This past Monday, 11 February, I awoke to learn that Pope Benedict XVI announced his plans to renounce the ministry of the Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, effective Thursday, 28 February at 20:00 hours Rome time (14:00 Eastern). Benedict becomes the first pope to do so since Gregory XII renounced the papacy in 1415. While the reign of the pope has typically been from election until death, Canon 332 of the Canon Law of the Catholic Church states:
If it should happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that he make the resignation freely and that it be duly manifested, but not that it be accepted by anyone.
I have had a number of thoughts and emotions since Monday. My first emotion was shock and sadness. I thought that voluntarily stepping down would be the last thing that the traditionalist Pope Benedict would ever consider. There was also some anger. “How could he walk away? Does he not care about the Church?” Then I remembered the character of the man who holds the office. Above all else, Joseph Ratzinger is a priest and a teacher. This is a moment for him to teach us something. Approaching the age of 86, he acknowledges that his physical and mental abilities have diminished greatly since he assumed the papacy nearly eight years ago. He recognizes that he can no longer fulfill the obligations of the ministry entrusted to him. Therefore, for the well-being of the Church, he is stepping down. He strengthens the papacy by making sanctity the hallmark of the office over celebrity.
There are so many people who were inspired by the charism of Blessed John Paul II during his twenty-six year papacy. I am too young to remember the youthful, vigorous Polish pope. My memories of him come from the later years of his life, when the course of his physical ailments had taken their grip over his once youthful body. Benedict, therefore, became “my pope”. I knew of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger before his election to the papacy, through his writings and his work as prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. When Cardinal Ratzinger, in his capacity as dean of the College of Cardinals, presided over the funeral rites of Pope John Paul II and the papal transition, the interregnum, it was very clear to me that the Holy Spirit was already at work in him, as he led the Church into this new chapter of its continuing history.
Many questions can be asked about the legacy of Benedict XVI and how history will remember him. Will he forever be known as the pope that resigned? Will he be seen as a pontiff that was, at times, naïve in his leadership? Will he be remembered for his writings, in particular, the three volume anthology on the life of Christ? Will he be remembered for his humility, the humility that he exhibited on the day of his election that continues through the termination of his papacy?
In the remaining weeks of the reign of Pope Benedict XVI, let us continue to pray for him, that God allows him the strength of mind, body, and heart to continue his Petrine ministry and that God is gracious to him in the days that remain for him in his earthly life. Ever the Servant of the servants of God, Benedict will spend the remainder of his days in prayer, praying for the Church he has loved and served all his life.