An admirable man

  • February 13, 2013

Losing a pope to retirement is unprecedented in modern times. So the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI came like a thunderbolt on a sunny day. No one seemed to expect it, but maybe we should have.

Three years ago, when Benedict was 82 and active, he told his biographer that should a pope become physically, psychologically or spiritually unable to meet the demands of office then, yes, he has a right to retire but also perhaps a moral obligation to do so. He was speaking theoretically. His own health appeared good and he was ploughing ahead with a busy schedule of writing, travelling, providing Church governance and spiritual leadership.

There is no questioning Benedict’s spiritual capacity to still lead the Church. His insightful, prayerful stewardship has been a blessing these past eight years. He’s earned admiration and gratitude. But nearing 86 he felt daunted by the papacy’s physical demands, particularly, one imagines, the grinding but important public duties that consume a Pope’s day.

Benedict said he came to his decision “after having repeatedly examined my conscience before God.” Clearly, he weighed this option carefully. In 2005, accepting the wisdom of the College of Cardinals to become Pope was one of the most important choices of Benedict’s life. But we suspect the decision to step down was more difficult.

It was a bold and courageous choice and deserves the unqualified respect and full support of the Catholic world. Benedict could have eased into retirement as a figurehead pontiff, keeping the title and rewards of office while curtailing his duties. He had seven centuries of precedent to support the case that the chair of St. Peter is held for life. Instead, he selected the selfless option. That was no surprise.

Joseph Ratzinger was called a transitional figure when, at age 78, he became the oldest person in 200 years to become Pope. Yet he consistently defied his critics by maintaining an active papacy that combined brilliant thinking with deep spirituality. A prolific writer and speaker, he advanced religious harmony, provided sound administration for the Church, initiated the new liturgy and new evangelization, confronted with humility and contrition the sex-abuse scandal, took Christ’s message to more than two dozen countries, most notably to Africa and the Middle East, participated in two World Youth Days, denounced Christian persecution, defended life and family values and waged an unrelenting assault on the scourges of relativism and secularism.

Ultimately, Benedict faced two competing realities. Modern popes, like all of Western society, tend to live longer. But the papacy, more demanding, more public and more scrutinized than ever, is unsympathetic to a pontiff’s age.

It takes a strong man to do that job, but an even stronger man to walk away.


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