What a humble animal is the donkey. It isn't majestic like a horse or cute like a pony. It is not an animal domesticated for show. It is beast of burden, used for what labor it can perform.
I sometimes think about the donkey that carried the pregnant Virgin Mary on the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem. I'm sure it was just an average, labor-trained donkey that could be afforded on a peasant carpenter's salary.
But imagine if the donkey could somehow know who he was and who he was carrying. This donkey was plucked from all the other donkeys for this task. Was he the strongest and most sturdy? Probably not. But despite that, he took upon himself the most precious cargo ever. He had to the unborn God of the Universe and His pregnant mother safely to journey's end. If that donkey could know this, imagine the pressure. One misstep and you change the course of cosmic history. And as we know, God has very dangerous tastes. He lets our choices matter. What we do has consequence, for good or ill. It would be either this donkey's supreme victory to bring them to the City of David or it would his ultimate horror to fail in his mission. What donkey would want the yoke of that burden? And yet he did. He humbly took the burden given to him. That is what a donkey does.
That is why it is not surprising that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger referred to himself as God's donkey when he was elected to the Papacy as Pope Benedict XVI. It is widely known that Ratzinger had tried to retire several times from his position as head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, but Pope John Paul II refused to let him. And being God's donkey, Ratzinger served at the pleasure of the pope.
But his heart was back in Germany. He never imagined he would be placed so high up in Church government. As a child he dreamed of being a priest. In fact, when he was forced into the German army, his superior asked all the recruits what they wanted to be when the grew up. Most gave answers that would ingratiate themselves with their leaders, usually something about a career in the military. But when asked, young Joseph said, "I want to be a parish priest."
Notice the that he didn't just say a priest, but a parish priest. Ratzinger had no ambitions beyond his parish. When he was chosen to be a bishop, he thought it was a mistake and only accepted the elevation out of obedience to his spiritual director.
So in April of 2005, the conclave of cardinals took its first vote for the successor to John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger received the most votes. Twice.
Ratzinger asked his brothers not to vote for him. With John Paul II's death, Joseph was free to return to a small life in Germany to read, write, play the piano, and spend time in quiet prayer. But one of the cardinals pulled him aside and asked, "If God chooses you to be pope, will you say no to him?"
Of course not. God's donkey serves.
And so the Church was blessed with the papacy of Benedict XVI. He was not as naturally outgoing as his predecessor, but he was every inch as wise, as loving, and as holy. He continued John Paul II's tradition of traveling all over the world, recognizing that the papacy is a missionary office in the 21st century. Like the ancient donkey, the pope must bring Christ and His mother to the world.
He brought his gifts as a scholar and teacher to the office. Reading his books and encyclicals always felt like taking an advance course in history and theology. But his writings did not have the cold calculus of academia. They were love letters that bled with hot desire for the face of Jesus Christ. And you could not help but be caught up in this man's personal love affair with God.
He reached out his hand to reconcile different traditions that had separated from the Church. He took time to oversee reforms in the liturgy, the great prayer of the Church. He sought dialogue between people of different faiths while never surrounding to the relativism of this age.
He has been an object of ridicule. He has been physically attacked in the Vatican. Mobs of angry Islamists have called for his death. His words of kindness and compassion have been twisted and manipulated by the media to sound like hate and indifference.
But through it all, he has done the job of God's donkey: he has carried Christ in the world. That is the only reason he serves. And he never ceases to remind us that Christ is the only One who can ever make us truly happy.
Imagine the donkey from Nazareth rests in Bethlehem exhausted. But then the coming persecution of the murderous Herod approaches. Imagine that donkey knows that its worn out frame cannot make the journey to Egypt. Imagine for the good of the Holy Family, this donkey lets another, stronger donkey take the mission.
Pope Benedict XVI has done more than most men of his age could dream. I've read about his schedule and at my age I could never keep up. Yes, it is true that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us, but Benedict reminds us that it is Christ who does it all.
The papacy is not the unique platform of Joseph Ratzinger. It is the place where God's donkey sits. Those who look at the clergy only in terms of power can never understand what Benedict has done. He has given us a model to follow. John Paul II gave us a model of life's value, even when suffering. Benedict XVI shows us that the key to serving God is humility.
Humility like a donkey.
I know that Joseph Ratzinger will not cease to be a servant. He will quietly go to live a life a reflection and prayer for the Church he has so lovingly served. Even if we do not see him, he will continue to be there for us.
Thank you, Papa.
We will never forget you.