13th Feb 2013

The Papal News that Rocked the World: He Leads Us to Jesus

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

Have you ever seen a man more at peace than Pope Benedict XVI? In his Ash Wednesday audience, his first public appearance since his Monday announcement of his upcoming resignation, the pontiff comforted an unsettled assembly of people wanting to say “thank you,” wanting to better understand, wanting to let him know of their love and prayers.

Every time I’ve seen Pope Benedict, he has always seemed to draw energy from these expressions of love, even though the “celebrity” aspect of the papacy has not come naturally for him and is something he has never sought or encouraged.

I have a photo taken during my October visit to Rome of the Holy Father holding my hand. At that particular moment I was thanking him for writing his Jesus of Nazareth book series, and when my eyes met his, I sensed immense joy in him. I know that’s what I saw from my vantage point. When I emailed the picture to a priest friend, he shared it with mutual friends with the comment, “It’s the smile of the mystical body of Christ.”

Pope Benedict is so clearly not a man feeding off attention or self-serving glory. He’s a servant whose very body and soul is strengthened by prayer and union with the Trinity. And the love that we share as the Body of Christ, united in front of every tabernacle of the world, draws each of us deeper and makes our surrender to God possible.

In announcing his bold news this week, Pope Benedict has done a few things that are crucial to our future, both as individuals and as a Church.

First, he sought help from our Mother. It was on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes that Pope Benedict announced he would no longer be pope. Less in the headlines, but at the heart of the matter, he wrote: “Let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff.”

That Marian aspect of his announcement is important not because Catholics have a funny thing about Mary, but because she is our great help. A woman! The woman who bore the Incarnation in her womb, who took him into her arms at his death! She intercedes for us along the holy way to our eternal destination. God so loved us that he became man and was born into the world through that which only a woman can do. He honors this woman. He loves this woman. He loves women. It’s not something we reflect on enough. It’s why Pope John Paul II made sure to place her image in St. Peter’s Square. When I was last in Rome, she had even been added to the scaffolding as to never lose sight of this holiest of women who brings us to God.

And it’s real, too. I saw him in Fatima in May 2010, on another Marian feast day. That was after the Lent when what was once near-unthinkable was all the buzz. The filth of the clergy sex-abuse scandal, then hitting Ireland full force, awful and seemingly unbearable, and Pope Benedict was taking a lot of heat for it. Would the pope resign during Holy Week? MSNBC convened panels to discuss the matter.

Pope Benedict XVI has denied being a mystic. But when I saw him in Fatima on that occasion, you could see a physical manifestation of the pain of the rot that pierced the heart of Christ in the Holy Father. On a morning where the rain and darkness had cleared away just in time for Mass —  as if to point to the brightest, everlasting Light we are called to bask in and radiate — he looked as though he had had about as much as he could take. And there before us all, the pope prayed. He rested in the arms of the mother of our Lord. And he was uplifted. I watched a transformation take place in him during Mass, during adoration. This is the life not just a pope is called to. This is Christianity. This is union with Christ. This is the universal call to holiness lived, before us all to see.

During that visit, Pope Benedict told us, the people he shepherds:

Neither Mary nor we have a light of our own: we receive it from Jesus. His presence within us renews the mystery and the call of the burning bush which once drew Moses on Mount Sinai and still fascinates those aware of the light within us which burns without consuming us (cf. Ex 3:2-5). We are merely a bush, but one upon which the glory of God has now come down. To him therefore be every glory, and to us the humble confession of our nothingness and the unworthy adoration of the divine plan which will be fulfilled when “God will be all in all” (cf. 1 Cor 15:28). The matchless servant of that plan was the Virgin full of grace: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord: let it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).

When I thanked him for his books on Jesus, Pope Benedict XVI gave me this grateful, knowing smile and nodded his head, as if to say: Thank you, you understand. This is not about me. This is about Jesus. Jesus is everything. If you have Jesus, you have the greatest treasure. We want Jesus. We only want to be His. Go to Him. Rest in Him. Be not afraid of anything because you receive Him, you know Him – know Him! — you are never alone, never without Him and His mercy.

After a little more conversation, he handed me a message:

Women, you do know how to make truth sweet, tender and accessible … Women of the entire universe, whether Christian or non-believing, you to whom life is entrusted at this grave moment in history, it is for you to save the peace of the world.

At this moment when the human race is under-going so deep a transformation, women impregnated with the spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid mankind in not falling.

Later in December, I saw the Holy Father again as one of a few hundred participants in a conference on the Church in the Americas sponsored by the Vatican Pontifical Commission on Latin America and the Knights of Columbus. During his address to us, he almost admonished us. Catholic ‘leaders’: Keep your hearts pure. Surrender yourselves to God so that your leadership belongs to Him. Encounter Christ, for that encounter is at the heart of any evangelical effort. It is our salvation.

That is the challenge of our day. And the women he loves so deeply, the women the Catholic Church loves so unreservedly, play an essential role in this evangelical effort, just as Mary does in salvation history. “At this moment when the human race is under-going so deep a transformation, women impregnated with the spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid mankind in not falling.” But no one can aid mankind in not falling if she isn’t resting in the Sacred Heart of Christ, if she doesn’t know and love God in the most intimate of ways.

That message to women he gave me was the same message Pope Paul VI delivered at the end of the Second Vatican Council. Only months away from the end of his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI redelivered it, as if to say: We didn’t communicate this. Women, please hear this. Women live this. Know this. Love this. Love Jesus. Show the world what He proposes by your love for Him and His Word.

We have a great gift for the world in the Church. But the world isn’t hearing it, not even the Catholic world. In his bold act, Pope Benedict opens a window into a pope’s prayer life, into a man’s prayer life. He impresses upon us the essential nature of the examined life, the primacy of prayer.

“Constant conversion is a work of grace, and both the people of the Church and their ordained ministers cooperate in this work of conversion through grace,” George Weigel writes in his new book Evangelical Catholicism, a blueprint for our current moment. “It is Christ the Lord who, through the agency of his priests, forgives sins and restores communion with his Body, the Church. This constant conversion is an essential foundation for works of charity and service, even as those works themselves deepen the evangelical Catholic’s friendship with the Lord Jesus, who commands us to give a cup of water in his name and identifies himself with those whom his people serve.”

Or, as the Holy Father said in his Ash Wednesday homily, the last public Mass of his papacy: “May the invitation to conversion, to ‘return to God with all our heart,’ resonate strongly in us, accepting His grace that makes us new men and women, with the surprising news that is participating in the very life of Jesus.”

Let’s get on with it! It’s a family business, and Pope Benedict XVI is challenging us to rise to responsibilities as Christians, actively discerning with God what exactly our call is at each moment of our lives. As we do, we’ll have a most Holy Father in Rome praying for us with all his heart.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist. She is a director of Catholic Voices USA and blogs on Catholic things at K-Lo@Large.

(The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Catholic Pulse or the Knights of Columbus.)