Just hours before the See of Peter went into a state of “sede vacante” on Thursday February 28, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI from the central loggia of the Apostolic Palace of Castel Gandolfo, said that, after a few hours he would no longer be Supreme Pontiff, but “simply a pilgrim beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on this earth.” In 2018, marking the fifth anniversary of his resignation, the Pope-emeritus in a letter to the senior correspondent of Corriere della Sera newspaper, Massimo Franco, reiterated similar sentiments, “I can only say that with the slow decline of my physical forces, interiorly, I am on a pilgrimage towards Home.”
This theme of being a pilgrim is one that seemed prominent in Benedict XVI’s Pope-emeritus years. Perhaps too simple of a concept for a world-renown theologian? I would argue not so. It is perhaps with his background as a theologian that he understood very well what it meant to be a pilgrim. To be a pilgrim requires one to first of all, be on a journey, and second, a realization of where the journey is headed. A pilgrim needs an end destination, and Benedict realized very well that that end destination was the Heavenly Jerusalem, the place where he would eventually meet God face-to-face.
As a theologian, he strived wholeheartedly to be a “cooperator of the truth,” hence his episcopal motto, “Cooperatores Veritatis,” and in that search and collaboration with truth, his own faith in God was strengthened for the pilgrim journey. It is in understanding, deciphering and sharing theology that he understood that, “faith is nothing less than being interiorly seized by God, something which guides us along the pathways of life. Faith draws us into a state of being seized by the restlessness of God and it makes us pilgrims who are on an inner journey towards the true King of the world and his promise of justice, truth and love.” (Epiphany 2013 Homily) It is in God alone that one finds rest (cf. Ps 62:1), finds truth (cf. Jn 14:6), and love (cf. 1 Jn 4:16). Pope Benedict affirmed this for himself in his Spiritual Testament he signed in 2006, in which he said, “I have seen, and see, how, out of the tangle of hypotheses, the reasonableness of faith has emerged and is emerging anew. Jesus Christ is truly the Way, the Truth, and the Life – and the Church, in all her shortcomings, is truly His Body.”
We live in a world full of restlessness where people are striving to find an artificial rest, a euphemistic truth rooted in relativism (cf. Mass “Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice” 2005 Homily), and a love rooted perhaps inwards rather than outwards. Society gives us the impression that the pilgrim journey ends on this earth because it seems that everything we need is already here in this earthly life. In turn, we build up for ourselves a materialist and consumerist empire that convinces us that all that there is no need to search beyond us, beyond what Thomas Cardinal Collins might reference as, “the unholy trinity of me, myself and I.” In turn, some who support such an empire might see religion, theology and the Church as all “baloney”.
However, Pope Benedict XVI throughout his lifetime was not at any point convinced so, and so did the generations upon generations of saints. St. Augustine looked for rest in all sorts of crevices of society, only to finally admit that his heart was restless until it rested in the Lord (cf. Confessions I). St. Francis of Assisi literally stripped of himself in front of his father and bishop Guido of Assisi in understanding that wealth would not fill a void within him, and that it is only in total surrender to God and living the Gospel that would bring him a profound joy. St. Ignatius of Loyola, during his period of convalesence from an injury while on the battlefield, came to the understanding that true consolation was found in things related to God. St. Dominic Savio and Bl. Carlo Acutis, both young models of holiness, realized from a young age that their destiny was in God, and God alone, hence they lived simple lives while freely lived as normal teenagers for their time because they already got their priorities straight – they knew where their final destination was headed. Pope Benedict XVI, even he was young Joseph Ratzinger realized his destiny in God and God alone. In 1934, when he was only seven years old, in his letter to Baby Jesus, he wrote, “Dear Baby Jesus, soon you will come down to earth. You will bring joy to children. You’ll bring joy to me too. I would like the “Volks-Schott,” [a German hand-missal] a green chasuble for mass [to ‘play Mass’ with his brother] and a Sacred Heart of Jesus. I’ll always be good.” Interesting to contrast that with what many children’s “Letter to Santa” in today’s society… the young Ratzinger from a young age saw that he did not need any of the latest technology of that time, nor the latest toy for Christmas – all he wanted were the tools needed to foster his vocation, and in turn, a deeper love for Jesus.
There could be a criticism that Christians, or perhaps Catholics in particular, are too “forward-looking,” as we look only to the future. Not necessarily so, as Pope Benedict XVI addressed this in his encyclical, Spe Salvi , “When the Letter to the Hebrews says that Christians here on earth do not have a permanent homeland, but seek one which lies in the future (cf. Heb 11:13-16; Phil 3:20), this does not mean for one moment that they live only for the future: present society is recognized by Christians as an exile; they belong to a new society which is the goal of their common pilgrimage and which is anticipated in the course of that pilgrimage.” (SS 4) We do not have a permanent home here, but in this life of “common pilgrimage,” we realize that “God put us in the world to know, to love, and to serve him, and so to come to paradise.” (CCC 1721) If we fail to understand why God put us in the world, then it would be impossible for us to grasp the concept of pilgrimage, and more importantly, the destination of our pilgrimage to the Heavenly Homeland. This, I think, is why Pope Benedict XVI was interested and devoted his life to a study of theology, because in doing so, he came to better know, love and serve God, and God alone. That is what gave him a profound joy in serving the Lord, even in the midst of turmoil and at times harsh backlash and criticisms from various channels of society. Theology was therefore, in no way an end, but rather a means that made him a better pastor, a better son of God. His sense of direction and purpose he set for his life can then, be fully encapsulated in his last words, “Lord, I love you.”
Perhaps I’ll end with a literal image that speaks to Pope Benedict XVI as a lifelong pilgrim. An image that I think has not been brought up (enough) in recent days as we look back to the life of the Pope-emeritus, was that of December 08, 2016, the opening of the Jubilee of Mercy by Pope Francis. Pope Francis pushed open the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica at the end of Mass that Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and the first pilgrim after the Supreme Pontiff to walk through the Holy Door was Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI, with the assistance his decades-long secretary, Georg Gänswein. I vividly remember watching the livestream of the liturgy early in the morning (Eastern Time), and was very moved by this image, recalling what the Pope-emeritus said that evening of February 28, 2013, that that was ahead of him was the “last leg of his pilgrimage on this earth.” The Pope-emeritus, like the millions of pilgrims who made the pilgrimages to walk through the thresholds of Holy Doors throughout the world, expressed the desire to one day walk through the one Door, the Gate, who is Jesus Christ (cf. Jn 10:9), in which the act of walking through the Holy Door prefigures.
“Eternal rest grant unto Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine on him. May he, and the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.” May Benedict, the humble pilgrim, walk through the Gate, who is Jesus Christ, the One whom he so longed for.
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