The three functions traditionally attributed to a pope are to teach, to sanctify, and to rule. The first function means keeping the revelation that was handed to Peter and the apostles intact and known to men. The second concerns the sacramental and prayer side of human life, primarily with the integrity of the Eucharist. The third function is the daunting task of appointing and guiding bishops and other leaders in the Church. The Lord told Peter to strengthen the brethren. Most people recognize that they need it. Many think this latter function is the most crucial and difficult of all.
Popes need to exercise courage in all three areas. The most difficult thing consists in telling the truth in a world, as Pope Ratzinger often says, that is relativist and is no longer willing to hear the truth of things, particularly divine things and increasingly of human things, lest it might affect the way they live.
Five years is rather a long time on the Throne of Peter. John Paul II was the second-longest reigning pope. Not a few of us would like to see Benedict at least tie that record. But it is not likely; John Paul II was a much younger man than Benedict when he left Poland to become pope. However Leo XIII (b. 1810) began his papacy in 1878 and died in 1903.
The present Pope is easily the most learned man in public life in the world today. I have the impression that academia and the media know this as a fact but dance gingerly around it, fascinated yet leery. They “feel” in their bones, however, that he cannot really know anything important. None the less, scholarship and insight are not papal qualifications, although they help considerably.
For a long time I have thought that the writings of Joseph Ratzinger are the best guide we have today to understanding the workings of God, not to say of man, in the contemporary world. While certainly Benedict is the model of the “scholar pope,” he is more than that. We are lucky to have him. Catholicism and intelligence go hand-in-hand in a way that puts too many things together to be ignored. But one senses that a pope is present in the House of Peter for reasons that are more than human. Something almost uncanny seems to hover about this Pope, because this is an age that promotes so much that is not true as if it were. Logos is surely the mark of Benedict.
When one looks at a schedule of the Pope, he realizes that in a given week, the Pope has talked to several new ambassadors, several episcopal conferences, any number of dicasteries in the Holy See, a head of state, a large Wednesday audience, many differing groups from all over the world. A leading orchestra has probably played for him. He has also remained a reader. He still writes learnedly. Benedict’s book, Jesus of Nazareth, the second volume of which is coming out shortly, represents a major reflection on Christ. It is presented as his own reflections on the evidence and how it all fits together to affirm that Jesus is the Christ who was in fact incarnate in this world. As a result, the world is different. And these activities only scratch the surface. I cannot imagine any other world figure who deals with such a variety of people and issues from all over the world on a regular basis. And every so often the Pope shows up in Africa, or Australia, or Turkey, or an Italian city, or Paris, or Austria, or his native Bavaria.
What is the most important thing that Pope Benedict has done during his first five years? I would insist on two related endeavors. The first is his second encyclical, Spe Salvi, the encyclical that explains the modern world. The second was the “Regensburg Lecture.” One has to be careful not to confuse an “event” with a written document. But it has been more than necessary to understand just what modernity is about, and this in the context of modernity’s alternatives. In the modern world, politics have been confused with eschatology.
We need to understand our own souls. But Benedict is constantly at work on the central question of how to approach not merely the Western world, but all worlds. He knows the growing power of Islam. He looks at China and the other world religions. He is concerned about the lack of unity within Christendom, as well as its demographic decline and spiritual condition.
In conclusion, let me cite just one example of the profound insight Benedict has into things. At the end of his annual Lenten retreat in the Vatican chapel, Redemptoris Mater, Benedict gave a very brief talk of appreciation to the retreat master and the others making the retreat with him. The theme of the retreat was a saying of Solomon which tells us that prayer is “for a heart that listens.”
The Pope pondered this phrase. “It really seems to me that this sums up the whole Christian vision of the human being,” he said. “In himself, man is not perfect; he is a relational being. It is not his cogito (I think) that can cogitare (think) of the whole of reality. He needs listening, he needs to listen to the other and especially to the Other with a capital ‘O,’ to God. Only in this way does he know himself, only in this way does he become himself” (L’Osservatore Romano, March 3, 2010).
In that one rather familiar reflection, Benedict was able to spell out the meaning of our existence. I can count in these six lines references to the Old Testament, to Augustine, to Aquinas, to Buber, to the heart of modern philosophy, to Descartes, to John Paul II’s Redemptor Hominis, and to Socrates himself. As I say, we have on the Throne of Peter a scholarly pope who also listens, who tells us about “the whole Christian vision,” how it fits into the whole of reality. Benedict also encourages us to listen as the world has much to teach us. We must attend to it in awe. We are beings who first receive, receive even our power to listen. We do well to listen to the man who now, in God’s providence, occupies the Chair of Peter.