We find no good reason for honoring the decision of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to resign the Petrine office at the end of this month with anything less than the gratitude and prayerful best wishes one would offer any good servant of the Lord who has labored long and hard in the vineyard. Though surprising to most everyone, the eminently reasonable self-evaluation by the Holy Father, citing his conscientious awareness of the diminishing state of his physical capacity in proportion to the demands of his office, should not only be respected but applauded.
The Holy Father, however, deserves much more. This is an action both courageous and exemplary. Courageous – because anyone who breaks new ground, departing from conventional expectations, will risk criticism and unusual scrutiny. Popes have resigned before, though not in modern times nor for the same reasons. The example of the Holy Father, however, sets something of a precedent that may help others consider that retiring is less of concession than a fully free and conscious moral decision, grounded in human reality and a deep sense of responsibility for oneself and to those whom one serves.
We are accustomed to a period of mourning at the close of a pope’s tenure because it is typically his death and not his own deliberation that ends it. Although the old Roman counsel – “de mortuis nihil bonum” (“of the dead speak nothing but good”) – seems less and less to be practiced, it is still the custom to remember the life and accomplishments of a deceased pontiff in a more positive light – at least till after the next election. We can only hope that our Holy Father will receive such courtesy.
Since this is new ground, we do not know how a living “former pope” will be publicly engaged or regarded. The alacrity with which the conclave will begin – most probably in mid-March – may find newsmakers more anxious to speculate on Benedict’s successor than his own successes. Yet for all the likely theorizing, the old adage that the man who goes in as pope always comes out as cardinal may be more apt this time than ever since there is little time for anything like a campaign to be mounted or a “front runner” to emerge as some would love to proclaim.
In 1981, the year in which assassination attempts on both President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II occurred within a two-month period, the late and much-esteemed Church historian, John Tracy Ellis, was being interviewed after the pope was shot. He reflected that he was far more concerned in the uncertainty after the Reagan shooting than that of the pope. Unashamedly, he said on public television, the Church, unlike the United States, has “a divine guarantee.” If electing another pope is not quite as routine as changing cars or as casual as making a bus transfer, there is much wisdom in the historian’s remarks. We trust the Holy Spirit is at work in Church, even through the all-too-varied personalities that give the divine action a human face.
What we are about to experience should once again give Catholics great pride in how peacefully the transition is likely to take place, considering its importance and consequences. Catholics throughout the world will unite around the successor of Peter whatever his age, race, nationality or photogenic qualities might be. So also, we suspect will many people of good will.
In the meantime, we owe His Holiness our most profound thanks for his faithful service for so many years and we pray that the Lord will give him the serenity and prayerful retreat that he now seeks from the burdens of the office he has born so well.