pope benedict resigns – day two

ominous photos of lightening strikes over St. Peter's yesterday are going viral
ominous photos of lightening hitting St. Peter’s yesterday are all over the internet today

It has been a heady couple of days for Catholics. The media buzz over the papal resignation has spread far beyond the walls of the Vatican. It is reminiscent of the death watch in 2005, when the world held its breath for the bells to toll the passing of Pope John Paul II. Then, news teams from around the globe descended on St. Peter’s. His death was followed by intense coverage of the papal funeral and subsequent conclave. I was hooked then. And, I’m hooked now.

Except this time, there has been no death.

I have often wondered what it would be like to be the Queen of England or the Pope. You know that your funeral will be a world-stopping affair, but you wouldn’t be around to hear the tributes and memorials. And, you wouldn’t be around to see the coronation of your successor. With his surprise abdication, Pope Benedict is living through an experience that no other Pope has. He may not be the first to resign, but he is the first to do it in the age of modern communications.

I wonder. Is he following the news coverage? Is he curious to know the world’s reaction to his decision? Is he really going to be able to just close the doors on the papal apartments and walk away on February 28th? Will he be following the news of the conclave on T.V. with the rest of the world?

The news trickling from the Vatican press office tells us that plans are already under way for the retired Pope to go to the papal residence at Castel Gandolfo before he moves into a newly refurbished monastery in the middle of the Vatican gardens. And, no, he will have no role in the conclave (other than hand-picking many of the electors).

There is a surreal effect to this story. It sounds more like the opening chapter of a suspense plot in a Vatican-based novel. One wonders if there is a tale below the surface. Will there be other surprises in the coming days?

pope benedict resigns

Vatican Pope Resigns

“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.”

I woke up this morning to the news of the papal resignation. It came as a surprise to all. The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII, who resigned in 1415 in the middle of a Church schism. Pope Benedict made the announcement in Latin, and the official English translation can be read here.

Many thoughts went through my mind. To give the Pope the utmost credit, it takes a wise person to acknowledge when they are no longer able to fulfill their duties to the best of their abilities. We can all cite leaders, great and small, who remained in their positions well past their ‘due date’. Whether it is a leader of a nation, a CEO of a corporation or a teacher in a class-room, a clear-minded stepping down is a sign that one is taking into account the greater good of those they serve rather than clinging to their position. For this, I have the utmost respect.

Another interesting point is made by Brian Flanagan on the Daily Theology blog.

The best thing about Benedict’s announced resignation is that it helps restore our understanding of the papacy to that of an office rather than a personal possession. The pope exercises his authority as the bishop of Rome and, because of that, the universal pastor, as the head of a local church, not because of a permanent change in his personal status (like being baptized, being ordained or being made a cardinal)… The papacy can now be clearly seen as a crucial office of the universal church, but one in which the pope remains an officeholder, rather than an irreplaceable, magical figure. I’d bet €20, if the Vatican could accept credit cards, that Benedict is doing this with a great deal of conscious awareness of the ecclesiological, and not just the practical, implications for future papacies. The precedent may well be his greatest gift to the church.

This is an incredibly important possibility to consider. If the papacy is understood as a ministry rather than an oncological change in a person, it allows us to view it in more human terms. Yes, it is still a vocation as is any ministry that we embrace as a calling from God – whether it is our professional work, marriage, or parenting. But, if being elected Pontiff doesn’t automatically raise you high above all other humans, then this might force us to re-think the whole question of infallibility. Yes, it might still be the most powerful office in the Church. But, the Pope is not necessarily the wisest or most perfect human on earth.

The skeptical side of me, and this wee demon seems to have a permanent roost on my shoulder, wonders if this move was made to guarantee that the Pope would have a hand in choosing his successor. How much political maneuvering would he (could he) do to ensure that the ‘reform of the reform’ currently underway does not get waylaid by the election of a more progressive-minded Pope? How much influence would he have over a new Pope?

As the questions are asked, answers are already coming from Fr. Federico Lombardi at the Vatican press office. A conclave to choose the new Pope will take place next month, with an election taking place before Holy Week. No, Benedict will not be attending the conclave. (Current canon law states that Cardinals over the age of 80 are ineligible to vote in a conclave.) After his resignation, he will spend the rest of his days in prayer and study in an enclosed monastery on the Vatican grounds.

I was eager to see what today’s liturgical readings would provide in light of all this news. The first reading went back to the first words in the Bible, the well-known creation story of Genesis. In the beginning…..

Our church is in the midst of much turmoil. We are in the Year of Faith, yet current head-lines challenge our faith in the church. The sexual abuse crises continue to grow around the world. All eyes are on Australia now, as another national story is about to boil over. There is a growing divide over issues such as gay marriage and women’s ordination. Pews continue to empty, but a deep spiritual hunger remains in the hearts and souls of many women and men. But, perhaps it is the proverbial ‘groaning’ before the birth of something new?

I believe that it is not a time to go back to some perceived ‘golden age’ in the church, when priests were priests, and lay women and men knew their place. I do believe that it is a time to go back to the beginning – to the gospels words and actions of Jesus. We need to enter into a time of conversion, of turning hearts from stone to flesh, of a turning back to the roots of faith – a turning back to God. Yes, we as a church are being called to enter into a serious period of Lent.

Of course, we do not have a vote in the upcoming conclave. But, we do have a voice in prayer. Let us unite in prayer in thanksgiving for this moment, for perhaps it is truly a graced moment. Let us pray for blessings and peace for Pope Benedict. And may our prayers storm the heavens to send down the Holy Spirit on the Cardinals who will meet to discern his successor.

May the answer to our prayers be the hope of new beginnings.