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Pope resigns!

Fr. Russell A. Bantiles


POPE Benedict XVI’s resignation on February 11 came like a thunderbolt. For the first time in almost 600 years, a reigning pope resigns! The last to resign was Pope Gregory XII in 1415. The actual Pope’s resignation takes effect on February 28 at 8 p.m. (March 1, 2 a.m. local time).

Immediately, the pope’s move has caused wide panoply of reactions from all fronts. From the Catholic Church, a general feeling of dismay and sadness has swept the faithful. Everybody is invited to pray for the Pope and for the next pontiff to be elected soon.

Yet, expectedly, together with the dismay of the Catholic faithful is a wide array of comments from detractors and critics of the Catholic Church. Respectable world leaders who have personally met the Pope during his visits to states and countries generally receive the pontiff’s move with utmost respect. Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, the head of the Anglican Church, for instance, received “with a heavy heart but complete understanding” the news of the Pope’s resignation. German President Joachim Gauck, a Protestant pastor, affirmed that the pope’s decision required “great courage and self-reflection, both of which deserve our respect”.

Even Hans Kung, a Swiss theologian, Catholic priest and known to be Ratzinger’s greatest adversary, has noted that the Pope’s decision deserves respect as it is “understandable for many reasons”. Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor and a daughter of a Protestant pastor, thanked the Pope and said that his decision to resign must be given “the absolute highest respect”. Lord Sacks, Britain’s chief rabbi, hailed the Pope as “a man of gentleness, of quiet and of calm”.

However, some not-so-well-meaning individuals view this development as a rare opportunity to advance their devious attack against the Catholic Church. Critics like Terry Sanderson, the president of the National Secular Society, only show shortsightedness, meanness and obstinate refusal to see goodness where it is flagrant. In his acid-tongued blogspot, Sanderson writes: “Under Ratzinger the Vatican has become despised and resented throughout the world”.  Not to mention Richard Dawkins’ tweet, which just shows how very animalistic his view of life and human beings is, these criticisms fail to see deeply what transpired in the Pope’s action.

Now, I would like to highlight three points in the Pope’s declaration that manifest the depth of his decision and the difficult spiritual journey he went through before arriving at such a painful decision. First, he emphasized that he “repeatedly examined my conscience before God”. We can imagine the Pope praying over and over this thought and taking it as material during his daily conversations with God. It is not something that he just arrived at over a cup of coffee with a friend. Or a decision that he chose over the many options that his counselors or spiritual directors have presented to him. Rather, it is something about which he has consulted God for the past few months.

The cardinals who were present during the announcement could hardly believe their ears. It struck them as a complete surprise for no one—not even the Pope’s private secretary and aides—knows about his thoughts. Only the Pope’s brother, Georg Ratzinger, who shortly after the announcement, told the German media that he had been informed of the Pope’s plans some months ago. Georg described the decision as a “part of the natural process”. “My brother would like to have more rest in his old age”, he said.

Secondly, the Pope clearly stated: “I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering”. What comes first to my mind, upon reading this line, are the words of Blessed Pope John Paul II, who when asked of the possibility of renouncing the papacy, told the media: “I will not step down, because Jesus did not step down from the cross!”

One might easily contrast the actual Pope’s resignation to his predecessor’s heroism. In fact, one could easily see how the latter stands out when seen against the background of the former. But, all comparison is hateful. Pope Benedict XVI acknowledges the heroism of the late Pope John Paul II. He is perfectly aware that the Petrine ministry, being spiritual in nature, must be carried out even to the extreme of reducing it only to prayer and suffering, as the Polish pope did during his last years.

The German pope understands that, somehow, the Polish pope’s heroic stay in the papacy until his death was part of the latter’s papal vocation. But it does not mean that Ratzinger has the same vocation, hence, must also follow suit. After all, each of us has his own calling in life. Was it not Cardinal Ratzinger who said in one of his books, “There are as many vocations as there are human persons”? Thus, nothing hinders the actual Pope to see in his decision—after having examined rigorously his conscience before God—the finger of God.

Lastly, the Pope said: “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 recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me”.

Pope Benedict XVI saw two contrasting scenarios: on one hand, the real demands of today’s secularized world for a pope with enough physical and mental strength; on the other hand, the Pope’s awareness of his own real limitations. It takes remarkable courage for an 85-year-old man to tell himself: “This is already beyond my capacity”. Most old people find it hard to accept the reality that at advanced age, only the spirit is willing but the body is already weak.

The Pope recognizes both and is courageous and humble enough to accept it. Truly, as Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi commented during the press conference, a few hours after the Pope’s announcement, “the Pope took his decision aware of the great problems the Church faces today… (His decision) showed great courage and determination”. Archbishop Vincent Nichols of the Catholic Church of England and Wales expressed confidence that the Pope’s decision is made “of great courage and characteristic clarity of mind and action”.

A Mexican prelate, Msgr. Oscar Sanchez Barba from Guadalajara (Mexico), described the scenario during the pronouncement in these words: “We were all in the Sala del Consistorio in the third loggia of the Apostolic Palace. After giving the date for the canonization, the 12th of May, the Pope took a sheet of paper and read from it. He just said that he was resigning… The cardinals were looking at one another. Then, the Pope got up, gave his benediction and left. It was so simple; the simplest thing imaginable. Extraordinary. Nobody expected it. Then, we all left in silence. There was absolute silence…”

With great respect at the Pope’s decision and with utmost trust in “the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ”, as the Pope said, why not take the Marian stance of “keeping everything in our heart” in silence and prayer?


(Quotations are from Paul Owen, “Pope Benedict XVI announces resignation –live reaction”, in The Guardian «», accessed on February 11, 2013.)

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