Posts Tagged ‘Pope Benedict XVI’

IMG_0038The Stirrings of the Spirit

This fall marks twenty years since we at Saint John’s began discussion about The Saint John’s Bible.  At first it didn’t seem like such a promising idea, and while I liked the concept, I expected that little would come of it.  For starters, it was both ambitious and a little outlandish.  And so, with not a little skepticism, I finally presented the idea to the powers that were, and to my utter amazement we decided to commission the scribe, Donald Jackson, to do it.

A lot has happened in the course of nearly twenty years.  The Bible has been made.  It continues to go on exhibition across the country.  The Apostles and Heritage Editions rest in libraries and museums and universities from Rome to Sydney and points in between.  And by every measure it’s been both an artistic achievement and a spiritual inspiration.  In short, it’s accomplished most everything for which we hoped, and then some.

IMG_9895This Wednesday at Westminster Cathedral in London Cardinal Vincent Nichols will confer on Donald Jackson the papal honor of Knighthood in the Order of Pope Gregory the Great.  Such honors come to those who make a singular contribution to the life of the Church, and this has certainly been the case with Mr. Jackson.  He created something that had not been undertaken in nearly 500 years; and if this work was not inspired in the sense that the scriptures were inspired, I dare say that the Holy Spirit stirred within his imagination all the same. For that stirring of the Spirit we mortals are indebted to artists, composers, musicians and the like.  After all, they have had the courage to welcome the Spirit, whether gladly or reluctantly.

In any such project there is a great deal that gets learned, and we absorbed a great deal from making The Saint John’s Bible.  First we discovered some of the reasons why no major institution has bothered to do this in nearly 500 years.  We’ve also found that the very idea struck many as ridiculous or wasteful or irrelevant to modern life.  But balancing all his was the appreciation of how art can inspire and move people.

IMG_9906I’d like to think that the broader strokes are what we’ve come to appreciate most.  First of all, economics have been and continue to be an important factor in deciding whether to do something.  This is rightly so, but economics can never be the sole determinant about what is important in life.  Some activities will never make money, and chief among them are art and music.  The same holds true for good conversation, friendship, love and prayer.  Few if any of these things yield a financial return on the investment of time and energy or even money, but they all give joy and meaning to life.

I’ve taken great solace in the habit of Pope Benedict XVI, who  for years has played Mozart at the piano before retiring for the evening.  In his tenure as pope he had to be one of the busiest guys on the planet.  Yet, evening after evening, he set aside time for this one item.  Wouldn’t it have been better to play a CD or get in an extra thirty minutes at the desk?  Perhaps; but he thought not.

In the course of public exhibitions of The Saint John’s Bible I’ve seen people pore over the folios, giving every indication that they were somehow communing with these texts.  To those who studied, the pages mattered in some religious or even emotional way.  That explains why some people have smiled, and on a few occasions a few have even shed tears.  For a variety of reasons people have taken something with them after poring over verses and images.  That little bit of inspiration that Mr. Jackson and his team have shared with others justifies the entire enterprise.

That should serve as encouragement to any people who give of themselves to others.  We never know what, if any, impact our generosity of time or energy or spirit will have on others.  But of one thing we have to wonder.  If we don’t do the giving, then how can we be sure that the Spirit will stir?


IMG_0059+In my last post I noted that I had attended the recent dinner in honor of the new archbishop of St. Paul/Minneapolis, hosted by members of the Order of the Holy Sepulcher.  I  neglected to note that, because of the crowd, I was unable to meet him.  You can imagine my surprise last week as I sat at breakfast in the abbey refectory.  I happened to glance up from my shredded wheat, and there was Archbishop Hebda, preparing a bowl of cereal for himself.  The previous evening he had come to Saint John’s to meet a priest-friend who was staying in the guesthouse.  The next morning the archbishop joined the monks for prayer and breakfast in the refectory, and I finally got to meet him, over a bowl of cereal.

IMG_9927+On June 10th I arrived in London to attend the investiture of Donald Jackson as a member of the Order of Pope Gregory the Great.  Among other reasons, this was a good weekend to be in London, since there were three days of festivities to celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday.  On Saturday there was the trooping of the colors, but another activity went on for three days.  In her honor the horse guards took their steeds out of their stalls, and for the duration they trotted around the city pooping all over everything while adoring crowds applauded.  It’s a local thing and not quite my cup of tea.  But it makes them all happy, as long as they don’t step in it.

+Save for the papal letter that confers the Order of Pope Gregory the Great, the photos in today’s post show Westminster Cathedral in London.  Begun in the 19th century, the interior of the cathedral remains unfinished, and someday mosaics will fill in the darker recesses of the cathedral.  Included is a mosaic of Pope Gregory the Great and Saint Augustine of Canterbury, whom the pope sent to evangelize the Angles and Saxons in 590.

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Old City, Warsaw

Old City, Warsaw

The Pope Speaks, and Sometimes in Silence

On his recent trip through the Philippines there came a moment when Pope Francis found himself speechless.  Standing before an audience that had suffered grievously in last year’s tropical storm, words simply failed him.  These people had lost family members, homes and possessions.  Now, months later, they had scarcely more than their lives and the clothes on their backs.  In the face of such abject poverty there were no words to express the pope’s own grief.  So he stood in silence, trying to absorb the enormity of it all.  And finally the only thing he could offer was the assurance that Jesus still loved them.  Any other words might have cheapened the moment.

Warsaw, Poland

Warsaw, Poland

We’ve come to expect a lot from popes and other religious leaders, but what we’ve wanted from them has varied from time to time.  I recall as a high school student picking up an issue of The Pope Speaks, the official archive of papal pronouncements.  In keeping with the gravitas of the subject matter, the print was dense and there were no pictures.  It had all the appeal of The Congressional Record, and a quick scan of the contents reinforced that impression.  No wonder this journal could sit on the library’s magazine rack for months on end, in mint condition.  This was the official record of the Church, and it was best read with awe and reverence, preferably under the direction of a theologian in good standing.  Suffice it to say that for your average high school student these tomes held zero interest.  That may have been unfortunate, but that’s the way it was.

We’re not that far removed from the day when monarchs and leaders of all sorts were cut from a different bolt of cloth.  Queen Victoria, to cite but one, was notoriously shy and reluctant in the extreme to appear before her people.  In one episode she stubbornly resisted her aides and family, who had urged her to attend the unveiling of a memorial plaque.  She dug in her heels for weeks on end, but finally caved in.  So on the appointed day she was trotted out of the palace and then unveiled the memorial with a speech that stretched on and on for exactly one sentence.  Then she trotted back to the palace and pronounced herself exhausted but satisfied that she had exceeded the limits of duty.  Obviously it’s a long and bumpy road from her to Queen Elizabeth’s concept of duty.

Old City, Warsaw

Old City, Warsaw

We see the same evolution in the papacy during the same 150 years.  This is not the place to recount the history of the popes, but it’s enough to point out that for decades after the fall of the Papal States in 1870 popes simply did not leave Rome.  For better, and mostly for worse, popes made themselves prisoners in the Vatican.  To some they seemed aloof, while to others they had a mystical transcendence that set them apart from the rest of us mere mortals.  So, with the votes counted, these newly-elected popes left off their old selves, and each in turn put on the person of the Oracle on the Tiber.

Fast forward to more recent times and you’ll find bishops of Rome more than willing to step out of their comfort zone, often to the consternation of their handlers in the curia.  And each has  brought talents that have distinguished them individually.  Pope John Paul II travelled widely and spoke to countless groups, as did Benedict and now Francis.  But to my mind each has put his own stamp on his tenure in the office.  Pope John Paul II, in the popular imagiation at least, walked on the world stage and helped to shape international affairs.  Pope Benedict, by contrast, brought a keen intellect and seemed much more at ease in academic circles.  Francis stretches the envelop even further with his love of the pastoral situation.  In Buenos Aires he was at home in the pulpit and in the confessional, and in those venues he continues to shine.

Old city, Warsaw

Old city, Warsaw

That, I think, is one of the many gifts that God seems to have given Pope Francis.  When he speaks it is not to dismiss what previous popes have had to say.  Rather, he believes with all his heart that the teaching of Jesus and the Christian tradition are meant to provide solace and support and meaning to people.  So why not translate it into the language of those who suffer?  Why not translate it into word and deed?

Francis, like his predecessors, believes that the message of Christ is too good to be hidden under a basket.  It’s life-giving and it ought not be stored away in solemn tomes accessible only to the best-educated among us.  Far from being irrelevant, such tomes are incomplete until they flow out into the streets where they can inspire and nourish.

Old city, Warsaw

Old city, Warsaw

Pope Francis has been fond of quoting his namesake, who urged people to “preach always.  If necessary, use words.”  And this weekend in the Philippines, he did exactly that — he preached through his momentary silence.  That, it seems to me, is what the gospel asks of all Christians.  And if we can begin to do that, the Gospel will exist not just as words on a page.  Even better, the gospel will begin to come alive both in our words and in our deeds, and even in our moments of silence.


+I am grateful to all of you who sent messages and offered prayers for my mom during the past week.  Happily, the solution to her problems was something as simple as a pacemaker.  After the procedure and two days in the hospital she returned home, with a lot more energy than she had before.  She is recovering and grateful for your remembrance, as am I.

Malbork Castle, Poland

Malbork Castle, Poland

+In the course of reading this blog readers are familiar with the fact that I am a chaplain in the Order of Malta, as well as in the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.  Those are the most significant of the medieval military orders which have survived to this day, but others flourished in the middle ages and have left stunning monuments to their existence.  Among the most impressive is Malbork Castle, built by the Teutonic Knights in Poland in the 13th century.  It remains one of the most amazing fortresses you will ever see, and it is well worth the visit if you ever have the chance.  I once had the opportunity to visit there with a pilgrimage group, and from the many pictures of Malbork Castle I’ve created a small gallery of photos.

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photoThe Willing Suspension of Disbelief

The image of police in full riot gear had blazed across television screens all day, on all of the news channels.  The Spanish, stressed by the economic crisis, had finally taken to the streets and were protesting in front of the Cortes, the parliament building in Madrid.  It was a moment of high drama, and this one video seemed to prove it.  But one element was missing.  There were no shots of an angry crowd.

Every now and again a news source will run a video clip without commentary, on the theory that at least a few viewers might understand what was happening without benefit of talking heads.  Happily, the opening frames of this video seemed to bolster the prevailing story line:  all was not well in Spain.

The tension in the scene was palpable.  Lined up shoulder to shoulder were the police.  Looking every bit like clones of Darth Vader, with shields to match, they stood in a solid phalanx, ready to crush anyone who would dare approach.  They were the symbol of an uncaring and oppressive government.

photoBut this photographer was of  a rare breed.  Perched atop a building with a commanding view of the square, the camera slowly pulled back from the close-up that had made the police look so menacing.  And as the lens widened to take it all in, the full scope of the stand-off unfolded.  In a large semi-circle, facing the police, was an army of photographers and interviewers, each jostling for the best angle.  But despite the crush, they were careful not to encircle the police.  Why?  It was simple.  If even one photographer stood behind the police, it would spoil every one else’s shot.  This was a team of competitors, working together, to make the most of an army that was all dressed for battle but had no one to fight.

Almost as an afterthought, this one camera panned the streets leading out of the square.  Without words it asked: “Hey, where’d everybody go?”  And there they were, strolling off in the distance, a couple of blocks away.  It seemed as if the “mob” had to catch a train or go to lunch.  Whatever the case, it was break-time, and they were out of there.

photoAll protestations to the contrary, most news programs these days are designed to be entertainment, which in turn drives ratings and advertising revenue.  As often as not the viewers are clue-less as to the meaning of what they see, and networks are only too happy to supply inane commentary.  The result?  Despite massive amounts of data at our disposal, we’ve become a very ill-informed people.  If we see it on the internet or television, or in a newspaper headline, we’ll believe it.  We sit before the media passively, with the same “willing suspension  of disbelief” that we once applied to reading fiction.

photoThis near-universal credulity is nothing new, but it can be very unhealthy.  John Allen, the noted Vatican analyst, pointed this out in a recent article on concerts that Popes Benedict and Francis had each missed.  A few writers had branded Benedict’s absence from a concert as a deliberate snub of the performers.  More recently, Francis’ absence from a concert got a very different interpretation.  Prevailing wisdom contended it showed his unwillingness to sit in a big baroque chair, like some prince.  In fact, Allen pointed out, Benedict often could not get a break from his critics, while Francis gets credit where credit is not due.  In this instance Francis’ absence had nothing to do with his taste in furniture and more to do with his work ethic.  The papal nuncios were in Rome for a once-a-year meeting, and Francis decided that a work-session with his representatives was more important than recreation.

In his Rule for Monks Saint Benedict is no believer in taking things at face value.  If looks can deceive, words can as well.  So, for instance, when guests come to the monastery, the abbot should greet them and then pray with them — to see if they come from God.  In receiving new brothers the abbot likewise must “test the spirit,” to see if they come from God.  Elsewhere he advises the abbot to seek counsel from a wide range of sources, just to make sure he’s included every possible slant.  But then the abbot has the responsibility to make an informed decision.

photoIt’s important to recognize Benedict’s emphasis on curiosity and truth-seeking.  He’s not paranoid, and he harbors neither suspicion nor fear of guests.  Nor does he have any ill will toward new monks until they prove themselves deserving of his trust.  No, the abbot has little to fear except his own ignorance and ill-considered judgements.  If he is truly wise, he will use every opportunity to seek God and the truth, and separate fact from fiction.

As for us, that’s not such bad advice.  All too often we rush right in and believe every headline and every news alert, as if they came straight from God.  We likewise tend to believe every scrap of gossip; and with well-entrenched opinion we pre-judge others without giving them a chance.  In short, we let ourselves be manipulated, both by peer pressure and our own stubborn ignorance.  And when we do so, we are no gift to the human community.

photoWhen Jesus tells his disciples to be sly as foxes he means them to be inquisitive, but not mean-spirited.  I’ve always seen in this an encouragement to think for ourselves.  God gave us brains to use, and we should use them wisely — and often.  We disappoint the Lord God Almighty when we check our brains at the door of the church, or when we worship at the computer or television.

If God is the good, the true and the beautiful, as Saint Thomas Aquinas suggested, then we can never be passive in our search for God who is the truth.  At the very least it means that we should listen to gossip and slander cautiously.  We should read critically.  We should watch television news with a whole truckload of salt, and see it for what it is meant to be: entertainment.  And above all, we should be skeptical of what we read on the internet — except for my blog, of course.


+As I noted in last week’s post, on July 11th we celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict.  At that liturgy Abbot John received the solemn vows of Brothers Nick, Michael-Leonard, and Lew.  They are pictured in this photo, standing at the gate to the abbot’s garden.

+On July 12th I presided at the abbey Mass, and you can access the text of the sermon, Jacob’s Journey, in the section marked Presentations.

+From July 12th-14th we hosted the annual retreat of the Oblates of Saint John’s Abbey.  At Mass on Saturday some eighty oblates renewed their commitment to live in the Benedictine way of life.  At evening prayer Abbot John received the promises of ten new oblates.  I preached at the Mass on the 13th, and you can find the text of that sermon, All God’s Sparrows, in Presentations.

photo+On July 11th I published a reflection on the life and teaching of Saint Benedict, which appeared in the blog of Salt & Light Television in Toronto.  Visitors to the site can click here for the essay, entitled Saint Benedict: Seeker of God in the Ordinary Things.

+Our confrere Brother John Bede recently published a music-video of William Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xfgKrQYFYjU).  During his doctoral research in England Brother John Bede was part of a small choir that performed some of Byrd’s compositions at Ingatestone Hall in Essex, where Byrd composed some of his work.  In this musical clip, Brother John Bede appears with the choir, which includes Brother Sergi of the Benedictine abbey of Montserrat, located outside of Barcelona.  Happily, Brother Sergi recently spent several days with us, and he was here for the feast of Saint Benedict.

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Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 092How’d the Pope Do?

The shift from actual journalism to “news entertainment” in recent years has transformed the way we learn about events.  Talking heads now spend a few seconds reporting on an event.  Then they get about the business of canvassing opinion from people who scarcely know what they are talking about.  The more off-the-wall the comment, the greater its power to amuse or enrage.  That’s good for ratings.

An event like a papal retirement is a perfect case in point.  Reporters have waited breathlessly for six hundred years for this to happen.  So you can forgive them for a bit of fuzziness on the facts.  I’ll also concede that specialists on the history of papal retirement are in short supply.   However, the inclusion of any and all opinions — no matter how ridiculous — suggests the priority is to entertain, rather than to inform.

Take, for instance, the newspaper report that “more than 120 cardinals will gather in Rome to elect the next pope.”  Since current Church law caps the number of electors at 120, this was a factual error, albeit a minor one.  To my knowledge the paper printed no correction, but I praise the editors for not taking this to the next level of controversy.  Armed with this new bit of data, someone could have penned a fiery editorial demanding to know why the election is restricted to 120.  Given that I am not well-read, that editorial may already have been written.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 018Then there have been the gratuitous appraisals of Benedict’s term as Pope.  Perhaps the most egregious of them came from the Swiss theologian Hans Kung.  In a piece in The New York Times he laid out an incontrovertable fact: the most promising thing Pope Benedict had done  during his entire papacy was to visit with Kung one afternoon.  I’d like to think that Kung intended to answer a different question: “what is your fondest memory of Benedict’s papacy?”  But alas, I have to take Kung at his word when he claims that the acme of Benedict’s papacy was his visit with Kung.

Of course the letter served to remind me that Kung was still alive, unless it was written posthumously.  But where was the de rigueur interview-in-the-street survey?  Someone should have asked puzzled pedestrians whether they agreed with the Pope or with Hans Kung.  A typical answer?  “Hans Kung, hands down!  Who’s Hans Kung?”

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 065I also couldn’t figure out how to process the various evaluations on Pope Benedict’s exercise of power.  Kung stated categorically that Pope Benedict had reverted to an imperious style of monarchy, not seen in the Church for a thousand years, more or less.  Since so many others have complained that Benedict had failed to act decisively on practically everything, I wondered if we were all thinking about the same guy.  Could both views be right?  The nice thing is that when facts don’t matter, then everyone can be right.  Everyone gets a trophy — except the Pope, of course.

On most of this I profess no opinion, save that I’m happy to hear that Hans Kung is still in the land of the living.  As for Pope Benedict’s on-the-job performance, I’ll leave that to the experts, whoever they are.  But when it comes to the fulness of papal power, I do have an opinion.  As a historian, I’ve actually read a book on the topic.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 010First off, about the only people who believe that the pope exercises absolute monarchical power are Hans Kung and the newspapers.  Not for a minute have the curial cardinals ever believed that, and I’m surprised that no one has bothered to ask them about it.  Of course when the cameras are rolling and the pope is in the room, they generously defer on any and every issue — and the smallest ones especially.  Then, when the room is empty, they get back to the daily chores of running the Church.

I don’t say this to be cynical or facetious, because I actually do subscribe to the decrees of the Council of Trent.  That was the 16th-century Church council that put its stamp on the organization of the Church.  The canons of Trent sought to establish a balance of power in the Church, so that no one pope or no one cardinal could set up his own dictatorship or run away with the store.  How did they do this?

Trent produced an organizational chart that for its time was a model of efficiency and the envy of many European governments.  Vatican business was divided into departments, called dicasteries, each headed by one cardinal and a small board of two or three other cardinals.  Each cardinal sat on two or three boards, but could only chair one.  This forced them to work cooperatively.  If you were the ambitious type, your chances of being elected pope increased if you worked amicably alongside your peers.  It stands to reason that the cardinals did not want to elect a would-be tyrant or a crazy man; so the default was set to elect people of poise and talent, who also had a record of collegial behavior.  And if by chance a newly-elected pope tried to make himself all-powerful, the cardinals could dig in their heels.  No one wanted to return to the age of the Renaissance popes.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 008This system tends to be a model of efficiency and continuity, and therein is its strength.  That also happens to be its weakness.  Few absolutist popes have emerged in the last five hundred years, because the cardinals have been there to prevent runaway tyranny.  But in times of crisis, that same Barque of Saint Peter can be very slow to turn.  And when the executive is weak or in ill health, there is little to hold in check one cardinal who wants to be first among equals.  Nor is there anyone to prevent the bureau heads from acting like a herd of cats, each doing his own thing.

That’s the theory behind papal government.  It has generally worked well, though on occasion it can be clumsy.  I’m not about to offer my evaluation of how this government worked during the papacy of Benedict XVI, since I’m saving my comments for when CNN and Fox News call me up.   But I will extrapolate and offer this bit of reflection.  Since all of us already know how the pope should exercise power, there’s no point in going on about that.  Instead, I’ll shift to a topic about which most of us are clueless: the exercise of our own power.

Many if not all of us have power, even if we think we don’t.  Each of us has the power to influence others.  By word and example each of us has the power to build people up or tear them down.  An encouraging word to a young person can make a difference that lasts a lifetime.  A careless or cruel remark to someone can  hurt them for years to come.  Each of us has the capacity to take action, in a way that will get others off the fence and act.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 041All these are ingredients that contribute to good and bad leadership.  But they are also some of the elements that go into a good life.  These few items can help determine whether we make any difference in our own world, or whether our absence will matter to anyone.  I’m hopeful that I’ve used what talents I have to make some little difference in the lives of others.  And I hope the same is true for you.

My advice on power stops there, and happily Pope Benedict needs no further advice from me on that subject.  But advice on his retirement is an entirely different kettle of fish.  So here goes.  First, now that you finally have some time to read, don’t believe everything you read.  Second, even though you used to Twitter, don’t believe everything on the internet.  And lastly, now that you are retired, get a membership in AARP.  They have great travel deals and insurance, and they don’t run surveys on how the pope did.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 015Notes

+On Feburary 27th I drove to Minneapolis to attend a meeting and to do some errands.  The high point of the day was lunch with a very good friend of mine.  The low point of the day?  Being stuck in traffic in downtown Minneapolis.  This was no ordinary traffic jam, because it began early in the morning when a tanker filled with milk overturned in the Lowry Hill  Tunnel, which tied up traffic for most of the day.  The word on the street is that it took a crew of 3,500 cats nearly eight hours to lick it up.  Cats will not be hurried.  Only in Minnesota.

+On Feburary 28/March 1st I participated in the meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.

+On March 2nd I presided at the Abbey Eucharist, and preached a homily that I’ve entitled The Prodigal Son, Revisted, which is included under the heading Presentations.  My earlier sermon, Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, has become the most visited page in the history of my blog.  There  must be a lot of prodigal sons and daughters out there — or brothers and sisters of prodigal sons and daughters.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 095+Also on March 2nd, Brother Walter led a crew in the tapping of one thousand maple trees in the Abbey forest.  Spring is just around the corner, and the ritual of making maple syrup has been a treasured memory of the monks at Saint John’s for generations.

+On March 3rd I presided at the Abbey Mass and delivered a sermon entitled Lent, a Pilgrimage of Self-Discovery.  I’m not sure I was back from the previous day by popular demand, but I got out of the Abbey church alive and in one piece.

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Mission Santa Clara

Mission Santa Clara

Letting Go

Like most everyone else, Pope Benedict’s impending retirement caught me flatfooted.  Of course as a historian I am aware that several popes have resigned;  but I never thought that such a thing would happen in my lifetime.  Shame on me!

I now realize how myopic my attitudes about the papal office had become.  The pope may be infallible when it comes to faith and morals, but no pope ever claimed to be divine.  Every pope knows he will someday meet his maker, just like the rest of us.  But they’ve also known that they can and do wear themselves out, and that no one is indispensable.  Most popes too have been under no illusion that there are more than enough candidates who are only too happy to step into their shoes.  Such paragons of self-sacrifice have always hovered near the papal throne.

Mission Church, interior

Mission Church, interior

While everyone professed to be flabbergasted by Pope Benedict’s decision, no one had a right to be surprised.  After all, the hints have been there for years.  Nor should anyone engage in the condescension that I have picked up between the lines of some of the commentary.  For one thing, medicine can prolong the lives of people well beyond the point of “useful” service.  Modern medicine can keep people alive for years while they are in a coma.  And modern medicine can become an end in itself.  Our ailments and their treatment can easily become the central focus of our lives, if we are not vigilant.

Was Pope Benedict possibly unaware of this?  Even granting him no benefit of the doubt, I suspect the implications of this dawned on him years ago.  In retrospect, his hints were frequent and obvious enough for anyone to pick up on.  But somehow the professional pope-watchers missed it all.  In fact, why should anyone be surprised that Pope Benedict paid attention to his own words on the subject?

Santa Clara University

Santa Clara University

People are astonished at his readiness to walk away from power, and that’s another mistake.  We’ve too often thought of the papal office in terms of authority and the exercise of raw power, forgetting that the pope is a human being, just like the rest of us.  Should we be amazed that Pope Benedict thinks he’s getting up in years?  Why shouldn’t Pope Benedict be allowed to consider retirement?  At the age of eighty-five it’s probably a good idea to give it some thought; and it’s highly likely that he’s thought of it often.  After all, he’s spent many of his waking hours trying to find replacements for his fellow bishops, who all retire at seventy-five.

No, I suspect that Pope Benedict has been thinking about retirement from his first day on the papal throne.  For eight years he did the job out of a sense of duty; and he did it to the best of his ability.  But he also realized that someday duty would demand a different course of action.  That day came.

Pope Benedict deserves a lot of respect for his decision, but I’m not so sure he deserves it just because he’s done this at the age of eighty-five.  Rather, he better deserves our esteem because he’s examined the direction of his life at a critical juncture.  He weighed his life in a balance between ministry and his personal journey of faith.  So I give him credit for knowing when to turn in his two weeks’ notice; but I give him greater credit for knowing what he wants to do with the rest of his life.  Ideas on how to spend retirement are already pouring in.  One writer suggested that Pope Benedict buy a condo in south Florida — preferably one with a nice pool and lanai.  No doubt that could be a great boost for Florida real estate; but the pope is no more likely to do that than he is to sit around in t-shirt and sweatpants, drinking beer and watching European football all afternoon.  No, that’s just not him.

photo (4)It should astonish no one that Pope Benedict has no plans to loll away his remaining years on sunny Mallorca like so many of his fellow Germans.  The reason?  He still has way too much to do.  I have no doubt that his job jar has been filled to overflowing for years; and he should know, because he’s been filling it himself.  He must be incredibly excited at the prospect of dipping his hand into that jar now and again.

If there’s one bit of wisdom I’ve learned from people like Pope Benedict, it’s this:  letting go does not mean giving up.  I have many friends who allege that they are retired, but they are far busier than I.  Walking away from a job did not frighten them, because there were so many interesting things that they’d put off for  years.  And now they are busier than ever and happier than ever.  And in so many ways they’ve enriched their community for it.  But why is it so much easier for some to let go of a job, when it is so threatening for others?

Santa Clara University:     Saint John's Bible Exhibit

Santa Clara University: Saint John’s Bible Exhibit

In his Rule Saint Benedict encourages the abbot to rotate work assignments so that no monk becomes proud or begins to think of himself as indispensable.  Of course not a few communities have suffered when a great cook passed the spatula on to a klutz, but you get the point.  What Saint Benedict meant to teach was something fundamental about the meaning of our lives.  While holding a particular job should be fulfilling, each one of us is far more important than any job we hold.  Each one of us has some terrific gifts and winning qualities, and perhaps we’ve used them well through much of our lives.  But if you’ve done one job well for forty or fifty years, what have you given up in the meantime?  What talents have remained dormant?  What have you failed to discover about your own life? Knowing when to let go is a matter of timing as well as an art.  But it’s a lot less scary if we recall that we’ve been given additional years to acomplish something really important.  I suspect that Pope Benedict can’t wait until 8 pm on February 28th.  He’ll go to bed a happy man, and on March 1st he’ll probably wake up early, because there’s so much he’s eager to get done.  Good for him!  And we should all be ready to do the same when the time is right for us.

photo (6)Notes

+The last week has been quite busy for me, and not entirely free from stress.  On February 9th I flew from Minneapolis to San Francisco, but the check-in did not  bode well.  As I watched the agent tag my bag, I pointed out that he was sending my bag to Puerto Vallarta.  I then asked my neighbor in line if he happened to be going to San Francisco, because his bag had just headed off in that direction, courtesy of my baggage tag attached to it.  He wasn’t; and it took two agents twenty minutes to scour the airport to retrieve and relabel his bag and mine.  Fun.

+On February 12th I delivered a talk at the Bannon Institute at Santa Clara University.  The Institute’s Winter Quarter theme is “Sacred Dialogue: Interpreting and Embodying Sacred Texts Across Traditions.”  My talk was entitled “Texts and Pen: The Legacy of Biblical Art and The Saint John’s Bible.

+On Feburary 15th I delivered the keynote address at a dinner at the cathedral in Los Angeles, celebrating the 900th anniversary of Pope Paschal II’s bull that recognized the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem (later known as the Order of Malta.)  Then on February 16th I spoke at a parallel event in San Francisco.

photo (7)+Our alumni of Saint John’s University continue to amaze me with their career choices.  This last week one member of the class of 2008, Joe Mailander, and his high school classmate, Justin Lansing, won a Grammy Award for the best song in the category of children’s music.  Known as The Okee Dokee Brothers, Justin and Joe grew up in Denver.  Joe graduated from Saint John’s, and several friends from Saint John’s contributed to the background music.  They won the award for their album Can you Canoe, but all of their songs are a delight.  After you’ve watched this video, then listen to Brothers.  You don’t need to be a kid to enjoy the music, the lyrics, and the lovely Minnesota scenery.

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