I'm sending out this update a day earlier than usual in light of the news from the Vatican this morning. For those of you who have not yet heard, this morning Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, effective Feb. 28. You can read his announcement in full on the Vatican web site. It's very brief.
His stated reason, in so many words, is advanced age. He was already 78 years old when he was elected pope in 2005. Now he is in his late 80s. "After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God," he states, "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."
Many of you will be asking, "Can he do that?" No pope in our modern experience has ever resigned. But it can happen. The last time a pope resigned was in the fifteenth century, so it does not happen often. But Church law allows for it, so long as the resignation is made freely (which is why Benedict uses the phrase, "with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, etc." in his statement).
My initial reaction upon hearing the news this morning was shock. It certainly was not expected. I remember seeing his predecessor, John Paul II, endure in his reign despite his debilitating Parkinson's disease, which was getting worse by the day. Many said he should resign. But he did not. He suffered and weakened in the public eye, never abandoning his post, never ceasing his ministry of servant of the servants of God. In fact, his suffering was one of the great aspects of that ministry. The final weeks and days of Bl. John Paul II's reign were a great witness to the power of redemptive suffering and the dignity of all human life, no matter its stage or age.
After taking time to reflect, I believe that Benedict XVI's resignation is another powerful witness for our age. It takes great humility to hand over the See of Peter. And the virtue of humility is sorely needed in our age. What other powerful leader in our world today would freely hand over his position without violence, protest, or even a referendum demanding his ouster? I can't think of one. But Papa Benedict does it freely, and surprises us all. It takes great humility to admit that one cannot do something, and to admit that with dignity and contentment.
I honestly do not think that Joseph Ratzinger ever wanted the job of pope. When he was elected in 2005, he was already 78, as I said, and looking forward to a quiet retirement. Well, surprise, surprise, the Holy Spirit had other plans for him. And as Benedict XVI, he worked with the Holy Spirit to fulfill his God-given role to the best of his ability. I believe the greatest leaders are often the ones who do not desire power, who do not want the job but do it anyway. Benedict's reign was longer and more fruitful than any would have expected it to be. He wrote three encyclicals, including Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), which is sure to be read for centuries. He issued Summorum Pontificum, the motu proprio that allowed what is now known as the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite of the Mass to be celebrated with great freedom. More recently he issued Anglicanorum Coetibus, making it easier than ever before for Anglicans to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. He is a great man who has accomplished more in his short time in the chair of Peter than any of us could have imagined. And now he is vacating that seat gracefully.
The last time a new pope was elected it was after the death of John Paul II. The Church was in mourning, so the atmosphere was a bit different then than it is now. I had only been Catholic for a few years at that time, and John Paul II was the only pope I had ever known. I remember noting a marked difference in the reactions of my Catholic vs. my non-Catholic friends. The Catholics I knew were mourning the loss of a great pope, yes. And there was some excitement and anticipation over who the next pontiff was going to be. But people were relaxed about it. No one was really worrying much.
By contrast, my non-Catholic friends were filled with anxiety. Who would be the new pope? It could be anybody? What if it was someone awful? What if he changed everything John Paul II had worked so hard for? Or what if he didn't? They expressed sympathy for me and other Catholics, because after all, it must be nerve wracking! Anything could happen! Was this the end?!
Of course it is not the end. And my Catholic friends all knew that, which is why the excitement we all felt at the prospect of a new Bishop of Rome was different from the anxiety our non-Catholic friends thought we must be feeling. The Church has been around for 2000 years. We have had 266 popes in that time span. Some have been saints. Some have been scandalous. Most fell somewhere in between. But the Church and the Faith have endured. Christ promised Peter, the first Pope, "Upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it." We know this, with the certainty of faith.
Sure, some things may change with a new pope, because whomever is elected in the coming conclave will not be Benedict XVI. And he won't be John Paul II. He'll be who he is, and that will bring with it his own style and personality, and God's grace will work through him according to His will. But the faith will go on. The Church will go on. Because we know it is not the job of the Pope to invent the faith. His role is to safeguard it and present it to us in our present day and age. He is a custodian.
When my wife woke up this morning and I greeted her with, "Good morning, sweetheart. The pope resigned," her first reaction was a quizzical, "What?"
Then she picked up the phone and called our dentist's office to confirm the appointments we have for our children later today. Life goes on.
Pray for Benedict XVI for a long, happy and restful retirement. Pray for the Cardinals who will be meeting soon to elect the newest successor of St. Peter. Pray for the man whom the Spirit selects to take on that role. May he be as humble as his predecessor.
THIS WEEK'S SCHEDULE
Monday: Meet to pray the rosary at the Fountain at 5pm! (Rain location, UC Balcony). Catholic student discussion group meets at Starbucks at 8:00pm. All are invited!
Wednesday: It's Ash Wednesday! We will have Mass on campus at 12:30 in our chapel. Masses will also be offered at St. Mary's at 9am, 6pm, and 8pm in Spanish. Join us for dinner at the Catholic Center at 6:30pm. We'll have a simple meal in keeping with the start of Lent, and a discussion following about what some people give up during the Lenten season.
Thursday: Adoration from 6-7pm.
Friday: The Knights of Columbus are having a Fish Fry at St. Mary's at 5:00pm.
I had planned to write more about the start of Lent this week, but Benedict's resignation has taken precedence! I'll only remind you in this space that Lent is a penitential season. Every Friday in Lent is a day of abstinence. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of fasting and abstinence. What do we mean by those terms? Abstinence means refraining from the eating of meat. Fish is ok, as are meat based broths and gravies. For those who are vegetarian, it is suggested you select another food item to refrain from eating, in the spirit of penance.
Fasting means taking only one full meal during the day. It is also permitted to eat up to two small snacks which together do not add up to one meal. Drinking liquids does not break the fast. Those who are ill, pregnant, or whose work requires greater nourishment are excused from the requirement to fast, as are those over 65.
I'll be posting more about Ash Wednesday and Lent on our Facebook group, as well as updated information about Benedict XVI's resignation and the upcoming Papal Conclave as it is available.
God bless, and have a great week!