Reasoning with the pope

Pope Benedict XVI shocked the Church and the world when he announced on Monday, the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, his decision to resign from the highly exalted office he occupied since 19 April, 2005 as the Vicar of Christ and the Bishop of Rome, come February 28, 2013. Since then there have been no ending in the media to the torrents of commentaries, stories, reportage, photo-clips on the Pope, his times, the Church as a whole and many more. While some people, even well-meaning Catholics, have expressed disappointment at the Pope’s action, and in spite of pockets of conspiracy theories here and there, the reactions from official ecclesial and secular quarters have been largely positive. However, some people are simply not able to come to terms with the idea of a retired Pope. They consider it a thing akin to a sacrilege. The questions agitating such minds are: Why will the Pope act in this manner? How are we to explain this strange action? What does it portend for the Church and the world?
In this piece, I wish to highlight some points which may help us better understand the circumstances that could have informed the pope’s decision.

1. OLDEST POPE IN 300 YEARS: When Benedict XVI became the Pope, he was already 78 years, which made him the oldest person to assume that office in the past 300 years. We will recall that his predecessor, Pope John Paul II became the Pope at the age of 57 and died at the age of 84. Meanwhile Pope Benedict XVI will turn 86 years by 16 April 2013.
2. BACKBONE OF POPE JOHN PAUL II: Before being called to the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was a professor of theology and a Vatican II expert. He contributed enormously to the Papacy of John Paul II as the Prefect of the Congregation for Doctrine and Faith for 24years; 1981 to 2005. This is a key department in the entire life and administrative set up of the Church. Therefore, one may not be fair in celebrating the success of the great Pope John Paul II without giving some due credit to Pope Benedict XVI. The implication so far from the above is that Pope Benedict XVI was already well-spent and tired before he became the Pope.
3. SACRIFICE: From the points above, one may wonder why Pope Benedict was chosen or why he still accepted to be the Pope if he knew he was tired. The answer lies in some factors considered in the process of appointing a Pope. When a Pope dies, the Cardinals in conclave are led in a retreat which helps them, among other things, become more vividly aware of the needs of the Church at the particular age and time, and what should be the Church’s major form of witness to the world at the time. Besides, unlike many secular bodies and governments, the Catholic Church is built on continuity. Therefore due to the high level of achievement recorded during the long reign of Pope John Paul II, the Cardinals at the April 2005 conclave reasoned that there was need to elect someone who was closest in thoughts with Pope John Paul II to manage the papacy. The most fitted for the description as the votes turned out was Cardinal Ratzinger who accepted the office with trepidation but a high sense of sacrifice. It was a huge sacrifice for him because severally before that time, he had expressed his desire to resign from being the Prefect of the Congregation he managed. He was even more desperate to retire after the death of his great friend John Paul II. In a sense therefore, one may say that the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI is an extension of that of Pope John Paul II. It seems to me that Pope John II’s era is just coming to an end.
4. HEROIC ACT OF LEADERSHIP: Pope Benedict’s action speaks volume of his maturity, self-confidence, sincerity of purpose, humility and above all his ardent FAITH in God and his love for the holy Church. Faith, because he firmly believes that the Church is also truly divine not just human. Shows humility that the burden of the Church essentially rests on the outstretched arms of Jesus Christ on the cross and not on any human shoulders. It is a lesson to all in leadership position in church and society that it could be unjust and self-serving to stay on in power when one realizes that he is no longer efficient or effective in the office. It takes a lot of grace, maturity and intelligence to come to this knowledge and enormous courage to accept it. One recalls the message in that great but short prayer; Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

5. CHRIST MUST INCREASE, I MUST DECREASE: Reading the script of his resignation, the Holy Father mentioned his failing health as a core reason he decided to resign. Some conspiracy theorists have interpreted this to mean that he has some terminal deceases. Commonsensically, a man of 85 who has handled such huge and busy office is definitely old enough to be physically incapacitated. The salient point we need to note however is that the Pope is not necessarily concerned about his health in the sense that he is afraid that if he continues in the office, he might soon die, rather his concern is the good and progress of the life of the Church. He realizes how very crucial the services required of the office of the Vicar of Christ are, he realizes that no one must be a stumbling block to the work of Christ, he therefore chose not to allow his physical weakness to hinder or slow it down. In an age where human beings will do anything and everything to hold on to power, as we experience in Nigeria and many countries, it is strange to see a man freely give up power and all the paraphernalia that goes with it. As already noted above, a very deep implication from this action is a profound profession of faith. Perhaps that is also the reason he declared a year of faith. By this action, Pope Benedict teaches everyone that the burden of the Church does not essentially rest on any human shoulders, but on the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross. The Church is the body of Christ; the work is the work of Christ; the flock is the flock of Christ; in life or death we belong to Christ. Christ is the center and Christ is all. He has promised he would always guide and protect his Church. The gift of His Holy Spirit is constantly renewed in her. Consequently, the message is that what matters most is for the work of God to advance, no one needs pretend that the Church will collapse without him.
6. CANONICAL PROVISION: A major reason why many people in the Church and the world are shocked at Pope Benedict’s resignation is because it is a rare occurrence. In the over 2000 years of the papacy, it is not usual to see a Pope resign. It is however pertinent to remind us that the Canon law, the body of laws guiding the life of the Church, makes provision for a serving Pope to be able to resign if he so wishes. Canon 332 paragraph 2 gives three conditions: First, that the resignation is freely expressed; secondly, that it be adequately manifested; and thirdly, that the process is valid whether anyone accepts it or not. This is what Pope Benedict applied. Thus he is acting within the law of the Church. Pope Benedict’s resignation is historic not only because it is up to 600 years ago when Pope Gregory XII resigned as a Pope in 1415, but because it seems it is the first time a pope is resigning simply because he is old and physically incapable, totally on his own volition and not forced by factors or circumstances outside of him. One expects that this action will rub positively on the attitude of office holders in Church and society.
Moreover, because of the unprecedented nature of this event, Christ’s faithful look forward to the Cardinals to know how the Pope is to be addressed after resignation. Would he be called “Pope Emeritus” or “Emeritus Bishop of Rome”?
7. NO SURPRISE: Much as the Pope’s action is shocking, it has not come as a complete surprise to those who are conversant with the life and works of this strong-willed Pope. His predecessor was at the verge of resignation in 2000. In his book, “In the Light of Faith”, written in 2010, Pope Benedict says “If a pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right, and under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.” What’s interesting is how long ago this decision was made — shortly after the pope’s trip to Cuba, which was in March of last year, he manifested so much tiredness and desire to resign. Against the conspiracy theory that the Pope is forced out of power because of the controversies and scandals that have been orchestrated against the Church out of proportion by the media, it is instructive to note that was before the whole butler story even broke. Problems have always been in the Church. Problems will remain in the Church because it is made up of human beings. Jesus knew this. That is why he promised that the Spirit will be with her so that the gates of the underworld will not prevail against her. Pope Benedict has opened the doors for successive popes and even Bishops if need be to resign with greater ease without feeling morally obliged to remain until death.

In conclusion, the Church at this threshold of history calls her children to prayer for the body of Christ, the Pope and the Cardinals who will soon be in conclave. Come Holy spirit and fill the hearts of your faithful, and enkindle in us the fire of your love.
Rev, Fr. Mike Umoh
Center for Media Development
Catholic Archdiocese of Lagos

Pope Benedict’s Address on Resignation of the See of Rome
“I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry”
Vatican City, February 11, 2013 ( | 198 hits
Dear Brothers,
I have convoked you to this Consistory, not only for the three canonizations, but also to communicate to you a decision of great importance for the life of the Church. After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, 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 Saint 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, 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 Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.
Dear Brothers, I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects. And now, let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff. With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.
From the Vatican, 10 February 2013


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