Element in man”

By Lisa Bourne

Catholic journalist, Lisa Bourne, in the Vatican City

Catholic journalist, Lisa Bourne, in the Vatican City

The news of Pope Benedict’s decision to step down shocked and saddened countless people.

I am among them.

We’re all still processing it.

“I am in shock I can’t believe this. JPII stayed thru Parkinson’s and everything,” said one friend. “What is going on?”

“What a horrible way to start a Monday,” said another. “I feel sick to my stomach.”

A third said that her daughter had emailed her an hour or so before with the news.

“Still in shock!!” was her response.

“I am stunned and saddened,” said another.

I shared my first friend’s initial inclination to wonder why he couldn’t hold on like John Paul II. This was not a knee-jerk comparison between the two, or a silly one-size-fits-all expectation of papal protocol.

No, rather, the question crossed my mind selfishly because we SO need this pope’s quiet, humble strength and his faithful fortitude.

As we near the end of his pontificate, it seems more and more evident that we silly children of God still need to trust that everything goes according to the Lord’s plan.

So few people really get Pope Benedict XVI.

I won’t claim to have a corner on that market. I do know for certain what I’ve seen, felt, witnessed and read.

And nearly eight years after being named Christ’s successor on Earth, I think as well that Pope Benedict has more than earned the right to be held in his own regard, not simply a transitional pope, and not someone in the shadow of John Paul II.

The media maligning and misrepresentation-fest has jump-started into high gear since the news broke.

This display is most successful and effective in its demonstration of just how badly our world needs a strong, courageous and faithful leader as Benedict has been.

It drives home the fact as well that there’s a whole lot more than the Holy Father himself that they don’t get.

Sadly the blanket of ignorance and even malice for the Holy Father and the Church isn’t limited to the secular world and accompanying media.

When interviewing people who had seen the pope during his first visit to the U.S. in 2008, I encountered a number who partook of the nonsense that it was a surprise that the Holy Father was loving and pastoral in person. This was follow-through to the dissident portrayal of Cardinal Ratzinger as the big, bad meanie, since he was former head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. One interview subject was even more focused on using the opportunity to use seeing the pope along with President George W. Bush at the White House as a means of bashing President Bush.

It was disturbing.

Thankfully what countered this was the consistent response from young seminarians who all said Pope Benedict in person was just as they’d thought he would be, a brilliant, faithful theologian.

When I attended the professional journalists seminar, “The Church Up Close: Covering

Bourne and fellow Catholic journalists from around the world meet in Rome

Bourne and fellow Catholic journalists from around the world meet in Rome

Catholicism in the Age of Benedict XVI,” the 2010 class, given by the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross (Pontificia Università della Santa Croce) in Rome, there was an infinite body of information conferred to us attendees in many areas.

One session that stands out was given by Italian journalists, top vaticanisti, Andrea Tornielli and Paolo Rodari.

Their book, Attacco a Ratzinger: Accuse e scandali, profezie e complotti (“Attack on Ratzinger: Accusations and Scandals, Prophecies and Plots”) was released just days before we arrived for the class in Rome. Their presentation consisted of the book’s content, detailing controversies and public relations mishaps that had plagued the pope’s pontificate thus far. It was fascinating.

It was also disturbing.

Clearly, there were forces at work that would apparently have substantial harm come to the Pope’s image, opening up the question of his very security.

Since that time we’ve seen that security breached with the betrayal by some close to him, and the Holy Father’s subsequent forgiveness of the fact. But that inside look provided by the Italian journalists a few years ago still presents a chilling glimpse of destructive personal agendas and infidelity in and outside the Vatican.

Satan works hardest where he sees the biggest threat to his scheme.

Up to that point I guess I’d been somewhat lukewarm about embracing Joseph Ratzinger as pope the way so many of the faithful love their shepherd. The gregarious John Paul II had been the pontiff for most of my life, and while I wasn’t expecting Benedict to fill someone else’s shoes, I was still awaiting something that would endear him to me.

Through the course of my work I encountered a seminarian who’d been in close enough proximity in 2005 to offer a recounting of Benedict’s personal response to being charged with shepherding the billion-plus souls in the Catholic Church.

Just before his first appearance as the new pope in St. Peter’s Square Benedict was reported to have been visibly affected by the weight of the responsibility he was about to undertake.

This glimpse spotlighted the Holy Father’s humility, and brought his humanity home for me. And sitting in that class in Rome, learning of efforts to sabotage his ministry, I suddenly felt protective of him. I wanted to step up and defend him.

Since then, I have further developed a profound respect and admiration for Pope Benedict’s leadership, as he has been courageous in upholding oversight of the countless souls in his charge, the responsibility, perhaps, a cross he might not have been eager to bear.

Pope Benedict has been steering the ship toward God, and he has done so without apparent concern for what the culture thinks.

Public relations mishaps? Sure.

But maybe just as much a case of a man focused on getting things done for the kingdom of God, and not pleasing the secular humanist and moral relativism forces of society.

I heard someone ponder later in the day that Pope Benedict probably resigned because he was “out of touch with his people” and he knew it. And this person apparently thought so, because they were speaking in praise of the pope for recognizing such and throwing in the towel.

Pause here for laughter, insert humorous response.

All jokes about nominal Catholics and tendencies to belly-laugh about who’s really clueless there aside, this poor soul exemplified what is called “being of the world.” And they also drove home the point that Pope Benedict’s job, soon to be someone else’s job, the job of saving souls, is a task of monumental difficulty.

Much has been made of the announcement and its implications. Much more will be made of this.

Bourne meets with Ghana's Cardinal Peter Turkson, whom some say is on the shortlist for  pope

Bourne meets with Ghana’s Cardinal Peter Turkson, whom some say is on the shortlist for pope

At the risk of seeming to do what I said one shouldn’t, I refer to John Paul II who showed us the courage few humans could in dying as he did with gargantuan grace. Yes, Pope Benedict is his own man who should not be judged in comparison to him, but I think it’s important to point out that he is just as courageous as John Paul II in his humility and his perseverance.

Who in the world today couldn’t take a lesson from both pontiffs?

I truly believe Benedict has been giving his all in service to Christ. I really think his discernment of stepping down did not take place at all lightly. I believe his retiring the chair of Peter is being done with surrendering to God’s will at the forefront.

Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the dean of the College of Cardinals, told Pope Benedict XVI upon learning of the news of the Holy Father’s resignation that his pontificate will always shine like a star.

Well said.

Cardinal Sodano expressed more in response to the pope’s announcement:

“Allow me to tell you, in the name of this apostolic cenacle – the College of Cardinals – on behalf of these your dear colleagues, let me tell you that we are closer to you than ever, as we have been in these eight luminous years of your pontificate.”

That’s a sentiment I can wrap my brain around and let settle into my heart.

While the chattering of who will succeed him ensues and the world adjusts in the wake of his historic decision, Pope Benedict the good and faithful servant will retire to a well-deserved repose in a Rome monastery.

He wrote something that I think was particularly insightful in his book, “A Turning Point for Europe?”

In it, the Holy Father said, “Mortality is not man’s prison but rather the Divine Element in him.”