OPE BENEDICT XVI states: “The Chair represents (the pope’s) mission as guide of the entire People of God. Celebrating the ‘Chair’ of Peter means attributing a strong spiritual significance to it and recognizing it as a privileged sign of the love of God.”
I am fortunate to be just old enough to remember the conclave that elected Pope John Paul I in late August of 1978. When Albino Luciani first appeared on St. Peter’s Benediction Loggia (balcony) as Pope John Paul I, I will never forget his beautifully radiant smile. This happy memory is etched in my mind and one that I still hold dear. It was big news in 1978 that he took two names – names that represented the continuity of the apostolic succession – names that sent a message that Vatican II was bigger than he was. Taking the names of his two predecessors demonstrated his understanding of his place in history and his role as servant of the Church.
Yet, his death thirty-three days later was big news even among fourth graders at St. William the Abbott School in Seaford, New York. We talked about this first thing in the morning as we waited in line in the hallway. The benevolent smile that captured me was gone. But his choice of names was perhaps a great gift for a generation to come.
Another distant memory is that of the young and energetic John Paul II. My sisters and I were fortunate to see him at Shea Stadium in Queens, NY in 1979. (Thus uniting my two great loves: baseball and the Church—not necessarily in that order) We waited for hours in torrential rain, and we didn’t care. Even as children, we appreciated that this experience was once in a lifetime. The young Pope John Paul II was electric. This John Paul shocked the world with his extensive travel schedule, a ministry of presence to the worldwide flock, unheard of for a pontiff then, and something we take for granted now.
Today, on the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter the Apostle, the demands and scrutiny of the papacy are as great or greater than that of a head of state. Additionally, the heaviest burden and most grave responsibility of the papacy is to reform the Church from within of the great evils of sexual abuse of children. For over a decade, we watched this up close in Boston where this evil first played out for the world. Every parish was affected in various ways almost immediately. His Eminence Seán Patrick Cardinal O’Malley has faithfully and thanklessly navigated waters no one would ever wish to travel.
Quite interestingly, in 2010 John Allen described on both NPR and in the New York Times Opinion Page what he called the “Papal Conversion” of Cardinal Ratzinger in 2001 that lead to proactive reforms as Pope. “…after 2001, when he actually had to sit down and read all the case files for every Catholic priest, everyone in the world who had credibly been accused of sexual abuse, he began to talk much more openly about what he described as filth in the Catholic Church and became much more aggressive about prosecuting abusers. And that has followed into…his papacy, where we see him as the first pope to embrace a zero-tolerance policy on sex abuse, the first pope to meet with victims, the first pope to, in effect, break the Vatican’s wall of silence on this issue.” But the pain persists. Such vigilance and self-reform must now be part of every papacy moving forward.
In a few days, Pope Benedict XVI leaves the Chair to enter into his own personal wilderness to pray. This, in turn, leaves the faithful in the wilderness for a short time. In his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict reminds us that Israel’s flight from Egypt had two distinct goals. The obvious goal was to reach the Promised Land. But the second is perhaps far more important: Exodus 7:16 “Let my people go, that they may serve me.” It is there in the wilderness that Israel learns to serve and worship God in the way He desires. It is in their wandering that they learn righteousness, i.e., true worship of God. It is in the wilderness, outside of the Promised Land, where the people of Israel establish their covenant with God.
In Israel’s exodus from Egypt and search for freedom, they truly discovered their right relationship with God. “Only when man is in covenant with God does he become free” (The Spirit of the Liturgy) Pope Benedict also writes, “…it is important to see that the covenant is a relationship: God’s gift of himself to man, but also man’s response to God…is love, and loving God means worshipping Him.” (ibid.)
Finally, perhaps Pope Benedict’s lasting legacy may be his contributions to liturgy and music. His 2007 Apostolic Letter Summorum Pontificum on the celebration of the Roman Rite according to the Missal of 1962, has fostered widespread implementation of the Extraordinary Form. The exquisitely beautiful St. Edmund Campion Missal & Hymnal for the Traditional Latin Mass is among the great fruits of this Apostolic Letter. This hymnal and missal is a faithful response to serve the Church.
As such, to many musicians Pope Benedict XVI is a hero. Music may seem trivial and ancillary in light of the Church’s troubles. Music may seem unimportant next to feeding the poor and preaching the Word. Feeding the poor and hungry is undoubtedly more important than singing even the most beautiful work of sacred music. God is at the center of this important work, which is sustained and energized by prayer. Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, and Lex Vivendi reminds us if we believe what we pray, we must respond to God’s call by that way that we live. Music is prayer. Music helps preach the Word. Music is evangelization and strengthens our communities. Most of all prayer strengthens our resolve to serve God and to minister unto His people.
The mass, our greatest prayer, is a sung prayer. Pope Benedict’s gift is teaching us how better to pray—not by edict, or by decree, but through loving example of the Church’s music that grew up with the Roman Rite and lives with us today.
As Pope Benedict enters into his new life, let us enter for a time into the wilderness as well. There we will learn true freedom—to love and worship God. From this prayer we will learn to live in right relationship with each other and with the God who knows our needs better than we do, who knows every hair on our head, who knows when we sit and when we rise.
“The glory of God is the living man, but the life of man is the vision of God.” St. Irenaeus (cf. Adv. Haer. 4, 20, 7)