Resignation of Pope Benedict XVI
The news that surprised the Church and shocked the world
It was Monday 11th February 2013, the 155th anniversary of the apparition of Our Lady of Lourdes that the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI held the consistory at which he made a declaration which not only surprised many in the Church but shocked the whole world. The news was absolutely unexpected but complies with the Code of Canon Law (can 332 § 2).
It must also have lain dormant in the Pope’s mind in these years of his Pontificate, as he expressed clearly in the book- interview with Peter Seewald, The Light of the World. Here we can easily read the Pope’s miond. He was waiting for the right moment. It had to be the result of consultation with God, the result of prayer. He needed the moral certainty that this was God’s will. Such serious decisions which may have far reaching historical and moral consequences require time and patience, but above all prayer and discernment.
Consequently resignations by popes have been few and far between. We might say that our present Pope is making history. “Apart from the confusion at the time of the Great Western Schism, no Pope has resigned since 13th December 1294, when Pope Celestine V renounced his office after just five months” (The Canon Law: Letter & Spirit).
When this news broke I was in New Delhi area, India. About half an hour later the telephone started ringing; enquiries were made not only by Catholics, but also by various non-Christians. They all wanted to know why Pope Benedict XVI had renounced hia papal ministry. We then followed the press conference given by Fr. Federico Lombardi SJ, Director of the Holy See Press Office.
I was due to leave India the following morning for Rome. Needless to say that practically everyone I met on the flight had a comment or some questions to ask about the event. On the long flight I went through some of the newspapers, all of which gave a lot of coverage to the subject. Some people on the flight asked me to pray very specially for the Church, in a possible time of crisis.
The barque of St. Peter has withstood various storms and has not yet sunk; and we may be sure that Jesus – although sometimes seemingly asleep in the boat – will not let his Church perish in the tumults of the world. The one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church has suffered down the ages from divisions. She will continue to face difficulties and to be put to test, but the Church of Christ, built on the rock of St. Peter, will stand firm, for the Church is not merely human; she is essentially human and divine; visible and invisible (cf. Sacro Sanctum Concilium n.2).
From the prayer of our Church come actions and acts of love and charity. The power of earth or hell will not prevail over the Church, because she is the visible sacrament of Christ. Through her members the Church gives visibility to Christ (cf. Mt 25: 31-46).
Let us return to our question, since so many people are asking it: Why did Pope decide to renounce his office? The reasons I give here are subjective. You may well see it differently!
Firstly, canon law permits the resignation of a Pope (cf. 332 § 2). So Pope Benedict XVI is abiding by the Church’s Law.
Secondly, I believe the Holy Father loves the Church more than himself. If he did not really love the Church he would not have thought of resigning. He feels that the Church is too important and that the problems of the Pope’s sickness or old age must not weaken the Church in any way.
Thirdly, the Church is a very large institution with insurmountable challenges, responsibilities, and problems. A Pope must be fit in body and mind to face whatever confronts him. Pope Benedict XVI feels he can no longer do justice to his mission.
Fourthly, because the Pope is the Supreme Head of the Magisterium of the Church, he needs to be strong and healthy in body and mind in order to make decisions. Benedict XVI does not want to delegate to others his personal responsibility for the Church of Christ and must fulfil his obligations as a Pope; he thinks in conscience he is no loger capable of doing so.
Fifthly, Pope Benedict XVI does not cling to his position as head of the Church but humbly acknowledges he is no longer fit for it. I think he is an incredible example of humility and detachment. With this act he proves he really is a “good shepherd” after the example of the Master who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped…This is the Christological dimension of his resignation. Here is a real “kenosis”, a self-emptying like that of Jesus (cf. Phil 2: 6-11).
There is still more to his resignation: namely the Pope is only leaving his position as Pope in good faith. He is not leaving the Church. Indeed, he will retire to a monastery, to spend his life in prayer, as he said in his Declaratio (10 Februuary 2013). He will pray for the new Pope, for Pope Benedict XVI knows the problems and challenges which the Pope must face dayly. Another reason for the Pope’s renunciation might be that he would like to continue to write, and perhaps to complete his autobiography, which could be a real asset for the Church.
In conslusion I would say that before God Pope Benedict XVI must have felt that the need to resign from his office as Pope was God’s will. There is no greater way of pleasing God than fulfilling his most holy will.
I would like to express our sincere gratitude to the Holy Father and thank God for him also in the name of the Missionaries of Charity of Bl. Teresa of Kolkata and in the name of the poorest of the poor we serve in Rome and throughout the world.
Fr. Sebastian Vazhakala M.C.