The shoes of the fisherman are now filled. Pope Benedict XVI now leads the bark of Peter into the new millennium. Since John Paul II’s entry into Eternal Life, we have been praying that the Holy Spirit would inspire the Cardinals to choose someone who would be a good shepherd to his people. By choosing Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, they have chosen wisely. The Church is no longer widowed.
The College of Cardinals has chosen a man of great intellect who for more than 20 years was a close collaborator of John Paul II. As a young priest and theologian, Joseph Ratzinger was an influential consultant to the Bishops of the Second Vatican Council. Like John Paul II, he has devoted his life to assuring its faithful implementation. He has served the Church well in many different capacities – as a priest and teacher, as a pastor and archbishop of a large archdiocese in Bavaria , as a cardinal working for the Holy See in a number of different capacities including heading the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
A man who has experienced the great upheavals and contradictions of the 20 th century, he brings to the office of Pope some of the same qualities that people admired so much in John Paul II, his immediate predecessor: a deep faith, a keen intellect, a love for truth, great humility and the heart of a pastor. Both men are providential gifts from God to our Church and to our world. After the election of Pope Benedict last week, Cardinal George, the Archbishop of Chicago, alluded to this: Karol Wojtyla, he said, came to the chair of St. Peter from the East – at a time when the greatest threat to the future of mankind also came from the East; and Joseph Ratzinger, a man of Western Europe comes to the chair of Peter when the greatest threat to the future of mankind arises in the West.
The threat from the East was in the form of the collectivist ideology of Marxist Leninism. Today, 15 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is easy to forget how formidable enemy communism was. In 1978, when the whole world lived under the shadow of nuclear destruction, most people thought that the world for ours and future generations, if we survived an atomic holocaust, would be necessarily a bi-polar one. John Paul II refused to accept such a scenario – for he saw that it was not worthy of man. He sought neither to contain nor to appease the threat from the East. And he prevailed – not by force of arms, but by force of ideas, ideas rooted in the truth about the human person. “Live in the truth.” “Live as if you were free”, he told those who lived behind the oppression of the Iron Curtain. And now, a man of Western Europe , the cradle of modernity, ascends to the chair of Peter. And, if once the Church was threatened from the East, today it is threaten by the individualistic, relativistic ideologies of consumerist societies. These ideologies threaten the future of mankind no less than that of Marxist-Leninism; and they are no less formidable. But, Pope Benedict XVI understands the nature of the threat and asks our prayers that he not flee from the wolves. Yesterday, in St. Peter’s square, he said:
” The pastor must be inspired by Christ’s holy zeal: for him it is not a matter of indifference that so many people are living in the desert. And there are so many kinds of desert. There is the desert of poverty, the desert of hunger and thirst, the desert of abandonment, of loneliness, of destroyed love. There is the desert of Gods darkness, the emptiness of souls no longer aware of their dignity or the goal of human life.
Our new Pope’s task will be like that of John Paul II and those who preceded him: to tend to and to feed the sheep: to lead us out of these internal deserts of the human soul alone and lost without God into the green pastures of communion in our Triune God.
As God’s Mercy worked through the life of Karol Wojtyla, it will also work through Joseph Ratzinger. And, this Mercy of God will always appear greater than his or our own weaknesses and unworthiness. He is entrusted with the task of handing on the gospel in its entirety. That is the Pope’s job – and that is the task of each one of us really – the message of the gospel is entrusted to us to share with the world. It is not for us, or for any future Pope, to alter it to suit to the changing fashions of the world.
And those who speculated that the election of a new Pope would bring changes to core Church teachings were inevitably disappointed. Our Faith is not a human construct; it is a gift from God and a task for each one of us. The challenge before Pope Benedict and each one of us who wish to follow Christ faithfully is not to change the faith but to live it, to allow it to change us, and in changing us to help us become convincing witnesses to the hope that is within us so that the world might believe in Jesus Christ.
Benedict who today is, for the Church, Peter, prepares to put out into the deep and to lower his nets confident in the Lord’s power to give him a miraculous catch. Yesterday, he also said:
“We are living in alienation, in the salt waters of suffering and death; in a sea of darkness without light. The net of the Gospel pulls us out of the waters of death and brings us into the splendor of Gods light, into true life. It is really true: as we follow Christ in this mission to be fishers of men, we must bring men and women out of the sea that is salted with so many forms of alienation and onto the land of life, into the light of God. It is really so: the purpose of our lives is to reveal God to men. And only where God is seen does life truly begin. Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him.”
“Follow me”, Jesus said to Peter. And, we in turn can never reach Jesus except by the path of faith, the path of Peter who once said to Jesus: “Lord, to whom else should we turn? You have the words of Everlasting Life”. To know the Risen Lord means to walk in Peter’s footsteps. As John Paul II said in Novo Millennio Ineunte: “Only the faith proclaimed by Peter, and with him by the Church in every age, truly goes to the heart, and touches the depth of the mystery: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” As Peter follows Christ, we must follow Peter.