The Pope’s announcement of his resignation at the end of this month is unprecedented in modern times but not completely unexpected. In his book-length interview with Peter Seewald, Light of the World (2010), Benedict XVI, referring to his many responsibilities and journeys, meekly noted: “That really overtaxes an eighty-three-year-old man. Thank God there are many good co-workers…. I trust that our dear Lord will give me as much strength as I need to be able to do what is necessary. But I also notice that my forces are diminishing.” The fact that the Pope made the announcement in Latin to the cardinals gathered in a consistory shows that his decision was long in the making and carefully considered from every angle.
This historical papal decision prompts several reflections.
Despite his participation in and identification with the Second Vatican Council, Pope Benedict XVI is really the first “post-conciliar” pope. He is the first Pontiff to have been consecrated a bishop in the Novus Ordo liturgy. Six years after his episcopal consecration, the new Code of Canon Law went into effect, which in canon 401 requires that bishops submit their resignation to the pope upon reaching the age of 75. Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI therefore carried out practically his entire episcopal ministry in the post-conciliar style that regards the diocesan episcopate not as a monarchical title for life (“The Ordinary is dead; long live the new Ordinary!”) but as service pro tem. Of course this refers only to the episcopal office of governing, since a retired bishop retains the fullness of Holy Orders and can continue his sacramental and teaching ministry.
Few would suspect it, but Joseph Ratzinger has had health concerns for most of his life. In 1977, thirty-five years ago, he almost refused his appointment as Archbishop of Munich and Freising on the grounds of poor health. Like St. Maximilian Kolbe (who served as a foreign missionary while having only part of one lung), Joseph/Benedict was descended from very hardy stock yet suffered infirmities. Nevertheless, he has worked full-time into his mid-eighties governing the Church. In announcing his resignation he is admitting his limitations and declaring that the days of his heroic fortitude and perseverance in office are soon to be over.
After he was called to Rome in 1979, Cardinal Ratzinger collaborated closely with Pope John Paul II for two and a half decades, learning how the Curia works and getting difficult tasks accomplished. Documents that he composed as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith helped to clamp down on South American liberation theology and to uphold traditional Catholic teaching about the nature of the Church against syncretism, indifferentism and exaggerated ecumenical trends. In 2005, therefore, he was singularly well prepared to ascend to the papacy. The extraordinary continuity that the Universal Church has thus experienced in its highest government since October 1978 might have been on the Pope’s mind in recent months. From his vantage point it may appear that the next transition of papal authority will go more securely if there is a “Papa emeritus” secluded in the Vatican, praying for the pontiff who will be elected in March.
Pope Benedict XVI made the announcement of his resignation on the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, patroness of the sick. Although their ways of expressing it were very different, he and his predecessor both had a deep, lifelong devotion to the Mother of Christ. Karol Wojtyła lost his mother when he was very young, and so he depended on Our Lady to help him through his years as an underground seminarian, then a priest, professor and bishop in Communist Poland. Pope John Paul II emblazoned his devotion to Mary on his papal coat of arms. Visits to a Marian shrine in Bavaria played an important part in the lives and vocations of Joseph Ratzinger and his brother Georg as well. Yet their mother lived to see the twelfth anniversary of her sons’ priestly ordination. Fr. Ratzinger was understandably more reticent in his preaching and writing about the Blessed Virgin Mary. Still, Pope Benedict XVI is implicitly entrusting his remaining days on earth to Mary, the Mother of God.