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Friday, February 15, 2013

A Pope Resigns

On Monday of this week, February 11, 2013, the world was shocked to learn that Pope Benedict XVI had announced his resignation from the papacy, effective February 28. It was shocking, not because people were unaware that the 85-year-old pontiff's health had declined, but because a pope had not resigned from office since Gregory XII ended his nine-year papacy by resigning in 1415, two years shy of 600 years ago. Benedict's voluntary resignation is only the third of its kind in the nearly two millennia since Roman bishops have ruled the Catholic Church (three other popes—Martin I in 653, Benedict V in 964, and Benedict IX twice in 1044 and 1048—were forcibly removed from office).

Speaking in Latin, he resigned during a meeting of Vatican cardinals by saying:
After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.

I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today's world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.
The Economist reports in a February 16, 2013, article, "The Pope's Resignation: See You Later":
Benedict had been toying with resignation for almost four years. Visiting the earthquake-stricken Italian city of L'Aquila in 2009, he left his pallium, the woollen band that is a symbol of the papal office, at the tomb of Celestine V, a reluctant pope who resigned [in 1294] to pray. In 2010 he said that a pope who became unable to do his job properly "has the right, and in some circumstances even the duty, to resign."
He will likely retire to the newly refurbished Mater Ecclesiae monastery in the Vatican.

His resignation should not really come as a huge surprise. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was in many ways a reluctant pope, already aged 78 when elected and thus one of the oldest to take the office. He did not angle for the office when Pope John Paul II died in 2005, but as the right-hand man of the former Pope and a symbol of continuity at a time when the Catholic Church hierarchy desired stability at the top, he was the go-to candidate. He has said that he had hoped that the College of Cardinals would have found someone else for the job, but he conscientiously accepted its will when it became clear.

The media have generally considered him to be far too conservative and boring, and his papacy to be a failure. He has steadfastly defended Catholic doctrine, as would be expected from the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, known earlier as the Inquisition, the Church's doctrinal enforcement agency. He would not surrender his office or Church to the relativistic and progressive attitudes and ideas that are so dominant in today's world. Though the Vatican suffered a handful of scandals during his administration, Benedict did not allow them to soften his beliefs or approach.

Since he is over 80 years old, by Vatican law Benedict cannot take part in the Conclave to elect the next Pope, and if he made any statements on it or any overt preferences public, it would be looked upon by Vatican insiders as extremely poor form. However, because of the way the Vatican hierarchy works, it is probably already well known who he would like to succeed him. The public, however, will probably never know for sure.

The press has already put forward a list of likely candidates despite veteran Vatican watchers' warnings that Papal Conclaves are almost impossible to handicap, especially ones that contain "special circumstances" as this one does. Predictions of a "guaranteed winner" should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. Even so, the following are cardinals that the media have chosen to be on the shortlist of the Conclave's 117 cardinal-electors:

Cardinal Peter Appiah Turkson is a Ghanaian who runs the Vatican's development department. In his favor are the facts that he is relatively young, 64, and that the Catholic Church is very strong in Africa. He may have eliminated himself, however, when he presided over the recent showing of a controversial video suggesting Muslims would soon take over Europe through demographics.

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna, is a safe 68 years old and was mentioned as a candidate in 2005. He oversaw a cleanup of the church in Austria after its pedophile scandals, and some see this as a plus during a time when the Church needs to clean up its continuing problem with priestly pederasty worldwide.

Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan, is 71 and a confidant of the current Pope. Being Italian and overseeing a big diocese gives him great credibility among electors who desire experience and favor papal supremacy and a continuation of Benedict's conservatism.

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, 70, the archbishop of Genoa, is an Italian of strong intellect and political acumen. He is widely known for his scathing criticism of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the state of Italian politics.

Cardinal Norberto Carrera Rivera, 62, from Mexico City; Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, 63, from Sao Paulo; and Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, 70, archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, are also probably candidates due to the fact that they all hail from Latin America, the area of the world with the most Catholics. Rivera and Scherer would take the Church toward a social gospel, while Maradiaga lines up squarely behind Pope Benedict.

Some believe that the electors will have a younger, more vigorous man in mind when they meet in March. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York and a media favorite, is only 63, but his views are decidedly left of Benedict's. Cardinal Peter Erdo, of Budapest, is only 60. He is a traditionalist and President of the Council of the Bishops' Conferences of Europe. Finally, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, 68, formerly archbishop of Quebec City, Canada, and now head of the Vatican's Department of Bishops, is a conservative ally of Pope Benedict.

There is no telling who the cardinals will pick when they meet next month, but it is certain that their choice will make his mark on upcoming events.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Whither the Holy Spirit?

Most Bible students realize that most of the New Testament books are letters—epistolé in Greek and our "epistle," which is a written communication between parties. Paul's epistles, as well as those of James, Peter, John, and Jude, are written primarily to church congregations, although a few, such as those to Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and Gaius (III John), are written to individuals. Many consider the book of Hebrews to be an epistle, but it is technically a treatise (a systematic argument about a subject) with a letter-like conclusion.

A typical letter during New Testament times followed a fairly strict format. It began with the writer's name, followed by the recipient(s) and a greeting to him/her/them. The body of the letter ensued, and at the end, the writer closed with additional greetings and perhaps a date. Occasionally, other material is attached to the full salutation, either within or after it, but such material may not technically be part of the formal greeting (see, for example, II Peter 1:3-4). In many cases, the writer makes parenthetic remarks about the recipients (see, for example, I Peter 1:2).

Thumbing through the salutations of the epistles brings out a curious fact: The greetings are all essentially the same. Time after time, the authors write something akin to this from Romans 1:7: "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." Almost all of Paul's epistles follow this wording—perhaps with the word "mercy" thrown into the mix—and some of the other writers' greetings follow suit. This shows how standardized this part of the letter format was during the first century.

Of the four other epistle writers, James pens a workmanlike, "James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad: Greetings" (James 1:1). Peter's first epistle simply states, "Grace to you and peace be multiplied" (I Peter 1:2), to which he appends in his second letter, "in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord" (II Peter 1:2). John dispenses with the standard greeting altogether in his first epistle (which may suggest that, like Hebrews, it is not technically an epistle), while in the second he writes one of the longest: "Grace, mercy, and peace will be with you from God the Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love" (II John 1:3). In his third letter, his greeting to Gaius is terse but kind: "To the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth" (III John 1:1). Finally, like II John, Jude includes a longer greeting: "To those who are called, sanctified by God the Father, and preserved in Jesus Christ: Mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you."

The most curious—and theologically significant—facet of these epistolary salutations is the wholesale absence of greetings from the Holy Spirit. In nearly every greeting, the writer sends greetings from God the Father and God the Son, Jesus Christ. A Bible reader brought up in traditional Christianity would expect that the so-called Third Person of the Trinity would get equal billing with the Father and the Son from the apostles, but the biblical text omits all mention of the Holy Spirit in terms of personal greetings to the churches. Is this just a mistake? An embarrassing omission? A slight?

If greetings from the Holy Spirit were absent in some but not all the salutations, we might make a case for any of these explanations, but because they are entirely absent among the greetings of twenty epistles (not counting Hebrews) from five apostles, they make an implicit theological point: The Holy Spirit sends no greetings because there is no Third Person in the Godhead to send them! Put simply, the Father and His Son are the only divine Persons, and in grace, mercy, and peace they send their personal greetings to the church. Not being an additional, distinctive entity, the Holy Spirit does not send any greetings.

The clearest biblical explanation of this truth appears in John 14, where Jesus Himself provides the correct understanding:
. . . I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever—the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. . . . If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him. (John 14:16-18, 23)
Jesus teaches here that the Holy Spirit is not another personality but the divine essence of both the Father and the Son that comes to and resides in each of God's chosen sons and daughters.

Since Jesus Christ is the One who most often interacts with humans, the apostles single Him out most frequently as "the Spirit." In II Corinthians 3:17, Paul states this plainly, "Now the Lord is the Spirit. . . ." It does not get much clearer than that! The apostle also equates "the Spirit Himself mak[ing] intercession for us" (Romans 8:26) with "Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us" (verse 34). The "Christ in you" statements (see Romans 8:10Galatians 2:20Ephesians 3:17Colossians 1:27; etc.) also have this sense: The Spirit of the Son lives, abides, or continues with us.

Broadly, the Holy Spirit is the personality, mind, and power of God to do His will throughout His creation. But for those of us who believe and love Him, it is also the means by which the Father and the Son live in us, interact with us, empower us, and enable us throughout our developing relationship with them. In a way that we as humans cannot fully fathom, the Spirit is both of them in us, uniting us with them, as Jesus explains in His prayer in John 17:20-23:
I do not pray for these [disciples] alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.
Because the Father and the Son are fully united in all things, when Christ is in us, the Father is in us also, and we are thus united with both of them in spirit and growing to become united with them in character. There is no need for a Third Person of a Trinity. It is truly amazing what can be learned from realizing that we must live by every word of God—even what the salutations of the epistles do not say is instructive!