One day years ago, while channel surfing, I came across a news story about a woman who became a man, and had decided to have a child. Because he still had the reproductive organs of a woman, he was able to accomplish bearing a child, while looking, in every other observable way, like the masculine creation he had engineered himself to be. (Side note: it was not a pretty picture. Just from an aesthetic point of view, something about the hairy-ness of men gets in the way of the glowingly wholesome view one would like to have of pregnancy.)
Pictures graced news stands, he appeared on every major talk show, and he ended up, of course, writing a book about his experiences. Which I did not read. (Okay. That’s a lie.)
Everyone seemed more than willing to put up with this whole crazy situation, and even eager to applaud it. The general message, meant to be inspiring, uplifting, and motivating, was “Look at our brave new world! Anything is possible.”
And that is certainly how it seems. Ambitious women, dedicated to their jobs and careers can ignore their fading fertility and successfully have children when they retire. Convenient! Except for the eighteen-year-old who has eighty-five-year-old parents.
You want a blond-haired blue-eyed cherub who will be programmed to go to Harvard Business School and own a tech start up by eighteen? We can make that happen. Perfect! Except for the genetic mutations that occur when you genetically engineer a human being.
You want to erase those wrinkles, make the fat disappear, tighten the skin, and lengthen your eyelashes? Just tell us when and where and hand over your credit card. Yummy. Except, who wants fat from their bum stuffed in their cheeks, or toxic chemicals injected into their foreheads?
There is an attitude which seems to say that nothing should be out of reach, and that if it is, we will eventually find a way to override it. We deserve it all. There are no limits.
As I watched Pope Benedict’s slow, halting exit from Vatican City, as I saw him walk gingerly to his car and lower himself delicately into it, as I witnessed his goodnight speech to the well wishers gathered in front of Castel Gandolfo, given while leaning heavily on the podium, I saw a very great act of courage. I saw him issuing one final, public message to a world which very much needed to hear it, but would most likely not understand.
And indeed, the world did not. The Pope was accused of everything from lacking faith in Divine Providence, to buckling under the guilt of the abuse scandals, to being scared of the evil machinations within the Vatican itself, to not being able to handle the wrath of the Twitterverse after the launch of @Pontifex.
How we complicate things. Couldn’t the answer be the simple one—the one that he gave to the world at the moment of his resignation? Couldn’t it really be that old age and infirmity had rendered the weight of the Universal Church too heavy to bear?
Since when did admitting one’s natural limitations become such a shameful, absurd, unheard of thing? We are human beings, with natural limits and abilities which we must acknowledge, so that God can fill in the cracks where we are lacking. When we do that, we allow God to move through our lives, making room for the extraordinary to happen. We allow him to fill the gaps that exist in our human ordinariness.
When a wall pops up in front of us, it does not mean that we need to kill ourselves climbing over it; it could mean that God is asking us to back off, take a different route, and let him take over.
The world witnessed Pope Benedict XVI courageously bear the weight of a Pontificate he did not want, but carried with grace. The world saw him do his best. And the world was also privileged enough to witness his humble admission that “I have done what I can, but I can do no more,” as well as his immense trust in God: “I give this back to you, so that a greater good can be accomplished.”
To a world which acknowledges no limits, Pope Benedict XVI made a public acknowledgement of his own. He invited all who witnessed him to trust that when God places obstacles before us, it is sometimes so that we step back and allow him to step in.
In a world of pregnant men, chemical-filled faces, and test tube babies, Benedict XVI asked us to believe that our limitations are allowed by God so that we turn towards him and accept the endless possibilities and unlimited grace, which we might not otherwise look for.