It is still hard to take on board that Pope Benedict will soon be stepping down as Pope; it is almost equally hard to realise he has been there for eight years. The Blessed John Paul II was always going to be a hard man to follow – men of that charisma come along rarely. I know he aroused a variety of views among Catholics, but for non-Catholics he was one of the first Popes to make any real impact in the sense of making Catholicism accessible to us.
Pope Benedict and the Blessed John Paul offer two complementary ways of living the Christian life – illustrating St Paul’s words about each part of the body having a different function.
John Paul bore heroic witness. His own early life could very easily have been the prelude to martyrdom, but he was spared for other things. As Pope he made an impact no Pope had ever made, and through his witness he reached out to those of us who were not born Catholic. He seemed, to me, to have something of St Paul about him – the restless travelling, the desire to preach the word to the uttermost ends of the earth was very Pauline – as was the fact that he was not to everyone’s taste.
Pope Benedict, by contrast was the scholar-monk. His learning was truly formidable; but as impressive was the way in which his intellect was not prideful and did not lead him where a similar intellect led Hans Kung. The Pope put his intellect at the service of the Holy Spirit, and his books will be remembered and read as long as the faith survives – so to the ending of days then.
The Papacy came to John Paul in the prime of his life, and he lived in the public eye long enough to bear a very different type of witness. The nobility with which he bore his suffering set an example not easily forgotten. For Benedict, by contrast, the Papacy came late in life, at a time when he sought only quietness and the seclusion of the scholar’s study. And yet when the call came, he showed his own heroism by responding to it. He also showed a different sort of heroism in the decision to stand down.
Both men have consecrated their lives to Christ, and they stand at the peak of the pyramid of those who, in different ways, attempt to live the Christian life. It is not given to everyone to devote the whole of their energies and talents to Christianity, but it is right for each of us to question what it is we do by way of living the Christian life. As Lent approaches, I find myself examining my conscience and asking in what ways I can do more to bear witness to the hope that is within me.
Lent is a time for giving things up – but it also a time for taking on new things – and I think that too often I have done the one and not the other. These two Popes provide us with insights into how the Lord calls us to witness in different ways – and how He finds us where we are.