It came as a thunderbolt at dawn, unexpected, dramatic, sending shock waves far and wide. No, not the meteorite that landed in Russia last week, but, rather, the news that at the end of the month our Holy Father Pope Benedict would resign his office as the Bishop of Rome and retire from the active ministry.
I heard it listening to the news on the radio, just after 6:00 am that morning. At first I had to remind myself that it wasn’t April 1st, April Fools Day. And then I wondered if it was some kind of an Internet hoax. But when the first reports were confirmed by the Vatican I realized quickly that we had just witnessed an historic moment, an event that would cause a huge commotion and change the Church and the world in ways predictable and unpredictable.
In my public statement about the Pope’s announcement I said that his resignation was “an act of great humility, for he understands that the needs of the Church are greater than his own; that ultimately the well-being of the Church is in God’s hands, not the Pope’s.”
Indeed the Holy Father’s decision displayed profound humility. How often have we seen individuals in the public spotlight – politicians, athletes, actors and actresses – hang on well past the point that they could adequately fulfill their roles? In many such cases their own need for power and adulation trumps the common good and common sense.
Not so with Benedict. This Pope – a “reluctant pope” some have called him – understood both the limits of his personal resources as well as the enormous needs of the Church. In his announcement he said, “I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry . . . In today’s world, in order to govern the Bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary.”
In a way, Pope Benedict’s resignation shouldn’t have come as a total surprise. In his 2010 book, “Light of the World,” Benedict suggested that if someday the pope realized that he no longer had the strength to adequately fulfill his sacred duties he had the right, and in some cases, the obligation, to resign from office. (p. 30)
Pope Benedict’s decision is, indeed, an act of great humility. It’s also an act of courage.
In “Light of the World” Pope Benedict said that “Courage is one of the chief qualities that a bishop has to have nowadays. One aspect of this courage is the refusal to bow to the dictate of opinions but, rather, to act on the basis of what one inwardly knows is right, even when it causes annoyance.” (p. 85)
In choosing to renounce his office our Holy Father knew that it was an historic, game-changing decision. It had been almost 600 years since another pope had done so, but at that time under far different circumstances. The Pope also knew that his move would cause some “annoyance;” that it would be scrutinized and criticized by just about everyone – by genuine experts as well as totally clueless pundits.
Some have compared and contrasted Benedict’s end-game to that of Blessed John Paul II who persevered till the end, dealing very publicly on the world stage with debilitating illness, suffering and pain. But in truth we have two very different personalities here, two very different messages being sent, both of which are valuable and legitimate.
John Paul was an actor with a flair for the dramatic. Benedict is a shy professor with a penchant for quiet reflection. John Paul’s way taught the redemptive meaning of suffering and death. Benedict’s way teaches the limitations of human strength and the primacy of God’s providence in our endeavors.
Some have criticized our “Holy Father’s” decision saying that a father does not abandon his family because of old age and weakness. But that analogy, like every analogy, isn’t perfect and is useful only to a point. Benedict’s “fatherhood” of the Church is spiritual, not physical or material. In fact we will continue to have the spiritual benefit of his ministry of intense prayer and intercession for the Church.
The notion that Benedict is abandoning his family is rather self-centered and narcissistic it seems to me. As devoted children of our Holy Father shouldn’t we be concerned about his well-being rather than our own? What kind of children want to see their father worked to death so that their own needs might be fulfilled?
Some critics have suggested that in retiring Pope Benedict has changed the rules and set a precedent that other popes will have to follow in the future. Well it’s true, I suppose, that the door to retirement for future popes is open a bit wider now. On the other hand, I’m not sure that taking a particular course of action every 600 years or so establishes a firm precedent that others will have to follow.
In his inaugural homily in 2005, Pope Benedict said: “Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.”
Pope Benedict’s historic decision to renounce his office is proof positive that he understands the meaning of life as well as his own humble place in God’s plan. May God bless Pope Benedict!