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Did Pope Benedict XVI Hear the Lord Tell Him to Retire and Pray?

By Deacon Keith Fournier
August 23rd, 2013
Catholic Online (

The European Media is abuzz with a report from a reliable source who spoke to His Holiness Benedict XVI just last week. The reports indicate that pope Emeritus Benedict heard the Lord tell him to step aside from his apostolic office and spend the rest of his life in prayer.Not only is the report reliable, it comes as no surprise to many observers of the Pope Emeritus. Benedict XVI really is a mystic, in the proper sense of the word. He lives in an intimate communion with the Lord in prayer.

CHESAPEAKE, VA (Catholic Online) - The European Media is abuzz with a report from a reliable source who spoke to His Holiness Benedict XVI just last week. The reports indicate that pope Emeritus Benedict heard the Lord tell him to step aside from his apostolic office and spend the rest of his life in prayer. The first source to break the story was Zenit News, followed by the Vatican Insider.Writing out of Rome for the UK Guardian, Tom  Kington, filed an accurate account in his article entitled, Ex-pope Benedict says God told him to resign during 'mystical xperience' Here is an excerpt:

The former pope Benedict has claimed that his resignation in February was prompted by God, who told him to do it during a "mystical experience". Breaking his silence for the first time since he became the first pope to step down in 600 years, the 86-year-old reportedly said: "God told me to" when asked what had pushed him to retire to a secluded residence in the Vatican gardens.

Benedict denied he had been visited by an apparition or had heard God's voice, but said he had undergone a "mystical experience" during which God had inspired in him an "absolute desire" to dedicate his life to prayer rather than push on as pope. The German ex-pontiff's comments, which are said to have been made a few weeks ago, were reported by the Catholic news agency Zenit, which did not name the person Benedict had spoken to.

A senior Vatican source said the report was reliable. "The report seems credible. It accurately explains the spiritual process that brought Benedict to resign," he said. Benedict said his mystical experience had lasted months, building his desire to create a direct and exclusive relationship with God. Now, after witnessing the "charisma" of his successor, Pope Francis, Benedict said he understood to a greater extent how his stepping aside was the "will of God".

Not only is the report reliable, it comes as no surprise to many observers of the Pope Emeritus. Benedict XVI really is a mystic, in the proper sense of the word. He lives in an intimate communion with the Lord in prayer. Such an intimate communion is available to all who desire it - if we simply learn to pray. The problem is that sometimes we buy the notion that being a mystic is both impossible and impractical. Both are incorrect. Soon to be beatified, the Opus Dei Bishop Alvaro del Portillo once wrote:

The so-called "practical people" are not really the most useful in the service of Christ's Church, nor are those who merely expound theories. Rather it is the true contemplatives who best serve her; those with the steady, generous and passionate desire of transfiguring and divinizing all creation with Christ and in Christ. It may sound paradoxical, but in the Church of Jesus Christ, the mystic is the only practical person.

Some time back, Pope Emeritus Benedict gave an interview to a German journalist. The interview was not lengthy. The journalist noted his frail stature but affirmed his sharpness of mind and joy of heart. In response to an inquiry concerning his health and what he is doing now that he is no longer the Pope, Benedict told him, "I'm fine. I pray and read. I live like a monk."

I thought as I read that response to the journalist, just how fitting it was. That is also why I was not at all surprised to read these accounts in the European Press. Benedict XVI is a man in love with the Risen Lord Jesus Christ. He has a deep interior life, he really prays - and he walks in communion with the Lord. So yes, properly understood, he really is a mystic. We need more such mystics in an age which is losing its mind and its soul.

The Pope Emeritus voluntarily resigned his office on February 28, 2013. With the humility which characterized his entire papacy, the announcement was simple and straightforward. It was never about Benedict to Benedict, it has always been about the Lord and His Church. How refreshing such humility is in an age of arrogance. That is why the silly articles seeking to contrast him with Pope Francis based upon the way they dressed were written by ill informed people. They are both humble men. They simply have differing styles and carry themselves differently.

Pope Emeritus Benedict turned 86 years old on April 16, 2013. Some early observers thought his age would make him some sort of caretaker Pope. They were wrong. However, I watched closely for word on his declining health during his last year before he voluntarily stepped down and made history. I noted his frailty as he took to using assistance for mobility. But nothing emerged. Then came that and humble announcement which demonstrated the title he bore, "Servant of the Servants of God" was so very appropriate. Now we know he heard the Lord and simply gave his Fiat.  

I will always remember that day in 2005 when he stepped forward onto the balcony overlooking St. Peters Square. He called himself "a simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord." The applause was uproarious. The joy filled not only that Square but the hearts of millions throughout the entire world who had prayed for this moment. He continued " that the Lord can work and act even with insufficient means consoles me, and above all I entrust myself to your prayers. In the joy of the risen Lord, trusting in his permanent help, we go forward." 

He is one of the most brilliant and fecund theologians of this age. He knew the need for a New Evangelization within the Church and he understood the challenges the Church faced as she walked forward into a new missionary age. He was present at - and participated in - the Second Vatican Council. He understood the authentic teaching of that Council and led the way in its proper implementation in many areas of life, both within the Church and in her mission to the modern world.

He also understood that the Council was hijacked in some circles, disregarded in others and misinterpreted in others. He was a voice for dynamically orthodox and faithful Catholic Christian faith, practice, worship and life. In his homily prior to the convening of the conclave where he was chosen to fill the Chair of Peter, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger offered a prophetic insight:

"How many winds of doctrine we have known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking. The small boat of thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves - thrown from one extreme to the other: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism, and so forth.

"Every day new sects are created and what Saint Paul says about human trickery comes true, with cunning which tries to draw those into error (cf Eph 4, 14). Having a clear faith, based on the Creed of the Church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. Whereas, relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and "swept along by every wind of teaching," looks like the only attitude (acceptable) to today's standards. We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires."

Some repeatedly attempted to misuse this insight to paint him as rejecting the modern world. That was nonsense. What he rejected was the emptiness of the dictatorship of relativism he exposed. What he proposed instead was a different path, not to the past, but to a future of hope and authentic freedom; the way of Jesus Christ. He rightly proclaimed that it is only the reassertion of saving and liberating truth of Jesus Christ that can pave the path to authentic human flourishing and freedom. Jesus reminds every person in every age, that we can "know the truth" and that "the truth will set you free." Benedict was - and is - His mouthpiece.Now, he simply speaks on his knees.  

His choice of the name Benedict was a sign of his hope for his pontificate. Now it is a sign of his continuing work of intercession. he has not retired, he has just changed his service. I remember when he chose the name. He had just returned from a retreat at Subiaco, the cave where St. Benedict spent three years in prayer. Then, he was elected to the Chair of Peter. He prayed and rededicated himself to the work of the Church. I always sensed he knew that he was a man for a season, a builder.

In a General Audience on April 29, 2008, he spoke at length of St. Benedict whom he called the "Patron of His Pontificate". In light of what he accomplished in his papacy, the insights are worthy of reading. Benedict the great monk helped to rebuild the Church of his age and spread the influence of Christendom. Pope Emeritus Benedict tried to do the same in his own way during his pontificate in the Third Millennium.

His successor, Francis has picked up the work of serving the Church with such simplicity, beauty and contagious joy. Benedict is very pleased. The Pope who chose the name of the great father of western monasticism has become a monk, praying for his successor - and for you and me - indeed for the whole Church and the world into which she is sent. And how Benedict loves to pray! That comes through so clearly in the comments he made last week. He truly knows the Risen Lord Jesus and he lives in His presence. 

One of my favorite definitions of a theologian was offered by a monk of the fourth century, Evagrius of Pontus. He wrote in his reflections entitled "Mirror for Monks": "The Knowledge of God is the breast of Christ and whoever rests on it will be a theologian".  The Image evokes the beloved disciple John, the author of the fourth Gospel, so often depicted at the Institution of the Eucharist, the "Last Supper", with his head on the chest of Jesus the Christ. His Gospel narrative was the last to be written and is the most theologically reflective. Clearly, John was a theologian. He learned theology in the school of prayer. So does Pope Emeritus Benedict. How fitting that he is now a monk, interceding for the Church he loves with such inspiring dedication.

As a 'revert' to the catholic Church, one who returned after wandering away as a very young man, I spent 21 months in a Benedictine monastery shortly after "coming home". There, I began what has become a lifelong journey of prayer and found my hunger for theology. I studied the early fathers of the Church. I was taught by a wonderful monk. He was the first of several monks who have graced my life with their gift of holy presence, making Christ so palpable by their interior life - one which overflows in a genuine transfigured humanity. 

From my encounters with monks, living immersed as they do in their unique and vital vocation, I learned that no matter how much formal theological study they have, it is their depth of prayer which makes them the best of theologians.  So it should be with all theologians - one cannot give away what one does not truly have. It is out of the storehouse of grace that monks and theologians are able to help the faithful in their pursuit of the longing of every human heart, communion and intimacy with the God who has revealed Himself. Pope Emeritus regularly reminded us that the human face of God is revealed in Jesus Christ. 

In his beautiful teaching on prayer Pope Emeritus Benedict constantly reminded us that to see that face, to behold the gaze of His love, one must encounter Him. In prayer one comes to contemplate that beauty and be transformed by the encounter. That encounter is itself prayer. Now, Benedict spends his days immersed in prayer, beholding the face of the Lord, praying for the whole Church, and for the world. He speaks to the Lord and, yes, the Lord speaks to him. By the way, he would probably be the first to tell all of us that such of life of intimate communion with the Lord is available to everyone who chooses to say yes to the Lord's invitation, no matter what their state in life or vocation.

Too often, people think that the monk retreats from the world. In fact, the monk retreats (in differing ways in accordance with their particular monastic response) precisely in order to transform the world by his prophetic witness and powerful prayer. The dedicated monk is an essential part of the Lord's plan for the Church. The Church is what the early Fathers called the "New World", being recreated in Christ. We who have been baptized never again leave the Church. We actually live in the Church and go into the world to bring all men and women home.

The monastic life is a treasure of the Church. Monasticism in the first millennium gave us the fountain of theological wisdom which still inspires the Church. Those who went into the desert became the great teachers, fathers, confessors and prophets. Their prayer and witness kept the Church in the Divine embrace so that she could effectively continue the redemptive mission of the Lord.

In the second millennium, their work and witness continued. Sadly, the Church had been torn in two with the first split, East and West. In the East, the Monks continued to be a resource for the kind of theology which brings heaven to earth and earth to heaven. From their ranks the great Bishops of the Church were chosen and the Church was continually renewed.

In the West, the great Monasteries of Europe became the beating heart of the emergence of Christendom. The extraordinary intellect exhibited in the emerging theological tradition birthed in the monasteries enabled the Church to contend with daunting challenges, welcome them without fear, contend for the faith and offer the claims of Truth Incarnate.

Over the years of Pope Benedict's service, his teaching on monks and their essential contribution to the Church was extraordinary. In an address given in 2007, he again zeroed in on the monastic life as a gift for the whole church. It can be read in its entirety here.  I always believed there was a prophetic connection between monks and the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI. Monks are a seed of the great renewals of the Church.  It is no accident that he took the name Benedict as he responded to the Lord's invitation to serve the Church as the successor of Peter. It was no accident that he is ending this last chapter of a rich and beautiful vocation of service to the Church as a monk.

Monks are integral to the renewal of the Church. They help to water the growth of her holiness and fuel the missionary activity to which she is called. Monks are prophetic seeds of the kingdom to come who always seem to be around right when we need them the most. How wonderful that His Holiness Benedict is now a Monk and intercessor. 

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