The chair of Peter will be left in good hands

  • February 27, 2013

On hearing of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, my first thought was of some lines from the Tennyson poem “Morte D’Arthur,” which my father often quoted in unanticipated circumstances:

“The old order changeth, yielding place to new,

And God fulfils Himself in many ways,

Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.”

Benedict occupied the chair of St. Peter since 2005, succeeding Pope John Paul II. It was a position that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger never coveted (he knew better by virtue of his quarter-century of close service to John Paul II). But Pope Benedict proved to be more than just a worthy successor and has discharged the exacting duties with great distinction. In fact, after serving as Pope John Paul II’s right-hand man for so long, the transition from John Paul II to Benedict XVI was practically seamless.

As the 265th man to occupy St. Peter’s chair, Benedict will rank among the foremost theologians ever to become pope. His scholastic brilliance was widely acknowledged long before he became Pope.

When he became Pope, I decided to read at least one of his books and I visited my local library to see if they had any. The local catalogue listed 32 titles on diverse subjects. The Western University Library had 163 titles. Enough said!

While a first-class mind was expected, what was perhaps unexpected was the warm, pastoral side Benedict quickly exhibited. He had come to the papal office with a reputation as a hard-line conservative who, as prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, had allegedly suppressed dissent and excommunicated heretics. Critics loved to point out that the Congregation was the successor to the Office of the Inquisition, and the new Pope was portrayed as a kind of John Cleese figure who would leap unexpectedly from the academic shrubbery or from behind a lectern, shouting: “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition.” In fact, as a priest friend of mine remarked: “The German Rottweiler has turned out to be everyone’s German shepherd.”

Scholars will debate his legacy for years to come. His two acts that I would rate highest are his July 2007 decision to allow the Latin Mass to be once again acknowledged and celebrated, and his Anglicanorum Coetibus, a generous invitation to dispirited Anglicans to come home to Rome.

As it happens, I was an ex-Anglican who made that journey into the Catholic Church right at the beginning of Pope Benedict’s reign, although I came through thekindness of a willing priest who gave me private instruction, rather than (as has since happened) being part of a congregation that moved corporately to Rome. Looking back now on my spiritual journey, I can see that for me three considerations became of paramount importance: Rome’s authority, historicity and universality.

But more, I came to believe not just that truth is to be found within Rome but — something quite different — that in a quite unique way the truth is Rome. The survival of the Church from the time of Christ and the apostles in an unbroken line to Pope Benedict XVI is the proof of the Church’s divine origins. Incidentally, from within Rome’s embrace I did not expect modernity to appear any more comely, but perhaps somewhat more bearable. And so it has proved.

Unlike much of Protestantism, Rome is innately suspicious of feelings and enthusiasms. Still, the predominant feeling on the day of my reception into the Catholic Church was of a homecoming, of responding to a bell that I had long heard toll, of taking my place at a table that had long been set, of finding spiritual companionship among those unashamed to profess the faith of the fathers.

I came into the Church led by Pope Benedict XVI and I am heartsick to see his papacy come to an end. But the Church teaches that his succession will be guided by the Holy Spirit. This is the Church, after all, concerning which Christ promised that the gates of Hell would not prevail.

So, while we bid farewell with reluctance and some trepidation (for our faith is small) to a great Pope, one who seemed to have a unique understanding of the challenges of modernity, we will soon welcome a new pope, again Peter’s successor, whom we trust to guide us into the fullness of truth.

(Hunter is professor emeritus in the Faculty of Law at Western University.)


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