BIRKOFER: Reflections on Benedict XVI’s funeral

February 14, 2023

(CNS photo)

I cannot extol the late Pope Benedict XVI’s intellectual capabilities, his apostolic zeal, or his virtuous life in a better way than any of the dozens of articles that have been published in the past few weeks. Rather than add to that veritable flurry of literature, I want to offer a perspective on Benedict’s life from that of a young Catholic, one who came of age only knowing him as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

It was not until I watched his simple casket disappear behind the gargantuan front doors of St. Peter’s Basilica that I became aware of the retired pontiff’s immense presence in the life of the Church, even while living out his days in solitude and prayer. His presence was unseen, unfelt, but unconsciously we all knew he was there. Little did we perceive it at the time, but Benedict was modeling for a weary world the mission of retirement.

Ours is an age that spares little time for simply stopping, for pausing. We pass from tragedy to pandemic to crisis without any time for processing. In our own individual lives, we glide from meeting to commitment to event, saving no time for simply savoring. In the midst of this, Benedict did the unthinkable: he resigned, and for nine long years, stood athwart a culture hellbent on binging absolutely everything. He thereby exercised a Petrine ministry utterly unique in the last half-millennium of the Church: that of a retired pontiff. On some level, I think his near-decade of near-silence deserves consideration as his magnum opus. There is an old saying: “If the Devil can’t make you bad, he’ll make you busy.” Against this, the pope emeritus preached his boldest sermon.

Yet one need not be an aged pontiff to enjoy the richness of retirement. Christ comes to us in the present moment, in our real lives, beckoning, “Come to me, all you that labor and are burdened, and I will refresh you” (Mt 11:28).

Dotted across our Archdiocese are hundreds of sanctuaries of quiet refreshment: our beautiful parishes. Adorning our everyday lives are myriad opportunities for recollection: our commutes, that time while our morning coffee is brewing, or waiting in line at a store.

All that is required is the courage to resign, like Pope Benedict; to put our phones down, close out of our inbox, to pause whatever media we are currently consuming. Of course, this courage is, in fact, not too common, which is what made Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s witness all the more heroic. 

Theodore Birkofer is a seminarian at St. Mary’s Seminary.