I remember the day that Pope Benedict XVI was elected. The words “Habemus Papam!” rang out from my television set and I sat down and burst into tears. I was pregnant at the time and emotional anyway, but I was hit pretty hard with the death of John Paul II. In 2005 I was still freshly Catholic, still trying to figure out how to manage a day to day Catholic life. Simply knowing who the Pope was helped.
Pope John Paul II was an intellectual powerhouse. He was a man strong enough to fight Communism from the inside. He was consistent. He was also charismatic. That helped, that charm. When I wanted to slack off in my efforts to attempt at holiness, that twinkle in his eye would leap out at me from a photograph or a television screen and dare me to be better. I don’t know how he managed to make a personal connection through a lens, but he did. I think the motherless, brotherless, fatherless loneliness that he had conquered had something to do with that ability. With that look of his, that gentle smile of his, he could touch that loneliness in all of us that he knew so well. He had battled to the very depths of it and found that he was not alone and he found a way to share that message with the world. We are never alone.
The election of the new Pope in 2005 was something new to me. I knew nothing of the process, nothing of the men who might be elected. I was an avid EWTN listener and viewer, but tended to tune out anything that didn’t involve doctrine directly. Joseph Ratzinger was an unfamiliar name to me. When the regular press called him the Rotweiler I thought, “Well, maybe the Church needs that type of Pope right now.” Time for a stern hand.
Then that first encyclical came out, “God is Love.” I was surprised. “This from the Rotweiler?” It didn’t sound very attack dog-ish to me. After that I started noticing him more. His look was very much like my newborn son’s, there was a gentle hesitance to him that was the mark of a more introverted personality than his predecessor. There was a twinkle in his eye, too, but it was the delight of a grandfather, the light of love. I began to see that he was very right to begin his Pontificat with a discussion of God’s love. This man radiated Fatherly love.
His writings are much easier to crack open initially than John Paul II’s. He has a more teacherly gift of being able to break down the intellectual flights into simple explanations. The words he chooses are like a dock built over deep water. You can stand on it and enjoy the view from the surface or you can dive in and explore the depths. His predecessor’s writings are like the mountain trails he so loved. Each step into John Paul II’s writing is an effort and both the climb and the view take your breath away.
But I am not a scholar at the moment. I am a mother and a wife. I’ll take my Popes personally and familiarly. They are Fathers to me and to my family.
This spiritual father is leaving me due to an aging body and at the same time my earthly father is sickening day by day with dementia. I am avoiding the news pics of Benedict leaving Rome because I must watch my own father slip away a little at a time. I have a choice in this and I choose not to watch.
I am taking it personally. I can’t help that. I don’t want to watch him leave. It's not that I'm feeling abandoned exactly, but it is too akin to that slightly orphaned feeling I get when my dad can’t remember the end of the sentence he was speaking. One father’s mind is failing him, the other his body. I don’t want to feel this alone.
So, I am ending this gentle man’s papacy the same way that I began it, by sitting down in tears because there’s just no helping myself. He’s going away.
He’s going away. My dad is slipping away. What else am I to do?
Then I think of that other Pope, my first Pope and I know to wait, hope and trust. Pope John Paul II would understand my feelings perfectly. He would also dare me to do something useful with the feeling. Don’t worry, Papa, I won’t waste it.
“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (KJV)