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Benedict the brave

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By Andrew P. Napolitano
Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

When Jesus established the papacy, the Gospels report that he told the apostle Peter: “Amen I say to you: You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” These words are emblazoned in Latin across the front of St. Peter's Basilica. St. Peter's successors have incorporated his name to describe their work, the Petrine ministry.

But the Petrine ministry is more than work. And being Papa Petrus is not a job; it is a calling in which a man has been chosen by the direct descendants of the 12 apostles as agents of God to be the vicar of Christ on Earth. One becomes the pope not as one becomes the president, but as one becomes a Catholic priest or the father of a child. The papacy, like ordination and fatherhood, is a life-changing and irreversible imprint — and hence, my sadness at the abdication of Benedict XVI. It shook my soul to the core.

The present pope is cognizant of the burdens of office and the needs of his enormous flock. He also is a brilliant theologian whose pre-papal- and papal-published works have instructed the faithful and others in a manner and with a level of confidence and erudition that surpass his modern predecessors.

When Benedict was elected to the papacy in 2005, I wept with joy that such a faithful custodian of the church's teachings and traditions and such a worthy bridge to Christ in heaven had been chosen by the cardinals. But it was not always so. Like many of us, the youthful Benedict evolved with the passage of the generations.

Fifty years ago, as a young priest and scholar, he preferred wearing civilian clothes in public — truly a statement in the mid-1960s — and he relished his role as an adviser to the less-orthodox members of the Catholic hierarchy at Vatican II.

But his papacy has been spent attempting to return to the level of Catholic orthodoxy that the somewhat misguided and largely misunderstood teachings of Vatican II have been used to assault. At some point in his career, the future pope recognized that Vatican II made the church worse, not better, and that the Catholic teachings, traditions and liturgy that the world believed Vatican II had watered down needed to be restored. He knew that his public mission was to reverse the trivialization of the liturgy, the lax clerical discipline and the weakened sacramental safeguards from which the church has been suffering since Vatican II.

The Holy Spirit must have recognized all of this, as he sent us Pope John Paul II, the rock star, to blaze a path where no pope had gone before — touching millions of youths with language they understood.

Now Benedict has freely chosen to surrender his power and forgo his temporal glory so one stronger than he can exercise it, no matter his personal loss.

This is the essence of Benedict's gift to us: He used his very existence on Earth near the end of his days to teach others to reach and correspond to a personal relationship with God, driven by conscience and consistent with church teachings, via the sacraments and personal sacrifice, no matter what the world thought.

Such a quiet, personal, Christ-like submission of the will is not the essence of a rock star; it is the essence of a rock. Human salvation has been advanced immeasurably because the church had both types of popes at its helm — each to complement the other in ways we could not have imagined.

Andrew P. Napolitano, a former judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey, is the senior judicial analyst at Fox News Channel.

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