In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI gave us "a mandate" to "go forth and be witnesses of God's mercy, a source of hope for every person and for the whole world."
Photo: Marian Archives
The Church Is Alive
By David Came (Mar 5, 2013)
During his last General Audience on Feb. 27 and then in his farewell address to the Cardinals on Feb. 28, Pope Benedict XVI gave us a parting gift — a powerful teaching on the nature of the Church that, at times, became a personal witness of the heart from a spiritual father to his children.
Benedict is now in retirement with the title of "Pope Emeritus," the first Pope in nearly 600 years to retire. He is living a life of "prayer and reflection" in his retirement at Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence, while a residence in a convent inside the walls of the Vatican is prepared for him.
'I Am Truly Moved! And I See the Church Alive!'
At his last General Audience, Pope Benedict described the Church not as "an organization" but as "a living body, a community of brothers and sisters in the Body of Jesus Christ, who unites us all." He emphasized at the beginning of his General Audience to the estimated crowd of 150,000 people gathered in St. Peter's Square, "I am truly moved! And I see the Church alive!"
During his General Audience, Benedict also gave profound witness to his role as spiritual father and visible head of Christ's body on earth, the Church, by sharing from his heart about the many people who had written to him and sent him "tokens of affection" upon hearing of his retirement. He spoke especially of the "ordinary people who write to me simply from their heart and make me feel their affection, born from being together with Christ Jesus, in the Church."
According to RomeReports.com, the crowd —most of whom were the faithful who had come to say goodbye to their beloved Pope — were receptive to Benedict and his message. They greeted his arrival with thunderous applause that continued as he made the circuit around the Square in the Popemobile. The crowd then interrupted his address with applause 17 times.
For a more complete context of the Pope's remarks at his General Audience about how he felt supported by the Church in facing his retirement, here is the key excerpt from his address:
At this point I would like to thank from my heart all the many people around the world who in recent weeks have sent me touching tokens of attention, friendship and prayer. Yes, the Pope is never alone, now I experience this again in so great a way that it touches my heart. The Pope belongs to everyone and many people feel very close to him. It is true that I receive letters from the great ones of the world — from Heads of State, religious leaders, representatives of the world of culture and so on. But I also receive many letters from ordinary people who write to me simply from their heart and make me feel their affection, born from being together with Christ Jesus, in the Church. These people do not write to me the way one writes, for instance, to a prince or a to great person that one does not know. They write to me as brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, with the sense of a very affectionate family tie. Here one can touch firsthand what the Church is — not an organization, not an association for religious or humanitarian purposes, but a living body, a community of brothers and sisters in the Body of Jesus Christ, who unites us all. To experience the Church in this way and to be able almost to touch with your hands the power of its truth and its love, is a source of joy, in a time when many speak of its decline. But we see how the Church is alive today!
In recent months, I felt that my strength had decreased, and I asked God earnestly in prayer to enlighten me with His light to make me take the right decision not for my sake, but for the good of the Church. I have taken this step in full awareness of its seriousness and also its novelty, but with profound peace of mind. Loving the Church also means having the courage to make tough choices, difficult ones, having always before oneself the good of the Church and not oneself.
Notice in the first paragraph of this excerpt from his address, how personal and even emotional Benedict is in sharing from the heart about the many "brothers and sisters" and "sons and daughters" of the Church who showed him affection and support upon learning of his retirement. His remarks have the tone and feel of the father of a family sharing important concerns with his beloved children.
Also, in this first paragraph, notice how Benedict emphasizes that this experience of the Church as the family of God is "a source of joy, in a time when many speak of [the Church's] decline. But we see how the Church is alive today!"
Given this perspective of speaking to the Church as family, it's then significant that Benedict explains, in the second paragraph of our excerpt, how he did not decide to retire "for my sake, but for the good of the Church." In this regard, his love for the Church had been his overriding motivation in making what was undoubtedly a very difficult decision: "Loving the Church also means having the courage to make tough choices, difficult ones, having always before oneself the good of the Church and not oneself."
Benedict's Further Reflection on the Church
I think it's significant that Pope Benedict then develops his insights into the nature of the Church further when he addresses the Cardinals on Feb. 28, the final day of his papacy. Indeed, he makes reference to yesterday's General Audience, highlighting his key insight that "the Church is a living body":
I would like to leave you a simple thought, which is close to my heart: a thought on the Church, its mystery, which is for all of us — we can say — the reason for and passion of life. I allow myself to be helped by an expression from Romano Guardini, written in the year the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council approved the Constitution Lumen Gentium, in his last book, which contains a personal dedication also to me. For this reason, the words of this book are particularly dear to me. Guardini says: "The Church is not an institution devised and built at a desk, but a living reality. It lives still throughout the course of time. Like all living realities, it develops and changes itself. And yet in the depths of its being it remains the same: its heart is Christ." And then our experience, yesterday, it seems to me, in the square: to see that the Church is a living body, animated by the Holy Spirit and it truly lives by the power of God. It is in the world, but not of the world: it is of God, of Christ, of the Spirit. We saw this yesterday.
Here, Pope Benedict draws upon a masterwork of theology by Romano Guardini to reflect further on his experience at his General Audience of the Church as "a living reality." Guardini's essential insight is that the Church "lives still throughout the course of time," in which "it develops and changes itself." But "in the depths of its being it remains the same: its heart is Christ."
To unpack what Pope Benedict is driving at here, consider the changes in the liturgy as a result of Vatican II. While there were many outward changes in how we as the Church celebrated Mass (for example, the sort of vestments the priest wore and the language we used), it remained in its essentials the same reality as the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Benedict's Final Teaching and Us
So, how can we apply Benedict's teaching on the Church?
We can start by making sure we have a true understanding of the Church as the living Body of Jesus Christ, with Mary as our mother, the saints as our big brothers and sisters, the Holy Father as our spiritual father in Christ, united to all our brothers and sisters in Christ on the earth and in purgatory. Further, as we've just seen, we can be comforted in knowing that this living Body, which sustains us as family, never changes in its essentials.
This understanding of the Church as God's family can transform the way we pray and receive the Sacraments.
Case in point: Let this understanding, not the media, inspire your prayer to the Holy Spirit in praying for the Cardinal Electors in choosing a new Pope — who will be our spiritual father in Christ.
What a beautiful gift! Thank you, Benedict XVI.
David Came is executive editor of Marian Helper magazine, the flagship publication of the Association of Marian Helpers, which is headquartered in Stockbridge, Mass. He is the author of Pope Benedict's Divine Mercy Mandate.