Catholics mark our year with feasts and fasts, times of repentance and times of rejoicing. Our calendar sets the rhythm of Catholic life. Given that, it's no accident that Pope Benedict XVI announced his abdication on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, patron saint of the sick.
Those focusing on papal politics miss the real story. With his resignation Pope Benedict -- arguably one of the most powerful people in the world -- has chosen to give up that temporal power to align himself with the sick, the weak, the frail. In doing so he's affirming the central Christian truth that "when I am weak, then I am strong."
Like the charismatic John Paul II, Pope Benedict has been received by enormous crowds around the world. Like his predecessor, he's a scholar who's grappled with the central intellectual problems of the modern age. And yet despite all that, like John Paul II, Benedict is a man of deep personal humility. But where John Paul II lived humility by holding up his physical frailty for the world to see, Pope Benedict will live it by retreating from the world to a life of prayer.
On our calendar we're also in the midst of the Year of Faith, declared by the Pope last October and something very close to his heart. During this year we're called to a "renewed conversion", a return to the central teachings of Christianity. While many push stories of the "Catholic Church Still Not Ordaining Women" variety, it's this emphasis on fundamental truths, on faith and hope and love, that has marked Pope Benedict's pontificate.
Many caricature Catholicism's adherence to such truths as somehow out of touch with the modern world. But in and out of season, "love in truth" is the heart of the Christian message; as Pope Benedict has said: "To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are therefore exacting and indispensable forms of charity." It's a form of charity exemplified by Pope Benedict himself.
The Pope also chose to announce his abdication two days before Ash Wednesday, the day Catholics around the world observe the beginning of Lent with prayer and fasting. We're marked with ashes and reminded that "you are dust, and to dust you shall return." It's not something you hear very often in our culture of solipsism and self-congratulation. It's rightfully humbling, a mark of faith that brings us together as Catholics. And this year we'll no doubt say particular Ash Wednesday prayers for Pope Benedict as he dedicates his life in a new way to the same humble faith we're all called to live.
Those prayers express our love for this Pope. Interviewed about the Pope's abdication on NBC's Today show, New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan said, "I love the guy," and that's a view shared by Catholics around the country. "Large majorities" of Catholics are happy with Pope Benedict's leadership, according to Pew. And while the usual spitefulness has swirled around the internet since the announcement, what's most remarkable is the unity with which everyday Catholics have expressed their love for our Pope.
As New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan remarked, Pope Benedict's life and words remind us that "more unites us than divides us." In the spirit of prayerful humility we've seen lived out today, hopefully we can use this moment to focus not on politics or controversy, but on those things that unite us.
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