[Jesus] said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” [Jesus] said to him, “Feed my sheep.
“Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”
– John 21:17-18
Of the countless stirring moments we have seen or heard about over the six days of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the United States, one image has struck me as the most moving and deeply meaningful of the whole sojourn: the moment when the 81-year-old bishop of Rome exited his shiny, protective popemobile to walk down the last part of the ramp leading to the small gathering at Ground Zero.
Many times this past week Benedict revealed himself to have an exquisite sense of proportion, of knowing what is appropriate to the moment — and never more so than at the footprint of the North Tower. At his age, in the chill morning, the pope might have been excused for slowly motoring down to the assembly, but he instead shed a worldly trapping of convenience and made his solemn way.
Although his aides moved with him, he walked with a grave air of solitude, a small gray-haired man in a beautifully tailored light coat, his arms at his side. Benedict wore an expression of obedient resolution and moved as though he was being pulled inexorably in, and further in, to the place he would rather not go — into our national gaping wound of horror, confusion, evil, and despair — and he fell to his knees and prayed.
There was nothing dramatic in his expression. He did not mug for the camera or demonstrate his prayer beyond his posture and closed eyes; he allowed us our dignity while keeping his own. One sensed that had his secretary not interrupted, his prayer would have gone on and on.
America has been spiritually and politically reeling since 9/11, struggling to find balance in a world full of new challenges and ugly realities. It has been a bloody and divisive effort and Americans are weary. In a tumultuous election year, we are trying to regroup and find our way. And we still mourn; we mourn our dead and the loss of our youthful, trusting innocence. Benedict came into all of that. He prayed; he met; he listened; he entered into the pain.
Although his meeting with some of the victims of the shameful sex abuse scandals was private and unseen, I suspect Benedict wore that same expression, and carried himself in that same resolute manner, as he allowed himself to be led where he would rather not go, placed into the presence of the church’s deepest wound — a wound of horror, confusion, evil, and betrayal. The terrible sin of some of our priests, compounded by their bishops, has been a source of sickening and unrelenting shame for us. We have felt the disgust in our bellies and wished we could push the whole story away, because the pain is so abysmal and vast. But it can be pushed away no longer, and Benedict said that even before his plane hit the ground at Andrews AFB, and every day after.
But speaking difficult words is easier than looking into the eyes of innocent lambs wounded and left to fend for themselves by neglectful and self-interested shepherds within the family. Benedict trusted and was led to look into those agonized eyes, and to tend the wounds, because it needed to be done if the flock is to survive. He did it for an American church which — scattered, divided, and needing to regroup — simply could not bear to do it on her own. He met; he listened; he entered into the pain. A healing process is begun. Within the flock, there is hope renewed.
Who would have thought it? After the glamor and punched-up charisma of John Paul II, many in America had set low expectations for this man who was known mostly by his media caricature, that of “hard-line enforcer.” For six days we watched and listened; we came to know Benedict as a cerebral and soft-spoken man whose body language was endearingly awkward and whose pen seemingly never rested. He is warmer than we expected, and he is braver than we knew. Overwhelmingly, though, Benedict is gentle and exceedingly, edifyingly humble. He is a “Supreme Shepherd” but one who allows himself to be led, and ever led, by the Divine one.
Looking back, we should have realized it sooner. When he understood, during the papal conclave, that he was going to be John Paul’s successor, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger prayed, “Lord, don’t do this to me.” At his inaugural mass in 2005, Benedict begged of us: “Pray for me, that I may learn to love the Lord more and more. Pray for me, that I may learn to love his flock more and more. Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves.”
Three years later, upon being informed in St. Patrick’s Cathedral that it was the exact hour and anniversary of that election, he echoed that sentiment: “I will try to do all that is possible to be a worthy successor of the great Apostle, who also was a man with faults and sins, but remained in the end the rock for the Church. And so I too, with all my spiritual poverty, can be for this time, in virtue of the Lord’s grace, the Successor of Peter.”
Always when a pope travels, much is made of the external trappings — the vestments, the red shoes, the miter and crosier — and often there are criticisms that the pope is too richly dressed, too well-shod. But the Successor of Peter does not dress himself; he is dressed by his Office, and not for his own vanity but for the benefit of the sheep who seek him out amongst the merchants, politicians, pilgrims, and other shepherds. His sheep mill around and graze; they frolic and fight; they stray and get caught in snares and attacked; and they look to that recognizable shepherd for guidance and rescue — to be gathered safely back, and to be walked home. But even the shepherd — if he is a good and mindful one who truly loves his sheep — allows himself to be led. He is aware of the hour. And obedient to the sun.
The Anchoress blogs at the Anchoress Online.