Bringing the Church to Life: The Wisdom of Pope Benedict’s ‘Abdication’


In G.K. Cheston’s masterpiece, Manalive, the famous quote states:

“I am going to hold a pistol to the head of the Modern Man. But I shall not use it to kill him–only to bring him to life.”

Even out of context, this quote is powerful and more than likely elicits thoughts within readers of what Chesterton meant by the provocative text. In today’s modern world, it isn’t a hard argument to make that many souls wander aimlessly throughout the world more dead than alive, even as blood courses through their veins with little to know intent on ceasing.

Without spoiling the story for those that haven’t read it, Manalive is a masterpiece and becomes more, dare I say, relevant every day. Chesterton teaches us, in his “subtle as a brick over the head” kind of wa,y that we have chosen our own path of self-destruction and we only need admit this and pick another course. Instead though, modern man prefers the folly of modernity and self-destruction over that of a moral life because the former is more gratifying. ((This is true in a subjective sense, but usually involves insta- vs. long-term gratification, of course.))

What the quote does, is it teaches through opposite expectations.1 When we hear the phrase, “…pistol to the head,” death is instantly conjured. Instead though, Chesterton assures us that it is life that he seeks. Similarly, we find ourselves in that same situation in the waning days of Benedict’s Pontificate.

Pope Benedict is often credited with saying that he, or the Church itself, will in the future be a “smaller, purer Church.” While I, or anybody else for that matter, am hard-pressed to find that exact quote, I have found one that might be the genesis for it. In a book, Faith and Future published in 1969-70, Benedict wrote:

“The church will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes . . . she will lose many of her social privileges. . . As a small society, [the Church] will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members.”

So while this isn’t exactly “…smaller, purer…” it is fairly close. Without arguing if they are the same, this quote can stand on its own. Elizabeth Scalia has the rest of the quote, and puts it in better context. For our purposes though, he isn’t talking about a smaller Church because it is dying, or even a bad thing. It is a purification, even if it isn’t the same purer as is insinuated by the wrongly-attributed quote.

As we fast-forward over four decades to present-day, we see the Pope himself laying down his staff to some degree. The bigger demands that the Church is making on all of us, he seems to have said that he can no longer bear. So is Benedict then caving under these demands? Is he saying the Church is too much? Is he saying society is crushing the Church to the point that even he, the Holy Spirit inspired leader of the Church, can no longer bear its burdens?

In fact, I will argue the opposite. He is stepping aside not to signify, or accept, that the Church is losing… but in fact  – to bring it to life.

For many of us that are fans of Pope Benedict, his teachings, and his direction as Pope – the idea of losing Benedict was, and now is, frightening. From Summorum Pontificum, to the humble way he lead and taught, Pope Benedict was an answer to prayers as we found our way out of the darkness that came on the heels of the modernization in the Church.

But what we have gained in theology and liturgical “reform of the reform,” many of us have lost in the simplest of teachings – community. For so many of us we cared less how far we had to travel, or where we had to find purer Church, we were willing to make the sacrifice. What we lost in the process was the human connection to the Divine. We had forsaken Jesus’ direction to John and his Mother while on the Cross, to find the purity of the upper room.

So as we descend into some difficult days ahead, full of fear and unknowing, whom do we have to support us through the days ahead? Certainly we have not let go of the hand of Christ, but do we have those around us to walk unified through whatever may be ahead on this path? Have we driven so far as to leave behind any sort of support network should we face days of trial?

If the Pope’s decision can teach us anything, especially his most ardent and thankful supporters, it should be that He must increase, and we must decrease. If we truly believe that we are the Body of Christ, we must be that in such a way that isn’t synthetic but authentic. If we believe in that beauty will save the world, and therefore “Save the Liturgy, Save the World, then we must also believe that love can conquer the world. tumblr_m5mfm85Du41rxsshoo1_500

There is no greater love, than for a man to lay down his life for another. Yet, if the only life we have laid down is the person inside of us wanting something or desiring something, even if it is true, beautiful, or good… we still have forgotten our brothers and sisters beside us.

So let us come alive in these next few days, and weeks. Let us take this opportunity to become smaller – as people, as a Church, and as communities. Let us reduce down our daily lives to that which is important. If Christ is our center, than those whom He loves should also be our center.

Love can, and will, conquer the world. The Pope is stepping aside not to end his teachings, not to quit – but to begin their rebirth,  to bring them fully alive.

He must increase, we must decrease.

  1. I am sure this is a literary or rhetorical device of some type, but I didn’t feel confident to classify it correctly. []