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
(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.
historical papal decision prompts several reflections.
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
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.
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.
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.