By now you’ve likely heard that Pope Benedict XVI – AKA, Joseph Ratzinger – died over the weekend. Pope Benedict was unique for a number of reasons: he was the first German pope in nearly 1,000 years, the first to resign his post while still living in some 600 years, and he’ll be the first pope whose funeral is conducted by his successor. If you’re the kind of person who’s fascinated by church history, liturgy, and practice, it would be worth your time to watch the funeral – especially if you’re up at 3:30 AM on Thursday anyway!
However, one thing that made Pope Benedict particularly unique in the long history of the Roman Catholic Church was his theological acumen. In fact, Benedict is acknowledged by many as one of the greatest theologians (Roman Catholic or otherwise) of the 20th century. Though I must admit that I haven’t read it, his book Jesus of Nazareth is considered to be one of the best theological works ever written.
As I was reading about Benedict over the past several days, I stumbled upon a quote of his that I found to be quite powerful. It’s theologically sound, and pastorally wise. Benedict, recognizing that the end of his life was quickly approaching, said the following words:
“Quite soon, I shall find myself before the final judge of my life. Even though, as I look back on my long life, I can have great reason for fear and trembling, I am nonetheless of good cheer, for I trust firmly that the Lord is not only the just judge, but also the friend and brother who himself has already suffered for my shortcomings, and is thus also my advocate, my ‘Paraclete’ (a Greek word usually translated something like “comforter” – BH). In light of the hour of judgment, the grace of being a Christian becomes all the more clear to me. It grants me knowledge, and indeed friendship, with the judge of my life, and thus allows me to pass confidently through the dark door of death.”
I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I agree with every one of Pope Benedict’s theological arguments; after all, I am a Protestant, and there are real, significant theological issues between the Roman Catholic Church and a church like ours. However, I can acknowledge a great theologian when I see one.
In addition, that quote above is solid, and left me personally challenged and encouraged. It displays deep humility (an acknowledgment of his own sins), good theology (explicit reference to Jesus Christ’s suffering in the place of sinners – AKA, “penal substitutionary atonement”), and personal confidence (due to faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ). Overall, those words are an excellent testament to how every Christian can approach “the dark door of death”.
You don’t have to be a Roman Catholic to have this confidence in the face of death. You don’t have to be a pope to have it! Every believer in Jesus Christ – even with our great shortcomings and sins – can “be of good cheer” as we prepare to face “the final judge” of our lives. This cheer does not arise from how many prayers we’ve prayed, how many good works we’ve performed, or how high we’ve climbed the church leadership ladder. Our good cheer arises from the person and work of Jesus Christ.
We Protestants do not take every word the Pope says as gospel. We don’t elevate the Pope’s authority above the authority of Scripture, or even treat them as equal. However, we can learn something from many of the popes of history. Pope Benedict XVI was one of them.