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The Resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, an Act of Humility and Wisdom

Pray and trust for Benedict's desicion
by Mauricio I. Pérez | Source:
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On February 11th, our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI shocked the entire world by announcing that he would resign from the see of Peter on February 28th. Starting at 8:00 PM, Vatican City time, the Catholic Church will be on sede vacante. 117 cardinals will have to come to the Vatican and elect the new successor of Saint Peter and Vicar of Christ in a conclave.

   Pope Benedict’s resignation has been received with a deep sorrow by those who already began missing a beloved friend who will no longer be with us. Some others feel anxiety about the future of the Church in the hands of someone yet unknown to us. Some people are even disappointed about the Pope’s decision, thinking he has chosen to abandon the Church or quit his responsibilities. Yet some more, confused by the poisonous secular media that has taken this last opportunity to try to crucify the Vicar of Christ before he retires, now distrust the Catholic Church or hope the new pontiff will change our moral principles and the nature of priesthood. But the pope is the Vicar of Christ, not Christ himself. He cannot rewrite the gospel or the 10 commandments, but rather preserve them alive and significant in present times.

   The only legitimate two feelings that one may experience are sorrow and hope. Definitely our love for Pope Benedict moves us to tears as any farewell to someone who departs. But our faith in God and our trust in Jesus, who is in command of the destiny of his holy Church impels us to keep our hope alive that the new pope will be as good for our times as all popes we have known in our life. Back in the days of blessed John XXIII, the good pope, people wondered who could be as good after he died. But then people wondered who could ever be as brilliant as Pope Paul VI. We were blessed with the loving John Paul I and his beautiful smile that was dubbed “God’s smile”. After his short papacy of only 33 days, we were blessed with John Paul the Great, a titan in the history not only of the Catholic Church, but on human history as well. And when Pope John Paul II died, we all felt orphans, and also wondered who could ever be as great as this man. Now, when one of the most brilliant men in the history of the Church is about to retire, we do not only acknowledge that once again God has blessed us with the best pope for our times, but can also be sure that the pope to come will be equally good. We have no choice but trusting the Lord.

   No one should feel disappointed about Pope Benedict’s resignation. Doing so reflects a poor understanding of the Church and a poor knowledge of the man who is Benedict XVI. First of all, we must have clarity that while every man who is selected in the conclave embraces his new role willing to take it to his last breath, the reality is that the resignation of a pope has always been a possibility. Pope Benedict is not the first to resign. Pope Clement I, the 4th pope after Saint Peter, was the first to resign. The last one, Gregory XII, resigned in 1415, around 600 years ago. The law of the Church foresees the possibility of the resignation of a pope and indicates how it must be handled. Canon 331 §2 prescribes that: “If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone.” So even when the resignation of Pope Benedict has been out of the ordinary, it is in reality a possibility come true.

   On the other hand, we must rest assured that Pope Benedict is not quitting his responsibilities, running away from any issues, or abandoning the Church. He has very explicitly explained that he is leaving the Catholic Church in the hands of its supreme pastor, Jesus Christ. And he is doing so for two reasons: the good of the Church itself, and because his diminished strength does not allow him to serve the Church as needed.

   People tend to see a pope as a religious leader. But we must not overlook the fact that first and foremost, the pope is the servus servorum Dei, the servant of God’s servants. His main duty as Vicar of Christ is to serve God’s servants, to serve the Church. And Pope Benedict has realized that the high demands of contemporary times, in a world and culture that is rapidly changing, requires that the Church is served from Peter’s cathedra by someone with a strength he no longer has. Age is taking a toll. So is his health. His left eye no longer sees, he struggles to hear, his physical energy has decreased significantly, and his physician has forbidden him to make transatlantic trips.

   Just consider as an example the upcoming World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro this summer. Pope Benedict knows well that the youth does need a pope among them, not a pontifical delegate. And he doesn’t want to leave the youth without a pope. He wants to give the youth what they expect and what they need. He wants them to be served.

   So after a lengthy and certainly difficult process of discernment in prayer, Pope Benedict has realized it is for the best of the Church to resign from his role as bishop of Rome and let the Lord send forth a new Vicar who has the physical energy needed to face the demands of present times as the Church needs. Not even for an instant has Pope Benedict thought “I shouldn’t resign. What will the Church do without me?” Doing so would be an expression of arrogance. He instead acknowledges that his strength prevents him from serving the Church, and in an act of faith, fruit of this exercise of discernment, he has chosen to entrust the Church to the Lord. This is why the resignation of the Pope is both an act of faith and an expression of humility.

   Some people feel inclined to compare Pope Benedict XVI with blessed Pope John Paul II, who chose not to step down from his cross and who died in agony in his Papal apartment surrounded by thousands of people praying from Saint Peter’s square. But this comparison doesn’t make sense. Because in reality, both popes have given us two different lessons of humility that we must embrace. John Paul has taught us how to go through illness from God’s hand, and how to die from God’s hand. Benedict has taught us to acknowledge that we are not indispensable, but rather only Jesus is. He has taught us to acknowledge our limitations and to do so from God’s hand, and then to surrender whatever is in our hands to the loving hands of God.

   No one can deny that the mind of Joseph Ratzinger is one of the most brilliant minds not only in present times, but also in the history of the Catholic Church. He was dubbed at some point “The Mozart of Theology”, as his skills seem almost prodigious. He is by far the best theologian of our times. Such a brilliant mind not only reflected about his resignation, but also analyzed all the ramifications of a decision this big. The sharp theological and pastoral acumen of Joseph Ratzinger for sure understood the historical, pastoral, canonical, ecclesiastical and ecclesiological ramifications of his resignation. But the most important thing we must never overlook, is that a man with such a brilliant mind, surrendered his intelligence to the will of God. And the effect of surrendering one’s intelligence to the will of God, is nothing else but wisdom. Hence, the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI is an act of faith, an act of humility and an act of wisdom.

   Pope Benedict XVI will retire not to rest, but to a life of prayer. He wills to continue serving the Church through a life of prayer. After he departs on a helicopter from the Vatican to Castel Gandolfo on the evening of February 28th, it will be very difficult to ever see him again. In a couple of months he will go back to the Vatican, to live in a convent. Most likely, he will not give advice to the new pope. He will avoid the temptation of people to focus their lenses on two places at the same time. Pope Benedict knows that the new pope will find aid in the cardinals from the curia, and most of all, through a constant dialog with the Lord. Just as every other pope has.

   We must give thanks to God for having blessed us with the pastoral care of Pope Benedict XVI all this years. Let us pray for our beloved Pope as he undergoes these times. Let us pray for the Church, so our faith remains alive. Let us pray for the cardinals who will gather in conclave. And let us pray for the man who will be our next pope.

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