FILE – This April 19, 2005 file photo shows Pope Benedict XVI greeting the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica moments after being elected, at the Vatican.
Looking to Pope Benedict XVI for romantic advice might seem an unusual idea to some. What does a celibate Catholic man know about love? Lots, actually. In 2005, he wrote an entire encyclical on the topic,
Deus Caritas Est
, (God Is Love) in which he asserted:
Too often, Catholic teaching regarding love, sexuality, and marriage is misunderstood as an imposition and restriction on human happiness and freedom, when in fact the opposite is true. It is only in embracing sacrificial love and giving selflessly of ourselves in service to God and to one another that we find our life’s calling and attain lasting happiness. Our modern world, however, is loathe to recognize this difficult truth.
When it comes to teaching the truth about love, Benedict XVI is not afraid to be counter-cultural. On April 1, 2007, in his message for the 22nd World Youth Day, he challenged young people toward a greater, more selfless love than the world would ever require:
The idea of self-giving love and “together forever” is a foreign one to many in today’s pleasure-seeking, hook-up culture. In comparison to the more popular notions of “following your heart,” “finding yourself,” and “being fulfilled,” the thought of sticking it out with one spouse of the opposite sex through a lifetime of thick and thin, for better or worse, can seem an unromantic one, indeed.
“What if you wind up just plain unhappy?” I once heard a friend argue against monogamy and in favor of avoiding marriage altogether.
But that’s just the thing. Catholic teaching on the permanence of marriage between one man and one woman is not designed to spoil our fun; it has the goal of human happiness at its very core. We don’t find real happiness by flitting from one relationship to the next, always scanning the room for a better deal whenever that “magic feeling” begins to fade.
Thankfully, a Catholic understanding of marriage has little to do with that “magic feeling” and everything to do with love and family. Because guess what? That “magic feeling” always will fade, but we find real joy and satisfaction if we replace it with lifelong commitment and shared goals that nurture the next generation. God created men and women for greater things than themselves. For those of us called to the vocation of marriage, a permanent commitment to one union and to the children that result from that union is exactly what our hearts were built for, and where our happiness lies.
Pope Benedict XVI understands this kind of commitment to service and self-giving love because he has lived it. The Holy Father’s announcement of his resignation from the papacy earlier this week might have been a surprise to many, but the humble, generous spirit behind the decision is no surprise at all. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was reluctant to take on the overwhelming responsibility of the papacy in the first place. He confessed to praying he would not be elected pope during the 2005 papal conclave:
“At a certain point, I prayed to God, ‘Please don’t do this to me,’” he said. “Evidently, this time he didn’t listen.”
But Ratzinger said yes. Because he knew he was called to serve the Church as pope, even if the very idea overwhelmed him. He never imagined he was born for greatness, but instead humbly accepted his calling to be used for the good of the church as God willed.
“Dear brothers and sisters,” he announced on the day of his election, “the cardinals have elected me, a simple, humble worker in God’s vineyard. I am consoled by the fact that the Lord knows how to work and how to act, even with insufficient tools, and I especially trust in your prayers.”
We might never be called to lead a church into the next generation, but every one of us is called to love. We too are insufficient tools, called to serve God and one another in ways we might never imagine. Human beings are built for this kind of self-giving love and we find our purpose in it, through work, marriage, parenthood, and vocation.
As we strive to meet the challenge of our calling, we can find inspiration and encouragement in Benedict XVI’s quiet example of humility, service, and generosity. Thank you, Holy Father, for teaching us, challenging us, and inspiring us to love … all the way to the end.
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