Time and countless other publications have heralded Pope Francis as the man of 2013. In doing so, they may have missed the story of the year.
On Feb. 12, 2013, the most well-known religious leader in the world stepped away from power, believing it to be God’s will for him and his church.
If you love Pope Francis, thank Pope Benedict XVI. And do him the favor of listening to the new pontiff.
“God is love,” Pope Benedict wrote in the third in his series on Jesus of Nazareth, published a little over a year ago, this final installment on Christ as infant in the Bible.
He went on to say: “But love can also be hated when it challenges us to transcend ourselves. It is not a romantic ‘good feeling.’ Redemption is not ‘wellness,’ it is not about basking in self-indulgence; on the contrary, it is a liberation from imprisonment from self-absorption.”
He wrote it. Now CNN and everyone else is covering it, albeit with a broken lens.
Pope Benedict did something profound in the fall of 2012.
As we were about to re-elect Barack Obama as president — deluded by his patronizing talking points that seemed to shame us a second time into electing him, believing that the religious-freedom problem was only about contraception access and that Obamacare would be a flawless revolution — Benedict was marking the 50th anniversary of the second Vatican Council.
The council and its documents are a rich treasure for a world in need of renewal, but they were immediately politicized and misread. I was one of the people who greeted Pope Benedict last year and thanked him as he gave us the same messages Pope Paul VI delivered at the end of the council.
The message he gave me was for every woman in the world:
“The hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of woman is being achieved in its fullness, the hour in which woman acquires in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved. That is why, at this moment when the human race is undergoing so deep a transformation, women impregnated with the spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid mankind in not falling.”
In “Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narrative,” Pope Benedict wrote of Mary: “For her, the Cross of radical contradiction becomes the sword that pierces her soul. From Mary we can learn what true compassion is: quite unsentimentally assuming the sufferings of others as one’s own.”
What Catholics believe about the mother of God tends to be misunderstood. It’s the humble and trusting “yes,” held up as a model.
Pope Francis talks constantly both about mercy and about weeping for your brother and sister in pain — that piercing of the heart. We can’t be indifferent, he says, about the suffering of another: the materially poor, the lonely, he who is deluded by power or another false idol that has him enslaved.
Pope Benedict made a significant “yes” himself when he became a priest. But life is a series of humble acts of fiat — this is the model in the New Testament and what the world has been watching with a fascinated curiosity, and sometimes unsettling fear.
The new pope, Francis, and the now-pope emeritus, Benedict, made history in writing an encyclical letter to the church together, The Light of Faith, this summer. Signed by Pope Francis, they wrote: “Faith is born of an encounter with the living God who calls us and reveals his love, a love which precedes us and upon which we can lean for security and for building our lives. Transformed by this love, we gain fresh vision, new eyes to see; we realize that it contains a great promise of fulfillment, and that a vision of the future opens up before us.”
This all won’t happen without suffering. Without misunderstanding. Without persecution. We celebrate Christmas and bear in mind what is to come — Easter, yes, but Good Friday first — to understand. This, too, may help with some of the unsettling nature of debates today.
What’s been happening in the Catholic Church is not just for Catholics. Believers seeking to be conformed to Christ are people we need in a democratic republic. They’re the nuns who built hospitals. We want them as neighbors. We need them in the marketplace.
This is at the heart of the reason that this religious freedom case involving an arts and crafts chain before the Supreme Court in the spring is important: Religious freedom keeps men and women flourishing.
It’s a treasure we must protect. But we’ll never know it unless we see real people taking full advantage of it, living their lives in love of God. It’s not a bad new year’s resolution. Two popes drove the point home this past year.