Pope Benedict XVI leaves the Chair of Peter amid debate about what his decision means for the Church. Above all else, it is an act of fatherly love and sacrifice.
We are all prisoners of our own perception. We come to just about every concern and deliberation from the perspective of our own unique limits, circumstances, and points of view. The more fair and just among us practice varying degrees of empathy which is, in part at least, the ability to place ourselves in the shoes of another.
One truth became crystal clear to me on February 11. No matter how well honed our skills for empathy might be, none of us can ever adequately imagine ourselves in one pair of shoes – the Shoes of the Fisherman.
It was that very title that helped plant and cultivate my early thoughts of priesthood when I was 15 years old in 1968 – the same year Msgr. Charles Pope once wrote of in “1968 – The Year the Church Drank from the Poison of this World.” My friend, Father Louis Antonelli took me to see The Shoes of the Fisherman, the film starring Anthony Quinn as Pope Kyril I. It was scripted from the great novel of the same title by Morris West. In the end, the fictional Pope Kyril – who as a priest spent 20 years in a Soviet prison – sacrificed his papacy to avert nuclear war looming in the Communist stranglehold on the Soviet Union and China. The long, ponderous film deeply moved me at age 15 as Pope Kyril’s acts of love and sacrifice mollified the world at the expense of the Church. I left that film resolved to pray for the Pope, who in my sudden awareness became the most important man on Earth, and the most targeted man for the world’s wolves and the powers of evil.
Priesthood did not take me to where I had hoped back then to go. Like Kyril himself, it took me to prison. So it was from the perspective of my confinement in a prison cell that I learned the heartbreaking news on Monday morning, February 11, that our beloved Pope Benedict XVI will resign the Chair of Saint Peter effective February 28. Like so many of you, I found that news to be deeply disappointing – even devastating. That day felt as though someone had cast a pall over the entire Church.
The news footage soon to follow the Holy Father’s bombshell – the scene of a bolt of lightning striking the dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica – did nothing to ease the sense of oppression that day wrought. Like so many of you, I was filled with dread that the wolves had won – the very wolves the Holy Father referred to in his first homily as Pope in April 2005: “Pray for me that I may not flee for fear of the wolves.”
After eight years of his pontificate, I could not imagine this Pope fleeing from anything. In the ensuing weeks, I have slowly come to see his decision not only as agonizingly painful in its making – for us, but most especially for him – but also as a courageous act of sacrifice motivated by love for the Church and the 1.2 billion souls who come to Christ through Her.
A FRATERNAL CORRECTION
By the end of the day on February 11, I asked a friend to post a comment from me on TSW’s Facebook page. My comment focused only on the Holy Father’s brief statement and avoided much of the media spin launched within minutes of it – most of which I was unaware of anyway, and could only imagine. Pope Benedict’s own words left little room for spin, and they are worth hearing again as he abdicates:
“After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. 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.
“However, in today’s world, subject to many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to steer the boat 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.”
My immediate reaction to these words was one of great sorrow. I believed that Pope Benedict, who will soon turn 86 years of age, was convinced by those around him not to allow age and infirmity to become the media’s face of the Church. I believed such advice to have been rooted in the last years of Pope John Paul’s pontificate as his obvious infirmity became its own news event.
And so my brief comment on February 11, though well intentioned, assumed that the Holy Father was simply convinced, as he himself stated, that his “strengths and advanced age are no longer suited to the Petrine ministry” – especially so in a world in which every papal tremble, stumble, and foible is caught on camera for instantaneous global news.
I thought the Holy Father had agonized over this and concluded simply, and understandably, that age and infirmity taking center stage in the future years of his papacy were neither in his best interest nor that of the Church. I thought wrongly. There was much more to this decision, and within hours of my own brief reaction, I was told in no uncertain terms that I was wrong, and that I had missed half of the story.
That fraternal correction came from my friend, Father George David Byers writing at Holy Souls Hermitage, and I was, and am, most grateful for it. There was absolutely nothing in this decision that the Holy Father considered to be in his own best interest. Like so many of the loving fathers I know, his own best interest never entered the equation at all. On the morning after the Pope’s announcement, The Wall Street Journal published a superb and influential commentary by Catholic writer George Weigel that helped to give me some perspective on this development. “Catholics Need a Pope for the ‘New Evangelization‘ ” (February 13, 2013) was a service to the Church calling upon us to look forward to consider the urgent challenges to be faced by the successor of Pope Benedict. George Weigel pointed out something that the Holy Father himself was deeply aware of as “we widen the historical lens through which we view this papal transition.” Pope Benedict XVI will be the last pope to have participated in the Second Vatican Council.
By ending his papacy, he is ending an ecclesiastical era. The question George Weigel asks us to ponder is not “What wolves brought this about?” but rather “To what future has Pope Benedict led Catholicism?” I believe the answer to that question is the urgent issue of the coming conclave, and I believe the Holy Father is convinced of the necessary timing of this as the Church summons forth a Pope for the New Evangelization.
AND NOT WITHOUT PRECEDENT
In the Western world, and especially in the Americas, it’s difficult for some to factor the Catholic Church as an ancient structure, the sole institution in human history to have thrived – to have even survived – for 2,000 years. In “The Beatification of Pope John Paul II,” I wrote of a History Channel presentation on the papacy. Hopefully, we may see it again before the coming conclave.
With reverence and historical accuracy, the cameras took us from the tomb of Saint Peter to the tomb of Blessed John Paul II. Between them, two millennia had past – 2,000 years of war, scandal, all manner of human debacles, and countless assaults on the Church and Holy See. And yet at the tomb of Blessed John Paul II the Church stood. The gates of hell had not prevailed against Her – and not for lack of trying.
That trial continues. A pope’s resignation is rare, but not unheard of. Writing for The Wall Street Journal, Saint Louis University history professor Thomas F. Madden unveiled some of this history in “The Pope Joins a Fine but Rarely Seen Tradition” (Feb. 15, 2013). For the first 1,200 years in the life of the Church, Professor Madden explained, it was assumed that a pope could not resign except under extreme conditions such as being thrown into prison – a fate that befell three popes in the first millennium.
The last resignation of a pope was six centuries ago in the year 1415. Eight decades before Columbus sailed to the New World – 360 years before the United States even existed – Pope Gregory XII resigned the papacy to end the Great Schism. In so doing he was praised throughout Europe for placing the interests of the Church above his own interests and ambition.
But the real precedent was set in 1294 when Pope Celestine V, now Saint Celestine, resigned for reasons very similar to those now put forward by Pope Benedict. A conclave had been unable to arrive at a consensus for two years when Pietro del Murone was elected to resolve it. Already in his 80s when he became Pope Celestine V, he quietly established in canon law a tenet allowing for the resignation of a pope, and then applied it to himself with the support of the College of Cardinals.
THE PRAYER TO SAINT MICHAEL
The Church canonized Saint Celestine in 1313. In the 2010 book, Light of the World (Ignatius Press), based on Peter Seewald’s extensive interviews with Pope Benedict XVI, the Holy Father cited the precedent set by Saint Celestine, and even hinted – then at age 84 – that if ever a pope’s reserves of strength no longer served the Church, that precedent could be repeated.
But there is still the matter of the wolves circling from both without and within. They have always been here. George Weigel pointed out that the Second Vatican Council’s deep reforms in the Catholic Church actually began in the previous century in 1878. According to Mr. Weigel,
“Pope Leo XIII made the historic decision to quietly bury the rejectionist stand his predecessors had adopted toward cultural and political modernity.” George Weigel ended his article with a reflection about the current state of disunity in the Roman Curia, calling upon the coming conclave to elect a pope who will address the Curia’s “disastrous condition . . . so that the Vatican bureaucracy becomes an instrument of the New Evangelization, not an impediment to it.”
Pope Benedict XVI cited a similar concern in his Ash Wednesday homily from the pulpit of Saint Peter’s Basilica: “The face of the Church is at times disfigured by the sins against the unity of the Church and the divisions of the ecclesial body.” It’s of interest that in 1888, Pope Leo XIII also cited this while composing his famous Prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel, only a small part of which has become the common prayer we know. In its original form, Pope Leo wrote:
“In the Holy Place itself, where has been set up the See of the most holy Peter and the Chair of Truth for the light of the world, they have raised the throne of their abominable impiety, with the iniquitous design that when the pastor is struck, the sheep may be scattered.”
Pope Benedict XVI has never had to earn our deference, but earn it he did, many times over, as our Holy Father in a time of great trial for the Church. We owe him the benefit of our fidelity, unity, and prayers, and I know he has those. By abdicating at this time, and by calling the Church’s focus to what comes next at this moment in history, Pope Benedict is engaging in act of love and sacrifice for the Church.
What remains heartbreaking is that so many of us have come not only to reverence and respect this Pope for his gifted mind and great personal holiness. We have come to love him. As our Holy Father leaves the Chair of Saint Peter this week, please spend a few moments with my post, “Faith Trumps Relativism: Pope Benedict XVI at World Youth Day” for a snapshot of just how deeply felt that love has been during this papacy in trying times.
Even in life, this Holy Father’s long-serving predecessor was given another title in his last years. As I described in “The Beatification of Pope John Paul II,” my friend, the late Father Richard John Neuhaus and others deservedly dubbed him “John Paul the Great,” and it stuck.
Pope Benedict XVI also stands to have a new name. Springing from the hearts of millions, no matter what role he plays or what the Church comes to call him, this Holy Father will forever be for us, “Benedict the Beloved.”