There has been a mixed flurry of reactions amongst Catholics to Pope Benedict XVI’s surprising announcement on Monday Feb. 11, 2013 that he will be stepping down from his office as Bishop of Rome and Successor of St Peter. Some believe the negative press the Vatican already enjoys will gain impetus from this. Why did Benedict not spare us this negative PR some have been heard to ask? Others, rightfully, celebrate the wisdom of the Pope’s decision for his humility, his courage and his commitment to the Church.
For one thing, one is grateful that there was no butler and so there were no scoops even from the corridors of the papal chamber.
First, it is important to get the correct description of the Pope’s action. It is inaccurate to refer to it either as retirement or as resignation, at least not in the American sense.
In American political parlance, resignation is generally a euphemism for dismissal. Public officials resign when they are mired in scandal. The revered American General, David Petraeus, was forced to hand in his resignation when the sex scandal broke out. Now former Congressman, Rep. Jesse L Jackson (D-IL) also recently resigned in what turns out to be fraudulent management of campaign finances.To resign presumes a higher authority to whom one submits a letter and often linked to a scandal of one form or another.
Pope Benedict’s action is far from any of these. As he himself says: 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,
It is a renunciation of the office he assumed in 2005. Some conspiracy theorists think that there is something amiss, which shall come to the limelight some day. We can only wish them good luck with that.
Our appreciation of the Pope’s decision says something about our psyche. Contemporary society has become so scandal prone and crisis-ridden that it has adopted a one-size-fits-all standard for evaluating actions, namely scandal.
The Genius of Pope Benedict XVI’s decision lies in his own words: 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…. 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 fulfill the ministry entrusted to me. (emphasis mine)
Two words that encapsulate the Pope’s position are “Strength”(which appears three times) and “adequately” (which appears twice). Both are the operative reasons for the Pope’s decision. The enormity and sublimity of the tasks of the office require a certain alertness of the mind and physical strengths, which age has robbed the Holy Father of.
One cannot avoid but reference the words of the Delphic Oracle – “Man know thyself and you shall know the gods,” which find classical fulfillment in Pope Benedict’s decision.
Ola Rotimi, in his play, The Gods are not to blame, says of Odewale the protagonist, “The butterfly thinks itself a bird.” And because of this misconstrued and bloated ego, Odewale meets his demise.
Humanity must learn to acknowledge the limits of being. There are no supermen no matter how much the movie superman wants us to believe its reality. There are limits. Pope Benedict’s decision is a great lesson in humility.
There is a greater lesson even for those with political power. Clinging tenaciously to power is a disservice both to the institution and to those served. The Pope could go on till his demise but seeing the enormity of the tasks at hand, believes the institution would be able to wade off the buffeting tides, with a stronger and ‘younger’ person in office. Out of deep love for the Church and the flock he has shepherded, Pope Benedict XVI has so graciously considered that the best course of action is to relinquish power.
In a very real way, Pope Benedict’s XVI decision makes the Church a beacon of hope and an example even in the face of the crises that have stormed the Church sapping her of her moral authority. Today, one can ask Biya of Cameroon, Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea and Mugabe of Zimbabwe and the other Octogenarians to follow the example of Pope Benedict XVI and leave power before power leaves them.
Pope Benedict has thought hard about this for a long time and so the question becomes why did he choose to relay his decision on Monday 11 Feb. 2013? The coincidences are just too many and all give us a clue. First, the Catholic Church celebrates February as a Marian month. In fact, it was on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes that the Holy Father made the announcement. On this day, the Church celebrates World day of the Sick. And all of these at the time the Church is celebrating the year of the Faith.
The Pope has discerned that this is God’s will for him and the Church. Like Mary, the Pope is not doing his will but rather God’s will. The Pope’s decision is intimately Marian in character.
The Pope is well aware of the signs of the times and he mentions this in his announcement saying: However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith…What better gift could the Pope give to the Church in this year of the faith than to step down and make way for one with a younger mind? Like Alfred Lord Tennyson expresses in his poem: The Old order changeth, yielding place to new, And God fulfills himself in many ways, Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
There is no doubt that Pope Benedict would have been emboldened to take this decision from the experience of his predecessor. The last forty days of John Paul II were days of tremendous suffering as John Paul II shuttled between the Gemelli hospital and his residence until he finally passed on. That this had a toll on the administration of the Church at the time is anyone’s guess.
Even then, John Paul II died like many of his predecessors. There is no denying it that the administration of the Church suffered at this time. In the face of the visible suffering, then Cardinal Ratzinger said, “The example of a suffering Pope is very important. It is another way of preaching that suffering can be beautiful when we share it with the Lord.” It is fitting then that Pope Benedict XVI who does not cite health reasons as necessitating his decision, relinquishes power on this world day of the sick.
Let us take consolation in the words of Pope John Paul II: Be Not Afraid. May we not be afraid for as the prophet Jeremiah reminds us of Yahweh’s promise, “I will give you pastors after my own heart who will lead you with knowledge and understanding.” (Jer.3:15). May the words of Christ Himself when he commissioned the first Pope Peter enlighten us: “The gates of hell shall not prevail against you,” (Mtt.16:18) “for I am with you always to the end of time.” (Mtt.28:20)