Rev. Thomas F. Dailey, OSFS '81 | Feb 11, 2013
It’s not your usual retirement. Indeed, it is an historic occasion, one whose likes have not been seen for more than 760 years!
In a “declaration” issued today, Pope Benedict XVI announced that as of 8:00 p.m. on February 28 of this year a new pope will have to be elected. He uses the language of the Church – “the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter will be vacant” – but in common parlance he has given his two weeks’ notice. The pope is resigning or retiring.
He’s the first pope to do so, for reasons associated with his person, since 1245, when Pope Celestine V decreed, after just five months in office, that it is permissible for a pope to resign and did so. (In a more recent case, that of Gregory XII in 1415, the resignation was not for personal reasons but in order to facilitate the end of a schism in which two others claimed the title of pope at the same time.)
That Benedict XVI could make this decision is provided for in the Church’s law (canon 332 §2). But that he did so will send a shock through the world, except, perhaps, to those who know him.
The final days of the papacy of John Paul II dramatized the plight of anyone suffering with a debilitating disease; in living through that he disclosed to the world, in his very person, the dignity of every human person and the corresponding need of caring for others that is a universal human duty. Pope Benedict XVI has a less dramatic persona, yet his character shines forth in this historic declaration.
It is commonly known that, prior to becoming pope, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger had wished to retire, to take up that worthy rest from the duties of the day that would enable him to read and write and fulfill, more leisurely, the scholarly vocation which had always been his life’s calling. Yet, true to his concern for the Church, Benedict XVI accepted the decision of his fellow cardinals that he become the Supreme Pontiff.
Having done so, and having done so with an intellectual vibrancy and pastoral sensitivity that brought the Christian faith to the world of the twenty-first century, he now seeks again to withdraw, as he states, because he no longer has the strength needed to govern the Church and proclaim the Gospel to the extent that the papal ministry requires.
A consummate intellectual who sees the world and the papal office for what it is, and a man of prayer who humbly acknowledges who he now is – that combination is precisely what one would expect from Benedict XVI, whose legacy as pope centers on his distinctive coupling of faith and reason.
And both the timing and the tenor of his decision speak to that combination. Issued on the day when the church celebrates Our Lady of Lourdes and prays for the sick, the pope acknowledges the inadequacy of his own health, while also professing a deep concern for the Church and its work in the world. For this pope, the immediate future of that papacy can now be positioned in a way born more of intentionality than of necessity.
Hopefully, the Church will continue to benefit from Pope Benedict XVI’s wisdom and now also from the life more dedicated to prayer for which he longs.