Monday, February 17, 2014

Pope Benedict, Peter the Rock and the Holy Face

The Departure of a Revolutionary
By Paul Badde
Published in Le Figaro, Paris, February 11, 2014

At the end of his pontificate, Benedict XVI had his Fisherman’s Ring destroyed, as is the practice after the death of a Pope. On the other hand, he did not give up his name. He did not become Jozef Ratzinger again, as did Celestine V who, on December 13, 1294 after a few months in his office as Pope, resumed his former name, Pietro del Morrone. That is why, since February 11, 2013, the pontificate is no longer what it was. It will remain, however, the foundation of the Catholic Church. Now it is this base that Benedict XVI has effectively modified and he has done it as a sovereign just as Charles V did when, on October 25, 1555, in Brussels he laid down the most powerful imperial crown in the world. One should not have been astonished, then, to see a lightning flash strike the dome of St Peter’s on the night of February 11, 2013. Benedict XVI stepped back, a revolutionary.

He was the first to succeed the Apostle Peter in the new millennium. A multitude of challenges awaited him. He faced them as a passionate guardian of the deposit of faith seen in its totality. But this great conservative considered his latest responsibility in a more sober and modern manner than nearly all his predecessors. In his capacity as a theologian, he knew how weak Simon, to whom Jesus had given the name Peter, the Rock, was in reality. Yet the Rock remains the Rock. When Benedict XVI recognised that he was beginning to crumble, he gave up his responsibility so that, considering there were superhuman tasks to accomplish, he could make way for a successor who would also be as solid as the Rock. He did so in his role as “Pontifex Maximus” (supreme builder of bridges) between different worlds that had drifted away from each other. As he declared in Latin at Rome on that February 11, his strength was no longer sufficient “to exercise the Petrine ministry in an adequate manner”.

The key words in this declaration in Latin are the expression “munus petrinum”. The Latin term “munus” has a number of meanings. It can mean simply “ministry” as well as “gift”, “duty”, “direction”, “victim”, but also “wonder”. But Benedict understands it most of all, before as much as after his resignation, as “Petrine ministry”. This ministry of service he has therefore not abandoned by his step of February 11, 2013.

To the very personal Petrine office he has added a collegial dimension, as if it were a question of a common ministry. Since that day, there are not two Popes, but one enlarged and somehow more powerful pontificate. That is why he has not given up either his white cassock or his name. That is why he has not withdrawn, as the emperor Charles V did, to a monastery in far-off Spain. He has taken the opposite direction, choosing a step deeper into the heart of the Vatican - as if he was simply moving aside to give room to his successor and to allow for a new stage in the history of the papacy, which he has enriched by this step with a power-station of prayer and good counsel. . . in the gardens of the Vatican. He has not taken flight from the Petrine responsibility. He has rather strengthened its power. And that is what will remain.

And yet: in a hundred years, who will still be reading the books he succeeded in publishing during his pontificate, in a nearly Herculaneum effort? No one knows. There will certainly still be “read” a document which he himself did not publish, but which he has revealed by taking a just as significant as inconspicuous step. This document is not another book for our library but a unique iconographic document.
It is the image of Christ “not made by human hands”, which has borne many names in the course of the centuries. It has been known as the “sudarium”, the “true Face” or “the veil of St Veronica”. From 706 to 1527 it was kept in St Peter’s Basilica and was venerated in the Byzantine empire under the name of the “Mandylion” or the “image of Edessa”. It is an extremely fine and delicate object because the image is on a veil of sea silk (or “byssus”, a fibre obtained from mussels). This precious cloth disappeared from St Peter’s Basilica during the Sack of Rome in 1527 and was probably kept for safety on an isolated hill in Abruzzo by Ferdinando de Alarcon, the Spanish commander of the Castel Sant’Angelo.

For a long time it was thought to have disappeared. It even entered into the category of a legend so that it took a platonist intellectual like Benedict XVI to take really seriously the message conveyed by this original “not-man-made” image of the Lord. Four hundred and seventynine years after its disappearance from Rome, he was the first Pope who dared kneel before this cloth on which appears the Face of Christ. This he did on September 1, 2006, at Manoppello (200km east of Rome) where the cloth is permanently kept.

Since that day, the “human Face of God” has become the seal of his pontificate. In his sermon on New Year’s Day, January 1, 2013, he referred to it 16 times. And over 25 times during his second last general audience! This is THE testament of Benedict XVI: God became man and we have an image of the face of the invisible God. It is the “unique selling point”, it is the distinguishing mark of Christianity, which Benedict has brought back into history. He has rediscovered this original visual “text” as a cosmic “memory chip” for the future - which continues to proclaim, as no other document, the Resurrection of Christ from among the dead and until the end of time.

(Translated by Paul MacLeod, Geelong, Australia.)

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