By Christopher Gunty
Speculation abounds about “the real reason” Pope Benedict XVI decided to renounce his papacy and step back into a life of prayer for the church, effective Feb. 28. However, it is likely as simple as he said: He’s no longer physically capable of handling the enormous burden of the papacy.
In an address to cardinals gathered Feb. 11 for the formal approval of canonization causes, the pope said, “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 barque of St. 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.”
Recall that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was 78 years old when he was elected to the papacy. Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was 20 years younger at his election. It is a job – a ministry – that has become more complicated, in many ways, in the 35 years since the death of Pope Paul VI, and the brief papacy of John Paul I. Blessed John Paul II set the stage for a pontiff who travels extensively, and Benedict enhanced the church’s presence in digital and
One can imagine that countless meetings, audiences, Masses, documents and trips, and the preparation – physically and spiritually – for all of that, must weigh heavily on anyone. Reflecting on the pope’s resignation, Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori noted that, like recent pontiffs, the next pope needs to “embrace every race and culture on the face of the earth. Imagine what a job description that is.”
The decision to renounce the papacy has been called bold, courageous, holy, strong, humble and human. And while surprising, it was not entirely unanticipated. In interviews, Pope Benedict had hinted that it would be possible for a pope to resign. And on a 2010 visit to the relics of St. Celestine V, one of the few popes in history to resign, Pope Benedict venerated Celestine’s remains, and as a gift, placed the long woolen pallium he wore during his installation Mass on top of the glass casket. Perhaps that should have been a clue that he was entrusting the remainder of his papacy to a man who also had renounced the Chair of Peter.
Cardinal Ratzinger witnessed closely the decline of John Paul’s health and physical acuity. Certainly, he carried those memories with him as Pope Benedict. In a November 2007 meeting with people who provide pastoral care to the sick and elderly, Pope Benedict praised his predecessor, asking participants to remember the teaching and example of “my venerated predecessor John Paul II, who, especially during his illness, offered an exemplary witness of faith and courage.”
John Paul’s understanding of his mission was that he could not and would not abdicate that which had been entrusted to him by the Lord. The church has procedures to effectively transition between popes when one dies or freely resigns.
It does not follow logically that the fact that John Paul II and Benedict XVI made different decisions about their final years in the papacy means one must be wrong and the other right. Each decision was right in its own respect, and each speaks of different truths.
After two decades of boundless energy as pope, John Paul displayed a different example as one who finds a path to Christ by sharing the Lord’s suffering. Benedict makes the case that as the “Servant of the servants of God,” he can be more of a servant leader by laying down the mantle of leadership. The humility displayed by each is unmistakable. Each asked what the Lord wanted of him, and lived
Gunty is associate publisher/editor of the Catholic Review.