Bishop's Column

Pope Benedict XVI Leaves us with Lessons in Prayerful Discernment

Eight years ago, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was thinking about settling into a quiet retirement. Instead, Jesus Christ called him to the world’s most demanding job: leading his Church on earth.

From 2005 to 2013, Pope Benedict XVI has served the global Church with the same zeal and love he once showed as a newly ordained parish priest. Most of us assumed he would continue in this way for the rest of his life.

After the accomplishments of the last eight years, it was a shock to learn that he would be retiring to a life of prayer and study. Pope Benedict has been a hero of mine for decades, and I have fond memories of him from my days in service to the Holy See in Rome. I have felt a particular filial bond with him given that he appointed me a bishop in 2008 and sent me to lead the Church in Lincoln last year.

I am saddened by the loss of Pope Benedict’s leadership and I will truly miss him. I will miss his wisdom, joy, gentle grandfatherly spirit and his clear teachings. But I admire and respect his choice, which showed humility, trust, and discernment.

I know the Pope reflected and prayed long and hard before making this announcement, and I have no doubt that he acted solely out of love for Christ and the Church. In making this choice, our Holy Father has sought to know God’s will, and carry it out for our benefit.

Thus, he leaves us with a memorable lesson in the value of discernment – which is needed in our lives, no less than in his.

The decisions we face may not be as outwardly momentous as the Pope’s retirement. But our lives are just as much a part of God’s plan for the world. We, too, must learn to listen for the Holy Spirit’s voice – so that we can make choices that reflect a love for God and our neighbor.

Discernment is more than just the practical process of figuring out what to do. At his general audience on Feb. 13, Pope Benedict said he made his decision "for the good of the Church, after much prayer and having examined my conscience before God."

These words convey a powerful lesson about how we should approach our own times of discernment. In our decision-making, we should give priority to the will of God and the needs of others.

When it comes to discerning God’s will, most of us have some sense of the importance of prayer. But the prayer that goes into discernment is not as simple as we may think.

Prayerful discernment goes beyond asking God questions and waiting for answers. After all, God is not just interested in the right outcome: he also wants us to grow closer to him in the process of making our choices. The Holy Spirit wants inner transformation, as well as outward action.

This is why discernment involves deep and dedicated prayer, frequent and fervent. If we want to understand some part of God’s plan, we should set aside time to approach him with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength. We should seek to know the Lord more deeply, in the course of discerning his will.

The prayer of discernment is not goal-oriented, but God-oriented. If the clarity we seek is slow to arrive, the hours spent in God’s presence are hardly a waste of time! If we can set aside our impatience, we will find that Christ is gradually preparing us for whatever the future holds.

In our times of discernment, we can also learn from the way in which Pope Benedict gave priority to the good of others -- in this case, the good of the whole Church.

As we consider our present choices and future prospects, it’s easy to become wrapped up in concerns that are basically self-centered. We think about our own happiness, our practical considerations, or about our personal talents and how we might want to apply them.

These thoughts, to be sure, have their place. But God doesn’t want us to approach our choices in a self-centered way. If we try to discern his will without weighing the interests and concerns of others, we’re likely to find anxiety and confusion rather than clarity.

In 2005, when Cardinal Ratzinger accepted his election by the College of Cardinals, he put aside his plans in order to carry out God’s will and serve the Church. His acceptance of the papacy was an act of love – for God, and for all of us.

His departure is certainly a difficult and bittersweet moment. But this choice was based on the same motives that have driven his entire pontificate. The Holy Father’s retirement, too, is an act of love for Christ and his Church.

For this, and for so much else, we can thank Pope Benedict XVI. I invite you to join me in a prayer of gratitude for the gift of his pontificate. May our discernments and decisions always reflect that same love of God and our neighbors.

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