Monday, February 11, 2013

Pope Benedict XVI: A Shell and A Bear

Pope Benedict After His Announcement Today

A friend of mine and I were once discussing the preaching of Pope Benedict XVI and he made an interesting observation.  He said that Benedict didn't preach about anecdotes or stories, but rather about symbols.  Sure enough, some of the most striking homilies I've heard from Pope Benedict spoke about the architecture of cathedrals, stained glass windows, and the meaning of certain vestments.  He is a Pope who uses symbols and gestures as a way of communicating something truly profound.

Today, when I heard the surprising news that the Holy Father had announced his resignation, two symbols immediately came to my mind.  They are two symbols present on Benedict XVI's Coat of Arms; the shell and the bear carrying a pack.

The first image of the shell comes from a legend concerning St. Augustine for whom Pope Benedict has particular devotion.  The legend says that one day while trying to understand the Trinity, Augustine was walking along the beach and found a young boy scooping up sea water with a shell and transferring the water to a hole in the sand.  Augustine understood in this scene that the child's futile attempt to transfer the entire sea into a hole in the sand was like the human mind attempting to understand completely the Blessed Trinity.  The Infinite cannot be contained in a finite mind.

The second image--the bear carrying a pack--relates to a legend about St. Corbinian, the first bishop of Freising, who was travelling by horseback to Rome when a bear attacked and killed his horse.  The legend is that St. Corbinian tamed the bear and compelled the bear to carry his pack to Rome.  The image is apt for Pope Benedict who was also bishop of that diocese and was called to Rome. 

Both of these symbols speak of the Pope's understanding of his entire life.  He is at the service of something . . . someone . . . much greater than himself.  He is a servant of the Truth and not its master.  I've always had a sense when I've heard Pope Benedict speak that he has total confidence in Divine Providence and that he exercises his papal ministry with a sense that "I am the pope today, but somebody else will soon be the pope."  He sees himself as part of the great mystery of Providence and as the servant of Providence. 

It is from this confidence in Divine Providence that Pope Benedict XVI lives his life in such calm joy.  He does not feel compelled to do what is beyond his capacity.  A shell of water can never transfer the entire sea.  Pope Benedict is not frustrated by such limitations.  He does what is possible.  The rest is up to God.  Similarly, he is the bear that has carried the heavy pack of the pastoral office of Pope.  If this pack is now too heavy for his weary body, then the Holy Father is able with a joyful freedom to entrust that pack to another. 

This morning, a young man texted me and asked, "How do you explain Pope Benedict's decision in light of the fact that Pope John Paul stayed in office while suffering so much?"  My answer was that there are many saints.  Not every saint is a Thomas Aquinas or a Francis of Assisi.  Not every saint is a Little Flower or a St. Catherine of Sienna.  Pope John Paul taught one lesson in remaining Pope.  But, Pope Benedict teaches another lesson. 

I love Pope Benedict XVI.  But, part of what I love about him is that he finds great joy in being a shell and a bear.  Pope John Paul II taught us by his suffering that every human life has value.  Pope Benedict XVI's resignation reminds us that we are shells and bears.  We are servants of something much greater than ourselves.  True joy comes not from knowing it all and doing it all because none of us ever will.  True joy comes from serving the One who is above all.

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