The little blue light flashed on my phone, still charging on my bathroom counter, when I woke up on February 11, 2013, alerting me that I had a message. I swiped the screen to read the message: "Did you hear the Pope is retiring? Does that make him ex-Benedict?" I rolled my eyes. It was too early for one of Rick's pope jokes.
At work Ken stopped me in the hallway. "So, the Pope's retiring?"
A few questions sprang to mind. Could Ken and Rick be in on this together? How did I become the default Catholic to ask pope questions of? And. . wait. . . The Pope's retiring?
The secular world may think us bizarre, almost cult-like in our adherence to one man who leads our universal Church. They are intrigued by the mysterious selection process, and skeptical of our belief that the Holy Spirit moves the conclave of religious who will gather to determine who our next Pope will be. I'm intrigued too. And as time closes in on February, at the end of which Pope Benedict will leave the throne of Peter, I'm surprised by the sadness in my heart as I consider saying farewell.
My reversion to the Faith of my cradle began eight years ago. Not long after I returned to the Catholic Church to begin a new stage in my own spiritual journey, our beloved John Paul II passed from this world, paving the way for Pope Benedict XVI's new stage of his spiritual journey. Pope Benedict and I "grew up" together; he is, for all intents and purposes, the only Pope I've ever really known.
Benedict will be remembered as a theologian, who closely followed in the footsteps of his predecessor Pope John Paul II. He is a man of deep thought, and deep prayer, and though our first instinct at his announcement of retirement was to be shocked by this virtually unprecedented decision, we know that it is the product of much reflection. We see that the world is changing. We sense that morale is low among us and around us. We see that people are leaving the Church. But we also see that people are reverting and converting to the Catholic Faith in droves. We trust our leader. We trust the structure of our Church. We trust that God always leads us where He needs us to go.
I will remember Pope Benedict's bold position on issues that are dear to my own heart. Pope Benedict has been outspoken against the poor treatment of animals, particularly those raised for food. He reminded us of our human obligation to be good stewards of this earth. Like Pope John Paul II, Benedict was an advocate against the death penalty, calling on us to work to end this practice in our modern world where we have alternatives to execution. And when Americans were rejoicing in the death of Osama Bin Laden, Pope Benedict reminded us that every soul belongs to God and that each one is part of His flock. Our God never wants to see any of us go astray. Every soul has value, and we should pray for mercy on every single one.
Even our Good German Shepherd is not assured that leaving this world will lead straight to Heaven. Our eyes must always be focused on that reward; we cannot lose sight of that goal. As Benedict struggles with his declining health, we can trust that he will continue to look towards Heaven and we should continue to pray that he, and all of our brothers and sisters, may find themselves there someday.
The world will keep speculating about "real" reasons for Pope Benedict XVI's resignation. They'll gossip about scandalous allegations, even while they wait, fascinated, for the announcement of our new leader. We faithful Catholics have a rare opportunity to share our Faith right now; the world is never as interested in the beauty and mystery of our religion as it is when our pope is being selected.
Somehow, in my faith journey I have become one of those people who listens to Catholic radio. I've become hungry for knowledge and information about my Faith, and the timing couldn't be better. I implore fellow Catholics to keep themselves informed as we go through this process together. Protect your Church. Take this opportunity to educate and even evangelize - we don't do enough evangelizing, having relied for so long on breeding ourselves into domination. Our friends will have questions about papal infallibility, the likelihood that a new pope will "change" the Church teachings on contraception, and even about rituals and customs involving silver hammers and fishermen's rings. I've learned in recent years that the answers to all of our questions are somewhere to be found, and right now it's up to us to spearhead our own education in our faith so we can be prepared to answer the secular world's questions.
At the end of the day, we are not so very different from our dear pope. Our hearts all long for Heaven. We all long to hear someday the same words:
"Well done, good and faithful servant."