11 February 2013

A decision of great importance

As the world woke this morning to news of Pope Benedict XVI's decision yesterday to resign his office as Bishop of Rome, effective February 28, 2013 at 8:00 p.m. Roman time, shock and sadness set into the hearts of many, including me.
L’Osservatore Romano
Many have asked how the Pope can "simply" resign and step aside.  To be sure, this decision was not made lightly but only "after having repeatedly examined my conscience before God."

At 85 years of age, His Holiness is feeling the effects of these years in a great way and is aware of the limitations his advanced age is placing upon his ministry.  Indeed, his health, he says, "has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me."

We should pay special attention to the emphasis he uses: He is not resigning to suit his own desires, but for the good of the Church.  As it has always been throughout his life, so it remains: His first concern is for the Church.
Then-Cardinal Ratzinger concluded his book Milestones: Memoirs: 1927-1997, published in 1997, with a moving reflection on the bear of St. Corbinian, which he has included in his coat of arms.  He wrote of the bear:
The story has it that, on the way to Rome, a bear tore the saint's horse to pieces.  Then Corbinian reprimanded the bear sternly for its crime and as a punishment loaded on it the pack that the horse had been carrying.  The bear had to haul the pack all the way to Rome, and only there was it released by the saint.  The bear weighed down with the saint's burden reminded me of one of Saint Augustine's meditations on the Psalms.  In verses 22 and 23 of Psalm 72(73), he saw expressed botht he burden and the hope of his life.  What he finds in these verses and then comments is like a self-portrait, made before the face of God, and therefore not just a pious thought but an exegesis of his life and light upon his road.

What Augustine writes in this connection became for me a portrayal of my own destiny.  ....

He had chosen the life of a scholar, but God had chosen to make him into a "draft animal" - a good, sturdy ox to pull God's cart in this world...

The laden bear that took the place of Saint Corbinian's horse, or rather donkey - the bear that became his donkey against its will: Is this not an image of what I should do and of what I am?  "A beast of burden I have become for you, and this is just the way for me to remain wholly yours and always abide with you."
This profound words demonstrate the heart of the man who was taken from his academic learning - which he greatly loved - and was made a Bishop, an Archbishop, a Cardinal, and now a Pope.  He is a man of great humility and sacrifice.

The above words should be remembered with the words he spoke shortly after his election to the See of Peter when he addressed a group of German pilgrims:
When, little by little, the trend of the voting led me to understand that, to say it simply, the axe was going to fall on me, my head began to spin. I was convinced that I had already carried out my life's work and could look forward to ending my days peacefully. With profound conviction I said to the Lord: Do not do this to me! You have younger and better people at your disposal, who can face this great responsibility with greater dynamism and greater strength.
Over the course of these past seven years I have learned more from Pope Benedict XVI than I could ever put into words.  As I newly-ordained priest, I remember watching the newly-elected Pope.

I watched this introverted man learn how to speak to the crowds and to allow some of his personality to flow into his Petrine ministry as I sought to learn how to do the same in my priestly ministry.

I remember pouring over his homilies and addresses to learn how to proclaim the Gospel in our day and I used - and still do use - many of his words in my homilies and addresses.

There is something about this man that has deeply touched my heart.

Many have asked how the Pope  can "simply" resign and step aside. 

The possibility of a papal resignation is foreseen in canon law:
Can. 332 §1. The Roman Pontiff obtains full and supreme power in the Church by his acceptance of legitimate election together with episcopal consecration. Therefore, a person elected to the supreme pontificate who is marked with episcopal character obtains this power from the moment of acceptance. If the person elected lacks episcopal character, however, he is to be ordained a bishop immediately.
§2. If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone.
Though the resignation of a Pope is rare, it is not altogether unheard of.  Of the 265 Successors of Saint Peter, 4 have resigned:
Pope Gregory VI in 1046
Pope Celestine V in 1294 
Pope Gregory XII in 1415
Who the fourth is, I do not know.  Soon Pope Benedict XVI will become the fifth Pope to resign.

Following his resignation, he will move to Castel Gandalfo, the summer residence of the Popes, for "a period of prayer and reflection."  He will not take part in the conclave to elect his successor.

Other questions remain, most notably two that come to my mind:
  1. What will he be called?
  2. What will he do?
As to what he will be called, I do not know.  He is presently called the Pope because he is the Bishop of Rome.  Will he be Bishop-emeritus of Rome? Will he simply be called Benedict XVI or even again Joseph?  I do not know.

As to what he will do, I do not expect we will see much of him in his retirement, a thought that saddens me.  I do, though, think he will continue to work on a book or two (at least I hope he will!).

As I look to what the future will hold, I will miss his genuine smile and the gentleness of his voice.  I wish him well and thank him not only for his courageous ministry, but his courageous and humble decision to resign his office before he may become incapacitated.  May God bless him with joy and peace and provide us with another such shepherd!



  1. Benedict IX, who was apparently not one of the all-time great pontiffs.

  2. I thought that it was Pope Pontian in the 3rd century