As Monday, April 16, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI's 85th birthday, drew near, the predictable reports appeared in the secular media: The Holy Father is worn out; he's conserving his energy; he used a mechanical platform to convey him down the aisle at services during Holy Week and Easter. That he had just returned from a trip to Mexico and Cuba, and that participation in the full complement of Holy Week services is taxing on anyone, let alone an 85-year-old man, were facts conveniently left out of such reports. If I make it to age 85, I hope that God will grant me even half of the physical energy that Pope Benedict has, much less the mental vitality.
The Holy Father had set the day before his birthday as a deadline for the traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X to respond to the latest, and possibly final, attempt by the Vatican to reconcile the SSPX to the Catholic Church. The choice of a Sunday as a deadline is a sign that the particular day was itself chosen to send a signal: Sunday, April 15, 2012, was Divine Mercy Sunday—a feast established by Pope John Paul II in 2000, and therefore viewed with skepticism twice over by many traditionalists.
The signal itself was likely two-fold: For the good of the Church, Pope Benedict stood ready to extend mercy to those whose love of tradition caused them to separate themselves from the universal Church; and, just as importantly, Pope Benedict was reminding the SSPX that he, like his immediate predecessor, is the Vicar of Christ. The beatification of Pope John Paul II, who had canonized Saint Faustina and extended the Feast of Divine Mercy to the universal Church, had been viewed by many traditionalists as a mistake; yet Pope Benedict, who had presided at the beatification, holds the ultimate trump card. Ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia.
From the start of his pontificate seven years ago, Pope Benedict has placed Christian unity at the fore of his efforts. Other traditionalist groups have been reconciled to Rome; Anglicans who wish to reunite with the Catholic Church have been given a structure to make it easier to do so; the Orthodox, who had their own problems with Pope John Paul II, have been given every reason to believe that Pope Benedict desires to heal the thousand-year-old schism.
The secular media—and, indeed, much of the Catholic media, left and right—largely misunderstood Pope Benedict at the time of his election. They thought not only that he would enforce orthodoxy at the expense of unity, but that he desired a smaller Church.
They were wrong. It would be a mistake to think that any pope has regarded disruptions within the Body of Christ as desirable; but Pope Benedict XVI seems to have a particular abhorrence for such divisions. His vision is that of Christ, Who prayed to His Father that we may be one, as Christ and the Father are one.
Two days before the deadline given to the SSPX, three days before his birthday, and six days before the seventh anniversary of his election as pope, Benedict offered some thoughts on the unity of the Church in a message to mark the 500th anniversary of the first public display of Christ's tunic (or robe)—the seamless garment for which the Roman soldiers at the Crucifixion cast lots.
"The Church Fathers saw in this [tunic] the unity of the Church, founded as one indivisible community by the love of Christ," Pope Benedict wrote. "Moreover, the Robe of Christ is 'woven in one piece from the top'. This too is an image of the Church, which lives not thanks to her own efforts but because of the action of God. As one indivisible community she is a work of God, not the result of man's abilities."
The Church's "unity, consensus, effectiveness and witness . . . can only be a gift of God." When we forget that, divisions arise. When we remember it, we can heal those divisions—or, rather, we can allow Christ to heal those divisions. "We must be constantly open to conversion and humility, in order to be disciples of the Lord in love and truth."
A number of commentators have seen this message as the Holy Father's attempt to reach out to the Society of Saint Pius X. That may be true, though I suspect that he has reached out to them in private throughout the attempts at reconciliation, and any public statement, veiled as it must necessarily be, is not likely to make more of a difference than those private ones.
Rather, Pope Benedict's reflections on the necessary unity of the Church strikes me a warning to all of us who, in our own ways, separate ourselves from the Church. When we think of it that way, "We must be constantly open to conversion and humility, in order to be disciples of the Lord in love and truth" takes on a more personal meaning. The disruptions to the unity of the Church, the divisions within the Body of Christ, are not just those—the Orthodox, the various Protestant communities, the SSPX—that are most visible. They run, rather, all too often right through the center of our own soul.
(Pope Benedict XVI delivers his Urbi et Orbi message for Easter 2012 from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica on April 8, 2012, Vatican City, Vatican. Photo by L'Osservatore Romano Vatican Pool via Getty Images)