By Francesca Norsen Tate, Religion Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
As the Vatican bid Godspeed earlier today to a living Pope who has served only eight years before abdicating, the leader of Brooklyn’s Maronite Catholics reflects on Benedict XVI’s persona and legacy, particularly in regard to the Middle East.
News broke this afternoon that Benedict XVI, now Pope emeritus, has left the Vatican. Yesterday and early Thursday, Cardinals from around the world, including New York’s Archbishop Timothy Dolan, arrived in Rome and met with Benedict XVI for the last time while he was still Pope. The College of Cardinals is now preparing for a conclave that could begin as early as March 11, some news sources have reported. Timothy Cardinal Dolan is among those who, being under age 80, are eligible to vote for the next Pope.
Benedict XVI is the first pope to abdicate in more than 600 years, but under entirely different circumstances. Back in the early 15th century, the Church underwent political upheavals and at one point there were three sitting Popes: Benedict XIII, Gregory the XII and a newly-elected Pope Alexander! The Council of Constance, which was convened in 1415, declared the Sacrosancta Degree, the first of five such declarations of conciliar supremacy—meaning that a council rather than a singular head would have supreme authority in the Roman Catholic Church. [Interestingly, this editor’s theological class was studying the late Middle Ages at the same time that Benedict made his famous announcement earlier this month.]
The man now known as Pope emeritus Benedict XVI and the College of Cardinals prepares for its Conclave, the bishop who leads Brooklyn’s Maronite Catholics reflects on the legacy of the first pope to abdicate in 600 years.
The Most Rev. Gregory John Mansour, Bishop, Eparchy of Brooklyn, in an interview with the Brooklyn Eagle earlier this month, first clarified the Maronite Church’s relationship with Rome.
“There are 21 Eastern Catholic Churches, and one Western Catholic (the Latin) Church. The Maronite Church is one of the 21 Eastern Catholic Churches. The Pope is the superior of all the Catholic Churches,” he explained.
“Recently, about two years ago, our Patriarch resigned. He sent a letter to the Pope asked him to accept his resignation. The Pope accepted it. The Maronite Bishops got together—45 of us—to elect his successor, in which Rome did not interfere.” They respect each other’s authority.
“Now, when it comes time for the Pope to resign, he doesn’t resign. He renounces. It’s the idea of renouncing something: whatever gets in the way of you and God—or you and serving God. So renouncing does not have a bad connotation. The best phrase is ‘to let go’ of what was entrusted to you, so that the Church can find a person more aptly suited.”
The recent Papal legacy to the Middle East actually dates back beyond Benedict XVI, to Pope John Paul II, says Bishop Mansour.
“John Paul II held an entire synod on Lebanon. (That had been done only in one other case, in Netherlands.) “This showed John Paul II really had a sense of importance of Lebanon. Now, Pope Benedict had a synod for all the Middle East. He gathered all of the Eastern Catholics—and all the representatives of the all the Orthodox Churches—in Rome, for three weeks of conversation with him. That was a tremendous source of pride for us. It was very helpful for us to forge friendships among other bishops—and other workers, it was not just bishops. There were lay men, lay women, youths…”
“And then, right at the end of that, hearing all the woes and difficulties of Christians in the Arab world, he shocked all of us by mentioning at the end of that synod, that the next synod would be about the New Evangelization. In other words, it’s not just enough for us to survive. It isn’t just our duty just to get by—to make friends with dictators and let them protect us. Our duty is to be Christian—when it’s tough to be.” We don’t want to dominate the culture. We want to be citizens and co-religionists. We want to build those Arab societies. And that’s what he (Pope Benedict) wanted us to be. He showed extraordinary courage and wisdom when it comes to having an open door to Muslim leaders—political and religious leaders. And, when he has offended, to respond. His intention was not to offend.”
Several years ago, giving a lecture, Pope Benedict XVI angered the Muslim world and stirred controversy while quoting a source from a Byzantine emperor. Bishop Mansour clarified that Benedict’s reason for selecting that passage was to get people of all faiths to think more critically about religious history.
“I understand his point, said Bishop Mansour. “Everyone was condemning him for a big blunder. It was not a big blunder, in my humble opinion. He was speaking in objective terms about reason and faith. And he quoted a very shocking quote. But, sometimes in order to teach a lesson, you have to offer something to get people to think. He was getting Christians to think, and to think reasonably that there is never a justifiable reason for violence in the name of God—for any religion. And that includes Christians. The Crusades, the Inquisitions, the religious wars.” Indeed, all three Abrahamic religions, when they became the majority at various times in history, became persecutors.
Answering a question on whether the strife between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East—particularly in Lebanon, is being exaggerated in the media by those who might stand to gain from such unrest, Bishop Mansour named three civilizations in which Christians, Jews and Muslims lived peacefully and thrived together: Andalusian Spain, Istefan, Iran and more recently, Lebanon.
“Now what’s left is Lebanon. Unfortunately of the pressure, mostly from Muslim groups, the Jewish community in Lebanon has dwindled to almost nothing. But there is a still a viable Christian-Muslim co-existence. That’s why Pope John Paul II, Benedict’s predecessor, said very beautifully, ‘Lebanon is more than a country, it’s a message.’ I think that’s why he had the vision to have one whole synod for Lebanon. And that’s why Benedict chose to go to Lebanon to conclude the synod for the Middle East, because it has a very viable Christian-Muslim co-existence.”
Concluding a synod has a specific meaning, explains Bishop Mansour.
“To conclude a synod is to turn the document that is his reflection after hearing after hearing all of the synod fathers speak. It’s a Post-Synodal Exhortation. It’s exhorting the Christians to live their Christians life to the fullest, and exhorting Christians to live in dialogue with others—with Islam, Judaism; and among themselves—evangelicals, Orthodox and Catholics, to find ways to work together.”
The fruits of this synod are not so much intellectual as interpersonal, more about the relationships between people.
“It’s the friendships that are built. I’ve had to sit with the Latin bishop of Libya, who can tell me privately what his small community has suffered from Islamic extremists. But he could not say that in public. I could sit with the Bishop of Baghdad and the Bishop of Aleppo, and establish friendships. At the same time, sitting back and complaining are not excusable. Christians are called to action, says Bishop Mansour, whose ethnic heritage is Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese.
“Some Christians do a lot of injustice to the Christians who are living on the ground there. We are not Republican; we are not Democrat. We are not completely blindly for the Israeli state, and we are not completely blindly for the Palestinian. My background is Palestinian. But I don’t agree with Hamas. I don’t want them to represent me. They DON’T represent me. So, it’s very important for Christians to be thinking Christians, not just partisan Christians.”
In contrast with some media reports that conjectured that the Pope resigned because of new developments in the sexual abuse crisis, Bishop Mansour believes that Benedict handled it best. Putting rumors to rest, Bishop Mansour said, the reasons for Pope Benedict’s abdication are the reasons he gave—primarily his health. Mansour believes that Benedict handled sexual abuse crisis “did that better than anybody—better than John Paul, better than anyone in the Vatican curia; he did it as well as anyone could have. Benedict, at the very beginning, had a difficult time balancing the two realities. But slowly, he came to realize, that even though a man is a priest forever, he is not fit EVER again to serve (must remain inhibited from his priestly duties.). Pope John Paul II said, (in 2002), the ‘priesthood has no room for those who would harm children.’ That was the zero tolerance. Now, that was in America. Now the rest of the world is catching up.”
As Catholics prepare for the wait and prayerful conclave that will select the next Pope, Bishop Mansour is less concerned with who will be chosen than with the quality of person who will be elevated to Holy Father.
“The word pope comes from Papa, or father. What kind of a father are we looking for. John Paul II was a young father, then an old father. “One day he will be called John Paul the Great. They say that he was in love with human love. He offered us that from his own paternity. Benedict had an ability to talk about God in terms that includes everyone. That means: Christian, atheist, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu. Speaking in terms of universality and the message of Jesus, Benedict was a tremendous Biblical teacher, and a gentle father who, when he was not Pope and when was Pope had to do difficult things.”