On the hit CBS TV program, NCIS, Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs lives by a code of 50 rules. One of the Gibbs' rules notes that "there is no such thing as coincidence."
Call it timing. Call it coincidence. Nonetheless, I found it rather interesting that less than a week after Pope Benedict XVI stunned Catholics the world over by announcing his resignation, Turner Classic Movies aired the Oscar-winning film, "Quo Vadis". TCM probably had this planned some time in advance because of its Oscar celebration, but, the timing was, nonetheless, thought provoking. While the movie's premise centers around a love story between a Roman commander and a Christian woman, the midpoint of the film carries a more profound aspect of love, that between Christ and St. Peter.
Set in the time of the macabre reign of the Roman Emperor Nero, "Quo Vadis" gives us a snapshot of the persecution inflicted on the nascent Church. Nero has just burned the Eternal City and, at the insistence of his vain queen, decides to blame the followers of new religious sect, the Christians. Peter, having been in Rome for quite some time, is urged by the faithful to flee the persecution and decides to journey to Greece. As he is journeying along the Via Apia, he encounters a vision that resumes the conversation that he and the newly risen Christ had on the shores of the Sea of Galilee some thirty years before.
At that time, Peter was a young fisherman, still trying to process having seen his Master, whom he had denied three days earlier. Filled with remorse over what he had done, he went out to fish, joined by the rest of the surviving Apostles. When Jesus calls out to him and tells him to cast his net to the other side of the boat, a miraculous bounty of fish is caught, prompting St. John to announce that it was the Lord who had made this happen. Peter impetuously leaps from the boat and swims to where Jesus is. It is there, over a charcoal fire where the fish are being cooked, that Jesus asks St. Peter three times if he loves him. Recall that Peter made his denial while warming himself over a charcoal fire. Now, Jesus gives him the chance to undo the triple error. Each time Jesus asks him and Peter responds "Yes", the Lord tells him to "feed his sheep, tend his lambs." At Jesus' third query about Peter's love, the burly fisherman is flustered, blurting out, "Lord, you know all things. You know that I love you." After telling Peter a third time to "feed his sheep", Christ predicts that when Peter grows old, someone else will put a belt around him and lead him where he does not want to go. St. John alludes to the fact that the Lord is predicting the kind of death by which Peter will glorify God. Jesus then adds the words, "Follow me."
And now, Peter is an old man. We do not know how old, but, one could guess that he is probably entering his 70s. He is escaping the persecution in Rome when he encounters Christ on the road going in the opposite direction. "Quo vadis, Domine," Peter asks. "Where are you going, Lord?" "To Rome," Christ replies, "to be crucified anew." Suddenly, Peter realizes that the time for his ultimate witness has come, the time for the fulfillment of Christ's prophecy is fast approaching. He is being led to where he does not want to go. He returns to Rome and, at least in the movie, he boldly goes to the Coliseum right before the Christians are being slaughtered, and courageously confirms them in the Faith, giving loud witness to Christ before the crowds, thus drawing Nero's deadly ire. Peter is immediately arrested and thrown in the same cell as the Roman commander and his beloved Christian girl. In the next scene, we see Peter absorbed in prayer as the camera cuts away to Nero who is plotting Peter's death. Peter seems at peace, resigned to whatever the Lord has deigned for him. When the centurions come for Peter, they inform him that he will be led to Vatican hill where he will be crucified. Peter tells them that he does not deserve to die as Jesus did and asks to be crucified upside down.
I saw this part of the film while I was getting ready for Mass this past Sunday. About five hours earlier, I woke up to see the live telecast of the recitation of the Angelus with St. Peter's successor, Pope Benedict XVI. Looking at the Holy Father, I could not help but wonder why he did this. Quo vadis, Benedictus? Where are you going, Benedict? You asked us to pray for you that you might not flee for fear of the wolves and now, eight years later, you seem to be doing just that.
It was not until I read the comments made by papal biographer, Peter Seewald, that I realized that perhaps Benedict was entering into his own fulfillment of the words that Jesus spoke to St. Peter so long ago in Galilee. This is the same reading that was used when Pope Benedict XVI was installed as our Supreme Pastor on April 24, 2005. This is also the same reading that was used for the funeral of Blessed John Paul II. Christ entered the dialogue with both of these men, imparting the same message but seeking a different fulfillment. We all saw Blessed John Paul's sufferings play out on the world stage. We felt the pain of seeing him suffer. In Benedict's case, the martyrdom has been quiet, but, no less painful. Joseph Ratzinger knew the heavy costs of assuming the papacy. Who knows how many times he refused the post until he could not deny the call that Christ was now making to him. But now, his body is betraying him. His eyes, once vibrant and blue, have now clouded. His hearing, once so attuned to the sounds of Mozart, has now wired itself to one voice, that of Christ's.
When the devil tested Jesus in the desert, he tempted him with food, pride and power. Jesus showed him and us that true power comes not from who is under your control or how many, but, on service. One of the Pope's titles is servant of the servants of God. For Benedict, his power lies not in lording it over the Church; rather, it comes in being its most loving servant. Wisdom comes in knowing when to say when.
Peter wanted to flee Rome perhaps to save himself. But, following Jesus' example, he returns to Rome to face the inevitable. Benedict is not necessarily fleeing Rome. Upon his retirement, he will actually live at the Vatican. He is also not necessarily fleeing us because he will forever be united to us in prayer. He will be praying with us and for us. I do believe that Benedict had his "quo vadis" moment with Christ in prayer. Perhaps the Lord told him that this loving German theologian could best serve him and the Church in prayer. Perhaps the Lord asked him to offer up his sufferings and his infirmities for the good of his flock. He can still feed the flock by praying for it.
"When you were young you went as you pleased, but, now that you are old, you someone else will fasten your belt and take you where you do not want to go." Pope Benedict XVI, we do not want you to go, but, you go the way that Christ has laid out for you. As you go, you will take me in your heart.