It’s one week since Benedict XVI announced that he would step down as head of the Catholic Church at the end of February. The news rattled the world. I refused to believe it until I saw the Vatican Radio website for myself and heard the Pope’s address for myself. Scott Hahn, the eminent Biblical scholar says, “In some ways I’m surprised at how surprised I am.” A letter to the editor in the Daily Nation (15 February) read: “Giving God a two-week resignation smacks of insubordination.” Naturally, Benedict XVI has been a father figure to us. We feel the loss. We’re not sure how to accept his decision.
Invariably, “experts” in diverse fields have felt obliged to analyse the situation, cook elaborate conspiracy theories and express their learned opinions. Some say he did well by resigning, while others question why he did not emulate his predecessor John Paul II by suffering to the end.
I admit that the two men certainly have very different approaches to the same problem of suffering. But I should also point out that many voices that now praise John Paul II were the very ones that criticized him for refusing to resign from the papacy because of his advanced physical infirmity.
The Pope must be a sign of contradiction
Let’s face it: the first pre-requisite for the Vicar of Christ is that he must always be ready to be a sign of contradiction. If Benedict XVI hadn’t resigned, his persecutors would have found something else to hound him on. Now that he has done the unthinkable, they cry foul – how can a pope break away from 600 years of tradition?
Very simple. For as much as Benedict has been labelled a “conservative”, his decision proved him to be quite “liberal”, out-of-the-box we may say. It would have been far easier for him to retain his position and remain passive to his duties of office. It would have been more comfortable to stay holed up in his papal apartment, defended by a press release from his spokesman saying something like, “The Holy Father is unavailable as he is tending to important issues.”
In his Ash Wednesday homily on 13 February, Pope Benedict made an interesting Lenten reflection: “Conversion means not closing in on oneself in the pursuit of one’s own success, one’s own prestige, one’s own position, but making sure that every day, in the small things, truth, faith in God and love become the most important thing.”
This is a conversion he has shown in practice. After much prayer and examination of conscience before God, it became clear to him that his mind and body were no longer able to respond to the hectic pace of life in the government of the Church. It wasn’t a light day-old cough or a heavy weeklong cold that afflicted him. It was 8 years of uphill walking, and he had to admit that the climb had now become too steep. He made a choice to leave the papacy knowing full well this was not a matter of his personal successes or prestige or position. The papacy is a service to God and his people.
The Pope must be himself
The one chosen to serve as Pope is an individual, with his own identity and character traits. John XXIII was a simple man, son of a farmer, who surprised those around him by one day convoking the Second Vatican Council. Paul VI followed him in 1963, and until 1978, he had the difficult task of charting the way for the Church through murky post-Vatican II waters. John Paul I died 33 days after his election; he is remembered as the “smiling Pope”.
It’s no wonder that John Paul II is informally referred to as “John Paul the Great”. At the age of twenty, he had already lost his mother, his brother and his father. The Second World War didn’t allow him to be with any of them when they died. He joined the clandestine underground seminary. He survived a serious car accident; instead of being discouraged by this, the young Pole became even more convinced of his vocation to the priesthood!
The youthful priest was out kayaking in northern Poland when he was summoned to be appointed auxiliary bishop of Krakow. At the age of 58, he became Pope – and an extremely healthy pope at that. He jogged in the Vatican gardens, went swimming, hiked in the mountains and loved football. The two assassination attempts on his life did not deter him from his mission, although they eventually took a toll on his health.
Everyone is tempted to juxtapose Benedict XVI with John Paul II. Born in Hitler’s times, Joseph Ratzinger served his country as part of an anti-aircraft unit. Later he studied philosophy and theology and went on to become a Professor. He loves classical and he is an excellent pianist who enjoys performing wonderful renditions of Mozart and Schubert. Aged 70, he asked John Paul II for permission to retire and work in the Vatican library. The Pope refused. Eight years later, on 19 April 2005, Ratzinger was elected to occupy the Chair of Peter.
The Pope must be himself. It’s unfair to compare a sportsman and a scholar. It’s impossible that any two men share the same strengths (and/or weaknesses). That’s why we have to accept each person as he is. From a purely physical point of view, John Paul II was more adept to suffering and was able to push himself to heroic limits that few of us –if any– would be able to reach.
The Pope must do the will of God
In the Inaugural Mass of his Pontificate, Benedict XVI stated: “At this moment there is no need for me to present a programme of governance (…) my real programme of governance is not to do my own will, not to pursue my own ideas, but to listen, together with the whole Church, to the word and the will of the Lord, to be guided by Him, so that He himself will lead the Church at this hour of our history.”
To those who deny the existence of God –whether on principle or out of convenience– this is sheer humbug. For the believer however, the third dimension of a Divine Will gives a deeper meaning to life. If the Pope is to serve, he must do the Will of God.
Can resigning from the papacy be the Will of God? Yes. Under the conditions stated by Canon 332 §2 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law: “Should it happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns from his office, it is required for validity that the resignation be freely made and properly manifested, but it is not necessary that it be accepted by anyone.” In other words, no conclave is needed to dispense a pope from his duties.
Some would argue that this was a rather precipitated decision. Perhaps they ignore the two visits the Pope made in 2009 and 2010 to the Cathedral of Sulmona to pray before the relics of St Celestine V, the Pontiff who resigned in 1294. Four years of prayer and examination of conscience constitute anything but a rash decision. The resignation was freely made. He fulfilled the Will of God.
The Pope must be a “conservative”
In the coming weeks, there is going to be plenty of speculation about the papabiles. And our friends who resort to the popular nomenclature for branding popes and popes-to-be will be rumouring that this candidate is “liberal” and that one is “conservative”.
All the popes from Linus, Cletus, Clement and Sixtus down to John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I and John Paul II have been “conservatives”. Paul VI was literally martyred alive for his encyclical Humanae Vitae that gave clear-cut ideas on why artificial contraception is unacceptable for the believer. Going against the grain is what qualifies you as a “conservative”
From that perspective, Jesus Christ was also a “conservative”. He talked about people not looking at women lustfully lest they commit adultery with them in their hearts. He appointed twelve men, not twelve women, to be his apostles. And he reminded us that a man would leave his father and mother to be united to his wife, and the two would become one.
Let all those who aspire for a more progressive Pope be assured that the Vicar of Christ will always be another Christ and therefore, he will always be a “conservative”. No to same-sex marriages. No to the ordination of women as priests. No to adultery, fornication, and all the sins against the 6th Commandment. No to sin.
The courage of Benedict XVI
As one of those privileged to attend three World Youth Days with Pope Benedict XVI, I can certainly vouch for the courage of this man.
It took courage for a quiet-natured person like him to mingle with 1.4 million youth in Cologne barely four months after his election. They said that only the charisma of John Paul II drew young people closer to the church. They were wrong. Despite his initial clumsiness in handling crowds, he brought in many more young people closer to Christ.
It took courage for an 81-year old man to embark on a journey longer than twenty-four hours from Rome to Sydney in 2008. He took several days to recover from the jet lag. Even though his physical strength had started to wane, he pressed on.
It took courage for this largely speaking “indoor man” to hold his ground at Cuatrovientos airfield in Madrid when a storm broke out in the World Youth Day Night Vigil. More than once, his aides urged him that it was best to leave the stage, but Pope Benedict refused. At the end of the storm, his voice crackled over the public address system: “Dear Friends: I thank you for your joy and your resistance. Your strength is greater than the rain.” What an ovation he received from the 2 million young people present. He had stayed for us.
It took courage on 11 February 2013 for the Holy Father Benedict XVI to announce that he could no longer cope with his Petrine ministry. He voluntarily lowered himself in the sight of men. How gracefully he continues to carry the cross of misunderstanding and widespread disappointment of his people. He has shown us that courage brings suffering and that suffering is not a problem, but the sign of a follower of Christ. “May no adversity paralyze you. Be afraid neither of the world, nor of the future, nor of your weakness,” he told the youth in Madrid.
We have many reasons to thank God for the pontificate of Benedict XVI. As we approach 28 February, we should feel the urge to support with prayer and sacrifice he who has been our father and he who will be chosen to take his place.
Kevin de Souza is a freelance writer who has worked in the field of education and institutional communication for the last 15 years.