In considering the momentous events of the past twenty four hours, it’s hard not to think of the canticle of Simeon – the Nunc Dimittis – “Lord, now you let your servant go in peace”.Referring directly to the sheer strains and demands of office, to the fast moving nature of our modern society, and to his increasing physical inability to cope with these pressures, Pope Benedict, like Simeon, asked to be allowed to depart in peace.
It may be six hundred years since Gregory XII, in very different circumstances, resigned his office, but he did it for the good of the Church – knowing it was the only way to end the Great Western Schism in which two popes had been elected. His resignation was possible because of the decree of his predecessor, Celestine V, two hundred years earlier in 1294, which allowed for resignation. Celestine felt called back to a life of prayer as a monk.
In our own times we have seen the requirement of bishops to tender their resignation at the age of 75 and the ending of the voting rights of cardinals once they reach the age of 80. So there is both precedent and an irresistible logic in what Pope Benedict has done.
The demands of the Papacy – intellectual, spiritual and physical – are phenomenal, and there will be very few who will not understand and respect Pope Benedict’s view that at 85 it is time to pass the burden of that responsibility to others. His ministry has been characterised by humility and selflessness and this decision is of a piece with those characteristics.
In passing on the tiller of the Barque of Peter, Benedict is freeing himself to spend his remaining years preparing for the journey which all of us must ultimately make – both Pope and people; and, in doing so, he is reminding us all that one day we will have to do the same. In our own frenetic lives we often forget that no-one was ever heard to utter on his death beds the words “I wish I had spent more time in the office.”
The Pope’s decision will remind us to leave space and time to consider our own mortality but it may also prove to be one of his greatest gifts to those who follow him – removing from them the expectation of remaining in office until death . There will, however, always remain anxiety lest a Pope who resigns allows himself to become a point of dissent against whoever follows him. This would have a damaging effect on the teaching authority and unity of the Church. Pope Benedict, a brilliant theologian and admired intellectual, will have weighed this issue carefully – and it was no doubt one of the questions to which he alluded when he said he had searched his conscience and prayed deeply before reaching his decision.
So how will his papacy be judged and what might we expect for the future?
The Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, was right to say describe Benedict as “compassionate” “thoughtful” and “gentle”, carrying “an aura of grace and wisdom.”
On meeting Benedict it hard not to be struck by his humility and shyness – which is perhaps why he disarmed so many of the angry atheists who harangued him during his visit to the UK in 2010.
His call in Westminster Hall, the scene of the trials of Thomas More, Edmund Campion and many other Catholics, for Christians to speak out for “the legitimate role of religion in the public square” was a powerful appeal to the secularised West not to forget who we are, not to lose our identity.
A friend of mine who is being received into the Church on Palm Sunday told me that it was Benedict’s courageous witness that led him to first read the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, which Benedict had done so much to prepare, and then to read his books on theology and the trilogy of the life of Jesus, and his encyclicals, such as Deus Caritas Est.
Benedict’s belief in faith and reason led my friend to the Church and his writings will be Benedict’s greatest bequest.
In choosing his successor the Cardinals will want to weigh up the challenges now facing the Church – which range from disciplinary issues, arising out of clerical abuse, to how the Church better uses its resources for its central responsibility to proclaim the Gospel.
Pope Benedict is right that we live in a rapidly changing world and his successor will need to know how to handle that world. His successor will want to tell the old truths in new ways and display pastoral sensitivity about the challenges which face everyone of us in our daily lives. He will need the compassion of Jesus and the wisdom of Solomon; the patience of Mary, the courage of Michael and the communication gifts of Paul. He may also need to face the dangers which have cost many Popes their lives.
One of the great contributions of Pope Benedict has been his call for religious freedom and respect but that came at a price.
He risked threats to his life in travelling to Lebanon where he called for religious tolerance. At Regensberg, in 2006, he abjured the use of violence to promote religious objectives. The Reegensberg lecture sparked controversy but he had dared to say what many thought and good came from it with significant encounters between Muslim and Catholic scholars and the creation of the Catholic-Muslim forum to promote dialogue. This week, Dr. Mustafa Ceric, Former Grand Mufti of Bosnia said that he hoped Benedict’s successor would build on that “ spirit of friendly Muslim-Catholic dialogue.” With Christians being murdered from West Africa to Syria this will be an urgent and far from easy task.
One of the ancient titles of the Pope is “Pontifex” – the builder of the bridge; but in addition to building bridges he must also be “Claviger” – the bearer of the keys given by Jesus to Peter, as He entrusted him to uphold and interpret His teachings. And above all peter’s successor is called to be the “servant of the servants of God.”
The poet, Robert Browning, who spent a lot of time in Italy, took great interest in the Roman Catholic Church, the study of the Bible, and the culture and history of Italy, coined the phrase “the raree-show of Peter’s successor.” As that raree-show begins the names of potential incumbents will be spoken about in newspapers, studios and blogs as well as in the trattoria of Rome. But no-one predicted the name of Karol Wojtyla – and he became the greatest pope of our times.
That there are so many eminently suitable men to take the helm – from Europe’s Cardinals Scola and Schonborn to Africa’s Cardinal Turkson, from Latin America’s Cardinal Aviz to Canada’s Cardinal Ouellet, from Asia’s Cardinal Tagle to Patriarch Rai of the Marionites, – or names we may hardly know – bodes well for the Conclave that will be held in March and it bodes well for the Church. But whatever odds the bookies quote, or however “well-informed” the speculation, leave space for the Holy Spirit, for the discernment which will take place away from the raree-show, and for the well placed prayer that we will be given a Pope for our times to serve the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. Meanwhile, let a faithful servant depart both with gratitude and in peace.