Over the last few days, I’ve been pondering what the prayer of Pope Benedict’s heart must have been during these past weeks. What was it like for him? What was happening in his interior life, in his heart to heart conversations with Jesus? What was he saying to Jesus? And what was Jesus saying to him?
The Holy Father most likely will never reveal to us what was happening in the intimacy of his prayer that led him to this decision; however, I believe that his decision to resign–a decision that affects the Church and the world–is a lesson for us on what it means to be a person of deep prayer.
One can only make a decision as monumental as Pope Benedict’s decision to resign if one is in intimate communion with the living God. One can only have the courage and humility to resign the papacy if one is intensely listening to the voice of God.
The Pope’s decision is a lesson in prayer and discernment. In the text of his resignation, he stated that he came to the decision after repeatedly examining his conscience before God. This means that day after day, maybe even hour after hour, the Holy Father opened his heart to the Lord in faith and love. In complete humility and trust, Pope Benedict presented to the Lord his questions and desires, his hopes and his fears, his body, mind, and heart. He spoke to the Lord in complete honesty. I don’t know what words he spoke to the Lord, but maybe his prayer was similar to this: “Lord Jesus, you have called me to this ministry, and you have sustained and guided me. But I need to share with you from my heart that I feel that my physical and mental strength is waning, so much so that I’m not sure if I am able to fulfill this ministry. Jesus, I will continue to serve as long as you ask me. Help me to see if you want me to continue or if you are leading me to step down. I will do whatever you ask of me. Show me the way.”
And then, I believe, the Pope listened. And he listened still more. Ever so deeply did he listen. Day after day, hour after hour, he listened. As he shared his heart in complete trust and honesty with Jesus, the Pope’s heart was open to receive the word that the Lord wanted to speak to him. Yes, God speaks to us. He speaks to us through the Church. He speaks to us through Holy Scripture. He speaks to us through our noble thoughts and desires, which always must be presented to a wise spiritual director to help us discern God’s voice from our own. He speaks to us through others. But God does speak.
The Lord spoke to Pope Benedict. Maybe the Pope sensed the Lord speaking to him through the Scriptures, or through his spiritual director, or in the intimacy of his heart where he received certainty from the Holy Spirit that this was the right decision. Maybe it was through a combination of all of these things that the Lord spoke to him. But God spoke, and Pope Benedict listened. Thus, we see in his decision the beauty of friendship with Jesus: we share our hearts with him, and he shares his heart with us. He cares about our lives; he loves us. He is not distant. He is Emmanuel, God with us, ever desiring to be involved with every detail of our lives.
What we learn from Pope Benedict’s decision to resign is that an intimate personal and prayerful relationship with the living God is possible. What’s more, we learn that it is only when we are in intimate dialogue with the Lord that we are able to discern his will for our lives. We learn that the decisions we make in prayer are deeply personal; yet because we are one body in Christ, our decisions are also profoundly ecclesial: my personal decisions affect the life of the Church, for good or for bad.
My heart is filled with gratitude for Pope Benedict, ever the teacher in all that he does and says. May the Lord bless him as he transitions into a life of contemplative prayer for the Church and the world.