“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.“ These are the words Pope Benedict XVI spoke today during a meeting of Vatican cardinals as he announced his resignation at the end of February. He is the first pope in more than 600 years to resign. The last pope to make this decision was Pope Gregory XII, stepping down in 1415.
What a shock to wake up this morning and read this headline! I have a deep love and respect for the popes I have known in my lifetime, as most Catholics do. There have been five popes in my life since I was born: Blessed John XXIII (1958-63), Paul VI (1963-78), John Paul I (1978), John Paul II (1978-2005), Benedict XVI (2005—), and now, God willing, I will come to know another. And as Pope Benedict completes his call as a successor of Peter, I can’t help but reflect upon the deep integrity and steadfast courage it has taken the him to lead the global Church in the last 8 years – something our future popes will undoubtedly need to shepherd the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
Cardinal Ratzinger, as he was known before he became pope in 2005, has long been heralded as the “bulldog,” the man who stood firmly against heresy. He was the first pope to make a public apology to the world for the sexual scandals involving Catholic priests. He remained unflinchingly committed to the truth while his critics labeled him “out of touch with the 21st century” because of his loyalty to the truth on issues such as women priests, the sanctity, permanence and true definition of marriage, and the evils of abortion and contraception.
Our world, today, has been infected by apathy – viewing religion as something that is only necessary to keep people on their best behavior. Once religion is separated from the truth – and it is done so by so many people who believe it is irrelevant to their lives – moral codes become simply one person’s opinion of what is right and what is wrong.
Pope Benedict has been an example to us all on how to live in the face of these criticisms of being “old fashioned.” The truth is the truth. A squares has four sides. There are no 5-sided squares and it would be absurd to call someone a biggot or out of touch if he insisted that a square had four sides.
But more than his stance on truth in all things, Pope Benedict brought compassion to the discussion of these issues. In 2005, just shortly after his election to the papacy, he addressed priests, religious and deacons on the issue of divorce and remarriage without an annulment, stating:
“You all know that this [divorce] is a particularly painful situation. Given these people’s situation of suffering, it must be studied… None of us has a ready-made solution because each person’s situation is different… The Christian faith involves giving oneself to the community of the Church, a community that promises each believer that he or she will never be left alone in suffering and that calls each Catholic to reach out to others…” (Comments on Ministry to Divorced and Civilly-Remarried Catholics, July 25, 2005).
As he announced his retirement, Pope Benedict concluded by saying:
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.
Yes, let us pray for Pope Benedict and the college of cardinals as they proceed to elect a new pope. As a single Catholic, you can look to Pope Benedict XVI’s example on how to remain grounded in the truth in a society that is steeped in indifference. Personally, although I am sad to see Pope Benedict resign, I look forward to the opportuntiy to once again, be present at such an historic time in the Church when we elect a new pope.