We’re learning things all the time. One thing most of us may have learned for the first time from Pope Benedict last Monday was that popes could resign. But I think there are two other things we learned from the pope that may be far more important, namely we should make decisions conscientiously and we need to accept reality as we go through life.
I’d like to reflect on those two lessons from the pope’s statement of resignation:
“ After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering.
“However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me.”
First, notice that a lot of the reasons people usually give for a decision like that are absent from the pope’s statement. He doesn’t say the doctors told him to step down, or his friends advised him, or he’s just sick and tired of it all, or for political reasons someone else is needed at this time.
No. He says simply that he has stood repeatedly before God as his ultimate judge; he’s looked honestly at himself and his situation and come to a decision. He’s brought himself as he is to God and asked God to judge his action. He’s trying to live conscientiously, following his conscience in its best sense. Conscience doesn’t mean where I stand, but where I stand before God.
To me the pope’s decision looks like a good example of living conscientiously. That’s what we’re all called to do too. We all called to decide on things by standing before God and looking honestly at ourselves and our situation.
Of course, facing reality and our own situation isn’t easy. Last year I read Pope Benedict’s book “Jesus of Nazareth” in which he comments on the Temptation of Jesus in the desert, which we read on the 1st Sunday of Lent. I went back to that book recently and I think it can put some perspective on the difficulty we have in facing reality.
After his baptism in the Jordan River, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the desert to be tempted for 40 days. The pope calls that command a surprise. After his baptism we would expect a celebration, but instead of celebrating, Jesus is led into the desert to confront Satan.
The 40 day experience Jesus has there is a mirror of what he will experience the rest of his life. “He descends into the perils besetting humanity, for there is no other way to lift fallen humanity. Jesus has to enter the drama of human existence, for that belongs to the core of his mission. He has to penetrate it completely, down to its uttermost depths, in order to find the lost sheep, to bear it on his shoulders and bring it home.” (Jesus of Nazareth, from the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, New York 2007, p 26)
Jesus is the Messiah whom God sends to save his people. But in the desert–and all through his life– he’s tempted by Satan to be a Messiah of another kind. Satan “offers Jesus another messianic way, far from God’s plan… an alternative messianism of power, of success, not the messianism of gift and selfless love.”
Luke’s gospel describes the temptations of Jesus in interesting detail. Jesus is hungry; “Turn these stones into bread,” Satan says. “You’re above the ordinary laws of life.” From a mountain, Satan shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. “Here’s political power,” Satan says. From the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, Satan says “Throw yourself down; you can have religious power.”
The temptations Jesus faced are those we face. We’re tempted to want to control things: our health, our wealth, other people, the world we live in. These are messianic temptations. We’d like the world to be on our side, to be liked, to be respected, to fit in; we like to control God. In the Our Father we say “ your will be done, your kingdom come.” Our temptation is to say “my will, my kingdom come.”
I may be mistaken but did the pope experience this mystery in making his great decision? We all experience it, that’s why this gospel is the first gospel we read in Lent, the first lesson we learn in this season. Like Jesus we experience temptation. Like Jesus we’ll have angels to come and support us. We pray they support the pope. “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”