“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 bark 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 recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me.”
-Pope Benedict XVI
As you’ve no doubt heard, Pope Benedict XVI has announced his resignation, effective at the end of this month. This marks him as the first pope in modern times to step away from the See of St. Peter. Indeed, the first one to do so since the end of the great Western Schism in the 1400s. It is a historic moment for the Catholic Church and, as always at these times, an opportunity for it to define itself anew with its choice of leadership. A great deal of electronic ink will be spilled in the next few weeks over the potential candidates to replace Joseph Ratzinger. A return to an Italian Pope? An American? An African or Asian? What about someone young and in the prime of their life? A theological conservative or someone more progressive? The intrigue will be intense.
On this day, though, I simply want to reflect on the legacies of Benedict and his predecessor at the end of their respective tenures. For John Paul II, resignation was never an option. Literally growing old and dying before the world, he soldiered on in his post in some sense, I think, to identify with the sufferings of Christ and those of the world. I’ve heard it said that he wanted to show how a Christian dies…and that he did. I see Christ in that.
“Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9: 23)
For Benedict XVI, the end of his tenure is much more about how a Christian lives. He leaves his position still in relative command of his faculties, but with the realization that he is beginning to walk down the end of life’s hallway. Rather than hamstring the Church by his decreasing capacity to lead it, he is making the honorable–and humble–decision to step aside. We all wonder whether we’ll be able to realize when we are too old to do our jobs. If we’ll be able to give up our freedom, release our stubborn independence, give up that drivers’s license, rely on someone else, or just step away. If we have that in us. Well, the most powerful religious figure in the world is giving it up because it is time. I see Christ in that.
In your relationships with one another,
have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something
to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!