To many, Pope Benedict XVI is a radical: an old man clothed in capes, incurably fixed on forgotten principles of a forgotten world—principles that no longer apply to the “real world.”
To others, Pope Benedict XVI is radical: a wise man clothed in Christ, inspiringly fixed on the roots, radix, of the world—principles that fundamentally apply to the Real World.
Pope Benedict XVI may be considered radical in the prevalent negative sense of the word—that is, fanatical—and he will certainly not be remembered as radical in prevalent positive understanding of the term: employing a cutting-edge departure from tradition to affect reform. He will, however, be remembered by Catholics as radical in the truest sense of the word, whose time at the Petrine helm was devoted to a return to tradition to affect reform. Today, to be a traditionalist is a stigma for being stuck in the past. But Benedict XVI rejoiced in the past and drove it down deep, like a plow, to cultivate the arid areas of the vineyard.
This did not, as may be leveled at him, alienate his flock through a dusty adherence to the archaic. Though he sought to purify the Church (even at the expense of some already wayward members), Benedict did not desire to rock the boat, but to be, instead, the Rock; keeping the boat solid and steady as he fished for new men with old nets. He preached the law of Life in a dead language, extending the living record of the past to enliven the present and the future. He drew from the well of ages to draw up fresh water for a culturally and spiritually thirsting people.
Pope Benedict’s establishment and encouragement of the Motu Proprio on the use of the Tridentine Rite of the Mass sought to stir Catholics out of the exhausted lethargy that Vatican II left so many in. He resurrected long-buried usages, customs, and prayers to resurrect his people through the richness of ritual. He issued a refined translation of the antique Roman Missal to revive the sheen on meanings that had been lost, and sharpen with precision where laxity had blunted. He championed the attentiveness due to the liturgy and the time and care necessary to give it the dignity that is its due. He established the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter to open the door wide for Anglicans to return to the fold of Holy Communion. He used tradition to engender new life for the Church.
Pope Benedict’s treatment of matters outside the sanctuary was equally grounded. He was a defender of the tradition of human existence—or what is also known as nature or the natural. The Pope’s staunch opposition towards the atrocity of abortion and his firm stance on same-sex marriage all hearken back to primal truths of humanity and human dignity. His approaches and actions enacted a prehistoric justice that must still inform and form history; and his manners were not as harsh as they were healing.
Nothing this Pope did (until now) was really what can be called new and exciting. Everything he did, though, was old and exciting. Pope Benedict was a radical pope because he clung to the roots of the Faith—and this was his genius, which is so commonly and mistakenly branded as “closed-mindedness.” It is only an open mind, however, that can take in the relevance of this world, the world that was, and the World to come.
There is the modern radicalism of change, and then there is the ancient radicalism of holding the line. Benedict embodied the latter, a style which is not in vogue. The only things fashionable about Benedict XVI were his red shoes.
But now Benedict XVI has suddenly departed from the traditional paths. For being such a radical Pope, the rest of the world can now truly say that Benedict came around to their meaning of the word. His resignation was, in a sense, the first radical thing this radical Pope ever did. If it is nothing else, it is at least surprising. But surprises are to be expected from those who follow Christ. We all know the story of Jesus walking on the stormy sea toward His disciples, in which Peter asks if he might come to Him over the water. Our familiarity with the story might cause us to overlook the outlandish nature of Peter’s request. What man in his right mind should wish to attempt such a thing? Christ said, “Come.” Simon Peter vaulted over the side of the boat, in what must have seemed to other disciples as an act of lunacy, and walked on the waves with his God.
Following in the footsteps of Our Lord Jesus Christ has never been a simple or even a reasonable task—much more so for His Vicar. In fact, this following is usually expressed in a willingness to do things that do not make sense—at least as far as common sense goes. It made no practical sense for a man to desire to walk on water. It made no physical sense to expect that he could distribute five loaves and two fishes among five thousand people. Even less did it make any worldly sense that he adhere to a Man who promised to give His Flesh as food for the life of the world. Yet these are the sort of counter-intuitive responses that Our Lord expects of His disciples. He sometimes asks that we act against what right reason may seem to dictate, and trust in a higher reason that may not seem reasonable at all. For many this is a fearful mandate, and many of us may be feeling this uncertainty with the news that has not been heard for six hundred years. Rather than succumbing to our fears, we live by faith (Rom 1:17).
This is the Year of Faith. Let us be, then, of great faith. Pope Benedict XVI, soon to return to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, would have us be so; and so would the One he represents.