It was about 2am. My mom had fallen asleep and I was sitting there in his hospital room. Watching him. Unconscious. He was struggling to breathe as the tumor that first robbed him of his speech reached deeper into his brain, taking his life inch-by-inch. Fortunately, we’d had our chance to say the things we needed to say. All was silent now. There was nothing to do but feed him ice chips. And pray. And wait. I watched him breathe out one last time. Then…nothing. He was gone. Too soon.
My dad was a quiet, faithful man. He taught me to pray. He helped me answer my questions about God, life, faith. He showed me was it was to be a loving, godly man. In his passing, I was surprised by the urgency I felt to grow up a bit more. I had been an adult for 20 years, but I still leaned on him. And now, I would have to stand at least a little bit more on my own.
I am reminded of my grief at the loss of my father today as I watch and reflect on the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. In some ways, the comparison strikes me as strange. I never had the privilege of meeting this pope. I didn’t know him personally. He isn’t dying. But I feel his loss just the same. Over the last 8 years, I connected with him as a spiritual father. I benefitted from his wisdom and his quiet example. I became a better man under his leadership. I am grateful to him. I am sad to see him go.
Today, as on the day my father died, I am aware of my need to grow up a little bit more. When the Pope first announced his resignation, several people called our radio program to say they’d felt abandoned. They wondered how, if the Pope was our father, he could just walk away. I reminded them that the Pope is not really the head of the Church. Christ is. The Pope is Christ’s Vicar on earth, a physical sign of Christ’s leadership of the Church, but though Popes will always come and go, Christ will always remain. The Pope’s resignation is a reminder to all of us to place our hope, not in a man, not even in a great man, but in Christ. In a way, the message I take from his resignation is a similar to the message I take from Pope Benedict’s encyclical, Spe Salvi. In all things, we must keep our eyes fixed on Christ. Everything else is a distraction.
Today, the Chair of Peter will be vacant. But the Church is not adrift. Christ is still at the head. Benedict, himself, reminded us of this in his farewell address. “Nevertheless, I always knew that the Lord is in the barque, that the barque of the Church is not mine, not ours, but His – and He shall not let her sink. It is He, who steers her….”
Today, we will say goodbye to a man who has our spiritual father for the last 8 years. We will feel the loss of him. But perhaps his final gift to the Church is a similar one that my father gave me at his passing; the gift of maturity. Benedict, as a teacher, has been teaching us to stand both closer to Christ and more confidently in Christ. As his leaves the Chair of Peter, he challenges us to stand up, to be men and women of God. To be strong. To be the Church Christ calls us to be. Let us show our gratitude to Pope Benedict by rising to the challenge this great man has placed before us.
“Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong” (1 Cor 16:13).