Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The good shepherd

NOTHING becomes age as much as acceptance.

That struck me as I read reports about the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. When I first read the stark headline last Tuesday from a news feed on Gmail—“Pope resigns”—I thought the writer meant “retires”.

But days later, after I had more time to surf the news, I realized that the verb was fully intended. When Joseph Ratzinger succeeded John Paul II to the papacy in April 2005, he was 78. According to, he was one of the oldest to become pope.

When he resigned early this week, after serving eight years, the 85-year-old seemed too old, too frail, too conservative to take on the challenges that divides and threatens an institution best known for its resistance to change.

But by taking a tract that no pope has done for the past 600 years, Benedict XVI may have done something no predecessor has done for what he calls the “Petrine ministry”.

Part of the problems facing the Catholic church is a tendency to speak in language too mystical for ordinary Catholics to understand. In his resignation statement last Feb. 11, the pontiff said: "After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry."

Fortunately, in the Age of Information, one does not lack tools to make the obscure clear. In the website,, I found this explanation from Benedict XVI’s immediate predecessor.

John Paul II quotes Mathew 16:18: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church.”

The late pontiff wrote that the successors of Peter must take on the “pastoral nature of the Petrine ministry”.

In other words, the pope must be like the Good Shepherd: “I myself will search for my sheep ... and will seek them out" (Ez 34: 11).

In the contemporary stage, the roles the Catholic church takes increasingly remind me less of a shepherd than of a chess player. As an institution of power and not shy about wielding its influence, the church, in taking a stand, regards those whose stance is the opposite of its own as opponents.

It is almost as if the shepherd has made up his mind that anything prowling outside his flock are wolves, not stray sheep to be sought out.

When the church does take a conciliatory approach, it’s reserved for straying members of the clergy, for whom there seems to be a bottomless well of compassion, empathy and forgiveness.

Even though Benedict XVI said in his retirement message that the "path of power is not the road of God," the media report that the Vatican has already started the process of ensuring there is a smooth “transfer of power” from Benedict XVI to his successor.

While speculations are rife about who the next pope will be—will he be Filipino? is whispered loudly around the country—it may be more important that the conclave of 117 cardinals under the age of 80 will choose a good shepherd to lead a universal, disparate flock.

He may not have the strengths of age and experience that Benedict XVI found inadequate for the pastoral mission.

He should be intimate with human failings. As John Paul II wrote, St. Peter’s three-times denial of his Christ converted him into becoming at once the church’s strength and unity.

The next pope will not just be shepherd of the adoring masses assembled on Vatican grounds. Out there is a world clamoring about the failed promises of Vatican II, clergy sex abuses, reproductive health rights and abortion, divorce and same-sex marriage, greater participation of laity and women, and Catholics who don’t believe the pope is, to paraphrase T. H. White, the once and future Catholic.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Feb. 17, 2013 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday main op-ed column

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