Momentous news this morning—Pope Benedict XVI announced that he is resigning as of February 28, 2013. It’s the first time in nearly 600 years that a Pope has resigned rather than die while still serving as Pope.
In a surprise statement, Pope Benedict announced that, “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’m struck by three points:
First, Benedict’s humility. Benedict’s decision is grounded first and foremost in his fidelity to God. His conscience called him to step down…and he responded with a humble “yes.” Known as a man of formidable intellect and deep prayer, he is also no stranger to suffering. There’s no doubt that he would willingly bear the duties of leadership, in spite of exhaustion and struggle, if he could do justice to those responsibilities.
Throughout history, countless leaders in both business and government have held onto high positions even as their physical capacities have waned. They have simply surrounded themselves with more advisors and surrogates, delegating functions of greater and greater significance.
But Papal leadership—and its demands—cannot be grasped by a glance at the ceremonial duties, administrative meetings, and private consultations that fill Benedict’s schedule. Nor by the hours spent celebrating liturgies or traveling to far-flung dioceses all over the world. At heart, the Pope is a Shepherd, guided by the Holy Spirit’s whisper, following in the footsteps of St. Peter, and embracing the servant leadership of our Lord Jesus Christ. He ministers “for the sake of others,” for the good of the whole Church.
Recognizing the “essential spiritual nature” of the Papacy, Benedict sought to know God’s will—and embraced what he was shown. For John Paul II, God’s will was to suffer greatly and carry on as Pope. For Benedict, God’s will is to suffer greatly but “with full freedom,” and for the good of the Church, to “renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter.”
Humility, the spiritual giants have taught us, means recognizing the truth about God—His infinite greatness—and the truth about ourselves. And it means trusting the Scriptures that “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) Sometimes that means receiving the grace to plow through adversity. And other times, as for Pope Benedict, it means receiving the grace to acknowledge weakness with great humility, and then stepping back so another may lead.
Second, the blessings of our institutional Church. There’s no doubt that Benedict’s decision—which he described as “of great importance for the life of the Church” —was guided by the Holy Spirit. And the choice of his successor will be guided the same way.
The news media is already framing the choice of Benedict’s successor in political terms, stirring speculation about leading contenders and voting alliances within the College of Cardinals. It’s great sport and pleases an audience hungry for news. But it’s irrelevant.
As the Catholic Catechism reminds us, “The one sent by the Lord does not speak and act on his own authority, but by virtue of Christ’s authority; not as a member of the community, but speaking to it in the name of Christ. No one can bestow grace on himself; it must be given and offered.”
God’s in charge. And He’s chosen to work through the grace-filled structure of our institutional Church. Indeed, Benedict’s statement reminds us of God’s sovereignty over His Church: “[L]et us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff.”
Let’s pray that our Cardinals hear the whisper of the Holy Spirit, and heed God’s will with the humility shown by Pope Benedict.
Third, great challenges lie ahead. As Pope Benedict himself warned just a few short months ago, the world is losing its sense of humanity because it is losing its sense of God.
“When the freedom to be creative becomes the freedom to create oneself, then necessarily the Maker himself is denied and ultimately man too is stripped of his dignity as a creature of God, as the image of God at the core of his being. The defence of the family is about man himself. And it becomes clear that when God is denied, human dignity also disappears. Whoever defends God is defending man.” (Address of Pope Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia, Dec. 21, 2012)
And that will be the huge task confronting the next Pope: to defend not only God but also the dignity of the human person, in a world that has so lost sight of God, that it no longer understands its own humanity.
Pope Benedict has been a tireless defender of God, the Church, and the dignity of the human person. He will be missed. And we can be grateful that, even after his Pontificate ends, he will continue to serve the Church “through a life dedicated to prayer.”
Like Benedict, let’s turn in hope to our God and our Church…and await the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. And in the meantime, also like Benedict, let’s respond faithfully to God’s call on our own consciences.
This column was first posted February 11, 2013 at Catholic Stand.