Clergy view of the Pope’s retirement: Leaders take note: Pope Benedict XVI provides a rare but profound example of humility in action. True leaders put their cause before their power and self-interest. Far from a failure or weakness, this may be the most shining moment of Benedict’s papacy, and what will turn out to be a historically brilliant move.

Ark Of The Covenant



The Vatican moves very slowly — they measure time in centuries, not years. Thus the news from Pope Benedict of his impending resignation during the last stretch of his seventh year as pope struck the public like lightning.

“Shocking! Unbelievable!” was the sentiment that came to mind when I (and I presume you) first learned of Pope Benedict’s abdication.

This reaction is a natural initial response — but there’s a lot more to the story. The mainstream discussion about Benedict’s decision is a regrettable oversimplification. We don’t do justice to this important announcement declaring the pontificate a failure and proceeding to a guessing game of “who’s the next pope.”

Before we move on, we need to stop and reflect on what just happened — not just in the past seven years, but the last 70 years. Upon closer examination of the facts, observers will see that this was a strategic decision, and not one done in a moment of weakness or despair.

Every papacy has a “theme” or an “aim.” John Paul II’s pontificate was focused on realigning the implementation of Vatican II and combating communism and materialism. By contrast Benedict’s aim, I believe, was to bring the Church to the doorsteps of what Catholic theologian and thought leader George Weigel calls the next chapter in Church history: Evangelical Catholicism. In order to achieve this goal, Benedict needed to finish the implementation of Vatican II and set the stage for this new chapter in Church life.

Benedict and John Paul II represent two equally valid examples of executing the Petrine ministry, two different but effective approaches to leadership. In very general terms, John Paul was a philosopher who explained the Faith as an answer to the philosophical challenges from Ockham, Descartes, Kant, and Marx. Benedict XVI is the theologian who explains the Faith in very clear and liner terms, encouraging us to read the Bible again as God’s ongoing Divine revelation rather than as a historical novel or ancient myth. As popes, they both lead the Church faithfully and effectively. John Paul in a sense started the project that Benedict would bring to completion.

Finishing the implementation of Vatican II was straightforward for Pope Benedict. In continuation of that effort, Benedict renewed the use of Latin in liturgical celebrations; clarified teachings around faith and reason, sincerely reached out to those who did not agree with Vatican II, and clarified inter religious and interdenominational dialogues.

Through careful decisions, Benedict offered the Church a “lifeline” to the past as it ventures onward into the 21st century. This is true not only in terms of Catholic thought, but also in the very physical expressions of our Faith, a distinctly Catholic issue.

A person close to him once told me that the pope purposefully uses all kinds of “props” that have fallen out of fashion since Vatican II. He did so specifically in order to give the next generation a chance to use these items in the future if they wanted to. Any items used by the pope in the beginning of the century would in a sense be legitimized for use by a pontiff in the next 100 years. Not doing so would surely seal them in for good in the history books. So the staff in the Vatican went to look for ideas in the proverbial “attic” to make sure that the rich history of Catholic liturgical customs would survive into the 21st century.

Setting the stage for the age of the New Evangelization was a bit more difficult. What Benedict did is focus on the basics. His first three encyclicals examined the three cardinal virtues: Faith, Hope and Love. His first three books focused on the center of the Catholic Faith: Jesus Christ. Like a steady drumbeat, he lectured every Wednesday on issues like the catechesis, the Fathers of the Church, the Doctors of the Church, the Psalms and prayer. Late last year, he held a synod (or a major Catholic meeting) on the New Evangelization and in his opening speech declared “The Church exists to evangelize!”

With that job done, and looking into the future, Benedict XVI apparently felt that the leader of this effort should bring youth and vitality to the job. A leader that could travel the world, meet people and stay on the job for a while to steer the ship with some constancy.

I think he then decided that he could not offer that to the Church himself or that he wasn’t in fact the ideal person for the job. And as a truly benevolent shepherd, he decided to make way for the right person to be found to be the successor of Peter, during the beginning stages of this new chapter  for the Church.

The timing he chose is greatly important. If he had waited until pundits, even only a few, would call for his abdication it would be too late. Then the political undertones would diminish and pollute the sincerity and selflessness of the decision. The way he decided to do it allowed Benedict to be ahead of the speculators and politicians among us. Dare I say he outsmarted them?












The Holy Father’s resignation is a selfless and noble act done for the good of the church that he has loved and served for decades. The resignation, announced this morning and set to take effect on Feb. 25, while surprising to almost everyone, is not completely unprecedented.  Several popes have resigned, including Gregory XII in the 12th century, in the midst of the Western schism; and, most famously, Celestine V who was literally consigned to hell in Dante’s Inferno for his resignation in 1294.  More recently, there had been speculation around the time of Blessed John Paul’s declining health as a result of his Parkinson’s disease, but John Paul opted to continue in his job, providing a sign of human suffering for all to witness.  The pope is old and sick, John Paul would say frequently, but his suffering is part of the human condition.  For me, it was a moving testimony to John Paul’s desire to serve even during a time of struggles. 

Pope Benedict sees things a different way.  In his statement today, he explicitly pointed to his declining health as a reason for his resignation.  “I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise.”  He continued: “In today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of St. Peter and proclaim the gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”

“For this reason,” he continued, “and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom, I declare that I renounce the ministry of bishop of Rome, successor of St. Peter.”

The pope’s dramatic resignation seemed to take everyone in the Vatican by surprise, including the papal spokesman, Federico Lombardi, SJ. “The pope took us by surprise,” he said.  To find a similarly surprising event one can look to Pope John XXIII, who served as pope between 1958 and 1963.  John XIII caught the Vatican, and his cardinals, by complete surprise when he announced the convening of the Second Vatican Council, which he said came upon him after much deliberation, as something that “came forth like the flower of an unexpected spring.”  For all the bureaucracy in the Vatican, the pope is still his own man. 

In the past year or so there has been increased speculation as to Benedict’s ability to do his job, and carry it out the way that he would like to.  Trips have been curtailed and shortened on various occasions, and even his appearances in the Vatican have included his moving around on portable devices, as an aid his walking.  Like anyone of his advanced age, he had to ask himself whether or not he could do the job.

(A few years ago the Jesuit superior general, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, SJ, became the first Jesuit superior general to resign.  Interestingly, Father Kolvenbach, who was also aging and in declining health,  once confided to his Jesuit advisers that it would be difficult to tender his resignation to John Paul II, who had decided against resigning as pope.  Tendering it to Benedict, who accepted it, should have been seen as a sign of Benedict’s acceptance of this path.)

Thus, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II reached entirely different conclusions to the same question: Should an ailing pope resign?  For John Paul, the image of the suffering, sick pope was of spiritual value to his flock; for Benedict, the job needed to be done.  Discernment is always very personal; and it is important to see how two holy men reached two entirely different decisions.  God speaks differently to different people facing the same question.  In the lives of the saints, for example, we often see how the same situation is handled differently by different saints.  When St. Francis of Assisi was facing a painful malady of the eyes, brought on, doctors thought, by excessive tears during Mass, St. Francis decided that he would continue as he had with the celebration of Mass.  When St. Ignatius faced similar problems with his eyes, the physicians warned him, he decided to curtail his devotions, in order to have sufficient health to do his work. Both were responding to what they felt were God’s promptings in their lives.  

Pope Benedict XVI may likely remembered as a pope who in his relatively short pontificate, sought primarily to strengthen the orthodoxy of the church in a variety of means, who authored several important encyclicals, notable for their theological depth and appeal, and who continued a full set of public appearances, and who, despite his full schedule, published three well-received books on the life of Jesus.  Never the media superstar that his predecessor was, Pope Benedict XVI, a lifelong scholar, exuded his own brand of charisma, which came from his profound theological acumen and his personal relationship with Jesus.  Perhaps his most often neglected talent was his series of superb Angelus messages, delivered every Wednesday during his public appearances in St. Peter’s square. 

His most lasting legacy, I would suggest, will not be in the various “newsworthy” acts of his papacy that were highlighted in the media so often (his long negotiations with the breakaway Society of St. Pius X, his strong actions against the sexual abuse accusations made against the powerful founder of the Legion of Christ, the revised English translation of the Mass, his own response to the sexual abuse crisis, or the controversy over the comments that angered the Muslims, and so on), but something far more personal: his books on Jesus.  Far more people will most likely read those moving testaments to the person who is at the center of his life — Jesus of Nazareth — than may read all of his encyclicals combined. Others may disagree about this aspect of his pontificate, but in these books, the pope brought to bear decades of scholarship and prayer to the most important question that a Christian can ask: Who is Jesus?  This is the pope’s primary job — to introduce people to Jesus — and Pope Benedict did that exceedingly well.











How Pope Benedict Is Redefining The Papacy


Pope Benedict XVI came into office with the reputation of a conservative hard-liner, a vigorous defender of orthodoxy who wanted to restore Tradition — yes, with a capital “T”_ to a church that was seen as disturbingly undisciplined.

Yet with the stunning announcement that he is resigning as the 264th successor to Saint Peter, Benedict may wind up fundamentally changing the way the church and the world view the papacy.

That’s because the papacy has come to represent more than an office, and the pope more than just a higher-ranking priest or bishop who enjoys lifetime tenure, a nice Vatican apartment and the privilege of wearing a white cassock no matter the season.

Instead, the papacy is seen as a divine mission unlike any other in the church, and one that ends only in death.

“Christ did not come down from the cross,” the late John Paul II, Benedict’s immediate predecessor, would tell aides who wondered if his failing health and public suffering should compel him to relinquish his office.

A man is elected pope by the cardinals, yes, but at the behest of the Holy Spirit, according to Catholic theology. He takes a new name, and can’t even go home to collect his things: He moves into the Vatican right away, inhabiting a new identity in a new position — so superior that canon law says a pope can resign, but says he cannot resign to anyone.

To reign until death was the only thing that the Vicar of Christ on earth can do, and should do. Bishops retire at 75 and cardinals cannot vote in a conclave after age 80, but a pope was supposed to be forever.


Modern medicine started to change that, since popes could now live longer than ever before, even after the body or mind had failed. Modern media also played a role by demanding that world leaders — even popes — be available and visible and on the go, all the time.

Besides, church history taught that there were huge and potentially messy political ramifications to having, in effect, two popes at once. As John Paul once quipped to a doctor before an operation, “You have to cure me because there is no room for a pope emeritus.”

Well, there wasn’t — until now.

Working out the practicalities of having two living popes is something the Vatican is still trying to resolve. Benedict says he will go to the pope’s summer residence outside Rome when he formally resigns on Feb. 28, and after that he will live within a cloister inside the Vatican. He will have no part in the conclave to elect his successor, the Vatican says, and will not have a public role once his successor is named.

Will that be enough to avoid the kind of behind-the-scenes whispers of manipulation that marked papal elections centuries ago, and the sort of court intrigue that still drags the Vatican into periodic scandals?

Part of John Paul’s concern over resigning was that a significant chunk of the church that was so devoted to him as a person might start a schism, declaring that the retired pontiff was the one true pope and all others pretenders to the throne.

“There is always the risk of schism,” conceded the Rev. Robert A. Gahl Jr., a professor of philosophy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, which is run by the conservative Opus Dei society.

“However, Benedict has acted with great transparency and in full accord with the law,” Gahl added. For Benedict followers, “to claim loyalty while disobeying would be the summit of self-contradiction.”

It’s still unclear how this particular chapter in the papacy’s colorful history will play out, and much will depend on what Benedict himself does during the interregnum and afterward; his resignation has certainly been hailed across the fractious Catholic world as one of great humility and charity.

But a graceful exit could also be Benedict’s lasting legacy precisely because this most traditional of churchmen has, with his simple decision, effectively altered the meaning of the papacy.

“Benedict’s resignation helps refine the notion of the papacy and, thanks be to God, distinguishes the person from the office,” Terence Tilley, a theologian at Fordham University and past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, wrote in a discussion of Benedict’s resignation at the blog of Commonweal, a leading Catholic magazine.

“By this act, his frank admission that to carry out the Petrine ministry certain conditions of bodily and mental health are required, Benedict helps bring the papacy back within the Church, down from what Hans Urs von Balthasar called’pyramid-like isolation,'” added the Rev. Joseph Komonchak, an eminent church historian.

There is still the potential for this move to become another left-right battle in the church. Liberals could welcome this reimagining of the papacy as a way of demystifying the job and perhaps pointing toward a less papal, more collegial form of church governance. Conservatives could fear the same thing.

But it is crucial to remember that Benedict himself, both when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and after he was elected pope, had openly discussed the justifications for a pope to resign. And he had the orthodox credentials to pull it off — a kind of “Nixon to China” moment in Catholic history.

So while his move was shocking, it should not be a surprise.

From the beginning Benedict said he wanted his ministry to put the focus on Christ, not on himself as the pope. Ironically, by resigning, he has grabbed the spotlight, for the moment. But in the long run, he may well have redefined the papacy much as he hoped, and more radically than many expected.

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