Resignation of a Pope: stepping down and stepping forward

Pope Benedict XVI greeting pilgrims from the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica soon after his election in 2005. Georgi Licovski/EPA

As the news of Pope Benedict XVI’s dramatic resignation sinks in, the speculation on his successor has inevitably begun.

Will we see the first black Pope? The first South American Pope? Just as it happened with the death of John Paul II (now “Blessed”), commentators will wonder if a new pope might alter the Church’s position on a raft of disparate topics. Conversations about artificial birth control, a dual-gendered priesthood, and the relationship of sex to the exclusive commitment of marriage shall be performed with little regard for facts or history.

In such an odd cultural climate, and in the full glare of the media spotlight, the Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church will gather their thoughts, their wits and their closest friends, and begin a conversation with the Holy Spirit about the future.

Regardless of the bizarre debates to be had in forums as ill-suited as Facebook or the chatter of morning breakfast television hosts, the Cardinals will be praying for divine wisdom. And it is precisely wisdom that will now be remembered as Papa Ratzinger’s great gift.

I do not mean the Pope’s acute intellectual gifts, although these are many. His legacy as one of the significant theologians of the twentieth century is assured by his numerous publications, and also the breadth of charity with which he showed his various conversation partners; German Lutherans, Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicans, Islam and the Jewish community. Benedict always assumed the best of those with whom he entered dialogue.

No, what I mean is that Pope Benedict XVI has offered to the world a profound humility in public ministry. Despite those who expected him to be a pulpit-thumping conservative who shouted over the top of debate and discussion, his has been a papacy of remarkable gentleness.

His clarion call in the funeral oratory for John Paul II was to fight the “dictatorship of relativism.” Rather beautifully, Ratzinger did this by appealing to the complementary harmony of faith and reason. In fact, Benedict’s plea was often so penetratingly gentle that only those committed ideologically to either violence or the suppression of religious freedom would seek to drown it out.

Such an appeal, which sought a paradoxical balance between a uniformity of faith and a plurality of liturgical practice, is the appeal of a man who did not restrict his concerns to the present hour, but sought to think in terms of centuries. In this way, his appeal to faith and reason played a long game, and the good fruits of his labour will only be revealed as the years unfold.

This became crucial as widespread accounts of clerical abuse of children came to light. Benedict never denied or belittled the evidence at hand, and he repeatedly spent time with victims of abuse to hear their stories and insist that every effort be made to halt the possibility of abuse being enacted again. Indeed, the world came to see that even popes cannot hold back the sins of the few, and that local bishops carry a heavy burden of responsibility. Benedict’s reforming work in this area; in Ireland, in the US, in Australia and in the Roman curia itself, will only be effective if local churches implement it well.

Those who know of Benedict’s interventions to keep the Catholic Church on the ecumenical path can only be too aware that his efforts for dialogue with Eastern Orthodoxy, or with Protestants, or his initiative with the Anglican Ordinariate, or his good will towards the Extraordinary Rite, or his engagements with contemporary scholarship and his poignant moments of teaching in St Peter’s Square, all contribute to a vision of the Church that seeks to put into practice the many threads that bound together the Second Vatican Council. Benedict believes in the Church, and because of this sought to keep it holy and self-effacing.

Such a contribution was always humbly made despite the detractors. But in this final grand act of his papacy, Pope Benedict has appealed to each human heart to act with wisdom and not folly, in the face of the world. After all, there will not be a few Catholics today who feel let down, or even disparaged by the resignation of a pope.

Surely, they might ask themselves, he could have laboured on as John Paul II did, suffering before the eyes of a world that already feels suffering in its dark corners and its moments of violence and pain? Couldn’t Benedict also have gone on; does this not leave the Church weak and vulnerable?

These are natural instincts, and no doubt some Cardinals will be wishing he could have laboured on also! But in this act of stepping down, Benedict chastises Catholics who are tempted to think of the Christian faith in terms of “doing” and not of “being”.

Certainly we have a right to feel saddened at the loss of a clear thinker and humble man in the See of Rome, but we also have a responsibility to look for the work of God in what transpires. That is to say, Benedict draws upon a wisdom tradition that places salvation ultimately in the hands of God, and not in the actions of mere mortal human beings. God’s strength and mercy are revealed in the act of stepping down, just as it can be in the act of heroically stepping forward. Benedict is therefore making a theological statement, in which the gift of God’s immense mercy is witnessed not in strength but in weakness. As St Paul wrote, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:10).

For every Catholic pastor, whether a Cardinal or a parish priest, and for every religious, whether a Discalced Carmelite brother or a Sister of Mercy in the slums, and for every Christian lay person, whether single or married, there is a teaching to be received in Benedict’s witness.

It will be hard to learn, but it is a truth that the act of stepping down can often be the witness the Spirit calls a person to heed. Benedict recalls the Church therefore to a posture of humility, and a wise act of self-abnegation for the sake of the wider community. But it may take the Church centuries to learn it well.