Pope Benedict XVI: Gandalf takes up the staff
Over Christmas I was in Oxford, England, and had Christmas dinner with friends outside of town. The husband had received the four hour version of The Return of the King as a Christmas present. So we spent a happy Christmas staying up late watching four hours of Tolkien's classic.
The next day I went to mass at a small church in Littlemore where John Henry Newman was received into the Catholic Church. The priest was an older man in long black robes bearing a staff in his hand. And as he began his sermon, he suddenly reminded me of Gandalf. The sermon was strong and powerful; and I later learned that the priest was the legendary British preacher Cormac Rigby, himself a convert to Catholicism.
The link to Gandalf was not, of course, a mere accident influenced by a late-night DVD. JRR Tolkien, himself a devout Catholic, had steeped The Lord of the Rings in Catholic myth. We live in a world that glamourizes youth. Yet those of us who grew up in the sixties know how often youth fails, and how frequently wisdom remains the painful fruit of old age.
The Gandalf figure is deeply rooted in Catholic myth: the man of years, weak in body, but strong in mind, powerful in wisdom, and indomitable in heart--the figure of a pope. For the last decade we have seen this kind of man personified in John Paul II. Who has not seen, who can forget the photograph of John Paul II, grasping his staff with the crucified Christ, the pope's head bowed, his robes billowing in the wind? It captured in a single moment the glory and the cross of John Paul II's pontificate: his pain bearing witness to the pain of the cross, and yet by that very cross sustained, the suffering transformed into a witness to Jesus Christ.
Now comes Joseph Ratzinger to the chair of Peter, not a younger man as John Paul II at the beginning had been, but a man who has already borne the scars of many battles: a veteran of the wars of Vatican II in the 1960s, the long battles against Communism in Eastern Europe, Marxism in Latin America, and the battles against relativism in India and across the world.
He took to the chair of Peter today that same staff that we have seen so many times in the hands of John Paul II. Now as Benedict XVI he calls us to follow the same Christ that John Paul II followed, and that Benedict himself has followed long these many years. He takes John Paul II's watchword: be not afraid; and adds one word: be not of afraid of Christ! The note is one of joy and praise as he calls all of us, young and old, to the discipleship of Jesus Christ:
"Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life. Amen."