“IN OUR WORLD MANY PEOPLE CLING TO POWER AND INFLUENCE, AND IT IS A GREAT LESSON IN HUMILITY TO SEE SOMEONE AT THE PINNACLE OF INFLUENCE SIMPLY RENOUNCING IT
For the first time in many centuries a pope has resigned. Now we rejoice in our new Holy Father, Pope Francis, while his predecessor, Benedict XVI (now Pope Emeritus) is living in retirement. On February 11, 2013, during a routine audience in Rome, Pope Benedict XVI stunned the world with this announcement: ‘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… For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.’
SIMPLE, HUMBLE LABOURER
News of the Pope’s pending retirement was front-page news on every major international newspaper. A pope had not resigned since the Middle Ages, well before the current St Peter’s Basilica had been built. Catholics were as surprised as everyone else, and some people even felt somewhat abandoned by the Holy Father’s announcement.
Unfortunately our world has become too jaded by politics, and many people doubt any answer given by a world leader. This has led to some conspiracy theories regarding the Pope’s resignation. However, in the case of Pope Benedict XVI, we can trust his answer that he resigned due to his failing physical health. He was already 78 years old when he was elected Pope to succeed Blessed John Paul II in 2005. From his very first words as Pope it was clear that he was well aware of his weaknesses: ‘Dear brothers and sisters, after the great Pope John Paul II, the Cardinals have elected me, a simple, humble labourer in the vineyard of the Lord. The fact that the Lord knows how to work and to act even with insufficient instruments comforts me, and above all I entrust myself to your prayers.’
THE GOOD OF THE CHURCH
In his public discourse to the faithful in St Peter’s Square in Rome on February 27 last, Benedict XVI explained his decision, ‘In recent months, I felt that my strength had decreased, and I asked God with insistence in prayer to enlighten me with His light to make me take the right decision – not for my sake, but for the good of the Church. I have taken this step in full awareness of its severity and also its novelty, but with a deep peace of mind. Loving the Church also means having the courage to make difficult, trying choices, having ever before oneself the good of the Church and not one’s own.’
Anyone who is truly familiar with Pope Emeritus should not be surprised by this decision. As Cardinal Ratzinger he had asked Blessed John Paul II to allow him to retire on at least two occasions as even then he did not feel strong enough for his job as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. In 2010, well after he had been elected Pope, in ‘Light of the World’, a book length interview with Peter Seewald, he clearly spoke about the possibility of a pope resigning: ‘Is it possible,’ Mr Seewald asked, ‘to imagine a situation in which you would consider a resignation by the Pope appropriate?’ Benedict answered, ‘Yes. If a Pope clearly realises that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.
LESSON IN SAINTHOOD
While it is true that no pope has retired in hundreds of years, it is also true that in this instance the Church needs to adapt to the modern world. Advances in modern medicine have radically prolonged life expectancy; today people live much longer than in past generations. However it is also the case that sometimes people can spend their last months or even years of life too weak both physically and emotionally to govern an institution as complex as the Catholic Church.
Pope John Paul II gave the world the precious testimony of a holy death and how life is precious until the final breath. However Pope Emeritus has underlined another important teaching by his historic decision to resign. In our world many people cling to power and influence, and it is a great lesson in humility to see someone at the pinnacle of influence in the world simply renouncing it and admitting that someone else should continue in his place as he can no longer effectively lead the Church. Pope Emeritus has always understood that the papacy is not about him, but that he was called to be a ‘simple, humble labourer in the vineyard of the Lord.’ Since he could no longer properly fulfil his ministry as Bishop of Rome and Successor of St Peter, in conscience he had felt the need to retire. In this sense Pope Emeritus is not any different from many of the saints. St Francis is the most famous saint to retire. In 1220, six years before he died, although he was still in relatively good health, St Francis saw that the Franciscan Order was growing at a very great rate, and considered himself not to be the best leader, therefore he resigned and the Order was entrusted to another superior. The Poor Man of Assisi realised that in his poverty he could own nothing, and therefore entrusted even the Order he had founded to the providential care of God.
LIFE OF PRAYER
Pope Emeritus has not simply returned to his previous life. In his last public discourse in St Peter’s Square he explained that when he accepted the Petrine Ministry that he did so forever: ‘I do not return to private life, to a life of travel, meetings, receptions, conferences and so on. I do not abandon the cross, but remain in a new way near to the Crucified Lord. I no longer wield the power of the office for the government of the Church, but in the service of prayer I remain, so to speak, within St Peter’s bounds. St Benedict, whose name I bear as Pope, shall be a great example in this for me. He showed us the way to a life which, active or passive, belongs wholly to the work of God.’
For this reason Benedict has kept his name and is now known as His Holiness Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus. In his final appearance as Pope at the window of the papal residence in Castel Gandolfo, he took leave of the world with the words ‘now I’m just a pilgrim beginning the last part of his journey on earth.’ Now he plans to spend the rest of his life in prayer, secluded in the Vatican. In November 2012 Pope Emeritus visited an old folks home in Rome. Here he shared his experience of old age with the residents in a beautiful discourse reminding them that ‘Living is beautiful even at our age, despite some ‘aches and pains’ and a few limitations.’ He concluded this discourse stating that ‘the prayers of the elderly can protect the world, helping it, perhaps more effectively than collective anxiety.’ We can rest assured that the prayers of this particular elderly pilgrim will be a precious treasure for the Church and the world.”
– This article, entitled “Benedict’s Lesson” by Neil Xavier O’Donoghue, was published in “Messenger of Saint Anthony”, issue May 2013. For subscriptions, please contact: Messenger of Saint Anthony, Basilica del Santo, via Orto Botanico 11, 35123 Padua, Italy.