The Pope planned his exit and executed the plan

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When I conduct leadership seminars, one exercise I sometimes use is to ask what the participants think are the three important things for a leader to do when he/she assumes an office of leadership.

Most get one of the three, which is to articulate a vision, and some get the second point, which is to listen to his/her constituents or community about their own hopes, dreams and vision for the organization. The third is almost always missed, which is to plan one’s exit from the office.

Monday evening, Feb. 11, the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, we started to receive the news of Pope Benedict’s resignation, effective Feb. 28. By early morning Feb. 12, this was the headline story that most news channels were discussing.

On the same day, in the same breath, so to speak, the local news also talked about the start of the campaign season. Interestingly, a major daily’s banner stories were the Pope’s resignation and the President’s endorsement.

Tuesday after lunch, I bumped into a highly respected newscaster who has been doing features on the elections for the past months. I greeted her with, “Finally, it’s the campaign season!” To which she retorted with equal glee, “This circus is finally in town!” We both roared with laughter.

As I walked on, thinking about her comment on the circus finally coming to town, it dawned on me that that day, the start of the campaign period, was Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, carnival time!

In the frenzy of resignations, endorsements and carnivals, Lent is upon us. What an interesting coincidence! Then again, there are no coincidences, no accidents in God’s plan.

Points for reflection

Let us set our prayer and reflection on these within the framework of this First Sunday of Lent’s Gospel from Luke 4:1-13, the Temptations of Christ. The three temptations in the story: turn stone to bread, worship the devil and gain the kingdoms of the world, and prove He, Christ, is the Son of God by throwing himself down from the parapet and letting God’s angels rescue him.

The Pope’s resignation came as a shock. The last resignation was in 1415, 598 years ago. This is what makes it shocking. We are not used to it, but after the dust had settled we started to see the wisdom and the grace that the resignation embodied.

Given the stature and influence of the Papacy not just in the Catholic Church, but in the global community, the resignation was admirable. The Holy Father planned his exit and executed the plan. He felt and accepted that mentally and physically he could no longer meet the demands of his ministry. So you have the resignation.

The first temptation of Christ teaches us that what we are all about is more than material or worldly things. Christ refused to turn the stone to bread because “one does not live on bread alone.”

Admirable resignation

The Pope’s resignation reminds us of this. As we say in Filipino, “hindi siya kapit-tuko sa pwesto” (he does not inordinately cling to his post or office). Like Christ in today’s Gospel, the Pope showed what was far greater than his being Pope—the welfare of the Church to whom Christ entrusted his mission of redemption. In the end, more than bread and power, it is fidelity to mission that matters most.

The weeks before the start of the campaign period, P-Noy had been more straightforward in his endorsement of the Liberal Party’s senatorial lineup. Come start of the campaign period, the endorsement was as clear as it could be.

I must say I admire the President for what he did. It showed integrity. It showed consistency. From day one, he laid out what he was all about and, after almost three years, not only did he stick to it, but he built on it.

The second temptation of Christ, to worship the devil in exchange for kingdoms of this world, is the temptation to compromise. As one scripture commentary put it, to this Christ’s response was black and white, and no compromises—God alone is to be worshipped and served.

Politics aside, this is the same value that the hard-line endorsement of P-Noy embodies. Black and white, no compromises, it is either my way—the “daang matuwid” (the straight and narrow path against corruption)—or the highway.

Someone told me two days into the campaign period that because P-Noy consistently took a stand and this time laid it out in black and white, he, too, will take a stand. No more fence-sitting, no more Monday morning quarterbacking. He will take a stand and cast his lot with the President.

What I found inspiring, though, was his saying that we finally have a leader who was clear about his principles and black and white with regard to “daang matuwid,” his anti-corruption crusade. Then he said, “Tumaya na tayo.” (Let us be behind him; literally, let us place our bets on him.)

Taking a stand

The temptation to compromise has as its antidote taking a clear stand: black and white, a principled stand. There is no mistaking that Christ took this stand and simply said that “he who does not gather with me, scatters” and it is either we are with him or against him.

Christ also endorsed, but in his case he endorsed to the 12 his mission. He handpicked the 12 to continue his mission. And as he was leaving, he then endorsed the 12 to the Spirit; he consecrated the 12 for the mission entrusted to them.

The third and final temptation was to sensationalize and, through this, get a quick fix. Ash Wednesday is the perfect foil to this temptation. The Gospel from Matthew (6:1-6, 16-18) for the Ash Wednesday Mass talked about the three disciplines of Lent: alms-giving, prayer and fasting. But the more important lesson was to be authentic and not be a hypocrite in doing these. Hypocrisy is an extreme form of sensationalism, one based on a lie.

The goodness of human nature

The invitation of Lent is to rediscover our authenticity; to become authentic again. It is a fundamental belief in the goodness of human nature. The Filipino term for repentance is “pagbabalik-loob,” going back to, returning to our interior self, our core, our “kalooban” which is fundamentally good and whole.

The three temptations that we reflect on this First Sunday of Lent is a warning, a caution. Ignatius of Loyola pointed out that when we get closer to doing and living God’s will and mission for us in our life, the evil spirit will throw in all obstacles in our way to prevent us. It will cast doubts, fear in our hearts. It will tempt us where we are most vulnerable. It will lull us into a false sense of peace. It will mislead and lie.

Ash Wednesday opens this season with a clear message: Be authentic, it is not simply doing acts of penance and kindness but doing it with authenticity, with fidelity to our personal relationship with God.

Faith lived in today’s context

I used these current events in our reflections this Sunday to open us to one important point in our faith and spirituality.

Our faith ought to continue to be lived in the context of our times and must not be detached from current events and situation. It must dialogue with and make meaning of what happens in our day-to-day life and in this context be lived out.

The carnival is a reminder to us of the joyful character of our faith. It is the guarantee of our Christian hope that the sacrifices and the suffering are not the end of our journey. They are means to attain Christian joy. It is the promise of the Resurrection. The final word is the Resurrection.

The purification of Lent leads us to a freedom from the self, from self-centeredness and from worldly ambitions. This freedom, we pray and hope, deepens into a freedom for commitment or to commit to follow Christ in love, service and mission.

Of resignations, endorsements, carnivals, Ash Wednesday and Lent, all of these are graces for us, to aid in our reflection during this Season of Grace. This season will prepare us for the transforming grace of Holy Week when we celebrate the Paschal Mystery, the Great Feast of Easter; the transforming grace that, in the words of scripture, “Behold, I make all things new!”

Erratum: In last Sunday’s reflection, I erroneously referred to Zebedee as Peter’s father. Zebedee is the father of James and John, who were among the 12 apostles.

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