Yesterday Pope Benedict XVI surprised the world with the announcement of his resignation as the Supreme Pontiff come 8pm on 28 February 2013 – two weeks away. This is the trending topic on all media the world over and many are still recovering from the shock. I have not recovered but reality is slowly settling in that this fine man did indeed say that yesterday.
The occasion was a meeting of cardinals he had convoked for the canonization (making saints) of some holy candidates. According to the transcript of that briefing as reported by the Vatican Information Service, the Pope began: “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry”. He was elected Pope at 78, three years after cardinals should have retired. He couldn’t retire because Pope John Paul II repeatedly refused his request to do so, useful as the then Cardinal Ratzinger was at the Vatican. And so with a heavy heart for the import of the burden the papacy implied, and yet without hesitation he accepted the choice of his brother cardinals. For eight years we have learnt that though the personalities may differ, the Pope is the Pope and the spirit is the same. We learnt that a quiet voice can carry millions of miles, by the strength and authority of the doctrine he taught and by the clarity of his ideas. We learnt from Benedict XVI the value of a gentle smile, coming from this intellectual, hitherto more comfortable with his books and with the piano and with quietly counseling souls… than with crowds. The papacy brought him to the world stage and he handled it remarkably well, even better than the most well-intentioned were ready to give him allowance for.
He continued his shocking announcement “I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering.” In my opinion, this part should put at rest any temptation to make a comparison between him and John Paul II, who did not resign in spite of the debilitating illness he suffered, and who may thus wonder if Pope Benedict XVI was running away from suffering. Many years ago in that famous interview with the journalist Peter Seeward, Benedict XVI made it clear that he would never abdicate when there is a battle to be fought.
The Vatican spokesman, Fr. Federico Lombardi expressed this point better in his later press conference yesterday Feb. 11 “”The Pope’s announcement is consistent with what he declared in the book ‘Light of the World’ by Peter Seewald, based on interviews with Benedict XVI. Seewald posed two precise questions on the hypothesis of resignation. In the first, he asked the Holy Father whether, in difficult situations that weigh on the pontificate in progress, the Pope would consider resigning. Benedict’s response was: ‘When the danger is great, one cannot escape. For this reason, surely, this would not be the time to resign’ (he was referring to the question of sexual abuse, etc.). Moments like this are the times when one has to be strong and face the difficult situation. This is what I think. One can resign in a time of peace, or when one simply no longer has the strength, but one cannot escape in a moment of danger saying ‘someone else take care of it’. In any case, the Pope said that the difficulties would not be, for him, a motive for resignation; rather, they would be a reason not to. Seewald’s second question was: ‘Well then, can you imagine a situation in which you would think that a Pope could resign?’ The Holy Father responded: ‘When a Poperealizes clearly that he is no longer physically, mentally, and spiritually capable of carrying out his role, then there is legally the possibility, and also the obligation, to resign.'”
So it is clear, the Pope is not resigning because of any fear of bearing Christ’s Cross. His reasons? He continues: “However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me.” I am in my 40s and already feeling the effects of age. The Pope is double my age and even older than my father!
He won my heart, he broke my heart, he made me love him more. I almost felt like an orphan but was quickly consoled by the Pope’s own assurance that Christ remains the Chief Shepherd of his church.