The Church does change and Pope Benedict XVI was just the man to change it.
“When we look back on Pope Benedict’s eight-year pontificate, I really think the resignation itself is going to be the most significant thing people remember,” said Robert Dennis, Queen’s University lecturer and president of the Canadian Catholic Historical Association.
By resigning on Feb. 28, 2013, Pope Benedict changed the way people think of the office of the papacy and changed the internal dynamic of papal elections, he said.
“It did bear influence on the conclave itself,” said Dennis.
Any attempt to project how long the next pope would remain in office on the basis of his likely lifespan became a non-issue at the conclave that elected Pope Francis. At previous conclaves, fear of electing someone too young who might remain in office over generations or too old who might not stay long enough to carry out a program was real. Electors may have been looking for “that sort of sweet spot in the mid-to-late 60s, 64 to 67, where you have a little bit of in-between,” said Dennis. Now, cardinal-electors know that there’s no predicting how long the next pope will be there.
“Now everything has changed,” he said. “Not just with the provisions of canon law but the convention of having had a pope resign.”
The implications for cardinal electors may be less important than the change we’ve seen in how Catholics around the world understand the office of the papacy. The decision to step down refocused attention on the idea of the bishop of Rome as a bishop among the world’s bishops and at the service of the world’s bishops.
“(Benedict) understood the demands of the job. He obviously made this as a very prayerful decision and felt in his own conscience that it was right,” said Dennis.
He was also teaching the world something about how a Christian faces old age and mortality, said Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute executive director Moira McQueen.
“What he did was extremely brave,” said McQueen. “It’s a courage that comes from knowing himself.”
Benedict’s decision to put the interests of the Church and the office of papacy before any conventional notion of tradition was a perfect example of the humility and courage that old age eventually demands of all of us, she said.
“It must take extreme humility,” she said. “To come to the conclusion that it was better for somebody else to take over the reins and for him to retire quietly and to let it be like that — that is actually mind boggling for most of us.”
The end of Benedict’s papacy was the perfect counterpoint to the very public decline and death of Pope John Paul II, said McQueen.
“Both of them strike me as being extremely authentic in terms of having the courage of their convictions,” she said.
Pope John Paul II was certainly aware of how Parkinson’s disease and the ordinary ravages of time had limited him over the years. But he wanted people to see that every stage of life was to be lived and valued.
“He knows that death is there, but his whole focus, his whole trajectory, is from life to life,” said McQueen.
By opening up his mortality to the world, John Paul was teaching the world about the power of the Resurrection.
“In his actual person, he really conveyed in a powerful way what he called living life to the end,” McQueen said. “He doesn’t really talk much about dying. He talks about living life to the end and then moving from life to life. I don’t see how we can fail to draw a lesson from the way that he acted.”
In a different way, as Benedict declared he no longer had the strength to lead, he demonstrated the grace of accepting the natural limits of age. He also prompted us to think about the value of our lives beyond the roles we fill in our younger years. A utilitarian culture would simply dismiss old people as no longer useful, but Pope Benedict continues to live as a prayerful witness in the world.
“If we think in terms of people being relational, of grandparents and relationships like that, those relationships have always been important and deserve to be valued just for their relational aspects. Usefulness should be secondary for all of us,” said McQueen.