What a bombshell. “Pope Resigns” is probably not a headline you ever thought you’d see. When I first heard, in a phone call at about 6:30 this morning, I literally had to shake my head to get the words understood. The announcement seemed jarring, out of the natural order of things: Popes don’t resign, God takes them. A resignation seems worldly, like something that happens in the world, where people give you 30 days’ notice and send a blast email saying they’re moving on to newer opportunities.
I thought almost immediately of John Paul II in the final years of his illness. Asked why, in his suffering, he would not resign, he is reported to have said, “Christ did not come down from the cross.” You accept your suffering and add it to the mystic chord of the world’s.
And yet . . .
Benedict is old, 86, and for 24 years, as John Paul’s Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he was one of the few to see, up close and every day, the cost of John Paul’s great courage and the price the Vatican as an institution was paying for the otherworldly endurance and grit of John Paul, whose last few years were one long goodbye, and whose ability to administrate was diminished as he became physically disabled. John Paul’s illness, Parkinson’s disease, was gradual, one of more or less steady, long-term decline. He could do the job until the last years. “Tell those American journalists the pope doesn’t run the church with his feet,” he had groused, half comically, to an American cardinal. Benedict’s illness or illnesses on the other hand—we’re not so sure about that, or those. And he is older than John Paul was when he died at 84.
Perhaps in Benedict’s decision we are seeing not a witness to suffering but an act of self sacrifice and humility that in its own way too is other-worldly.
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He had a hard act to follow in John Paul. Benedict was shy, an intellectual, a soft-spoken scholar, not a showman—there seemed not an ounce of the public actor in him. But all public figures in this age are called to act their roles. And John Paul was one gifted actor, full of zest and warmth. He had wanted for a time, when he was young, to be an actor and playwright. The world first met him, as pope, when he was only 58, and would always hold some of his youthfulness in its mental picture of him. Benedict was old when he came to the chair of Peter.
It is too early to say how his eight-year papacy will be seen by history and historians. He may come to be seen as a bridge between the 20th century and its men, and the 21st and its, between the last great long-serving pope and the next one. He was a writer and thinker attempting to lead in turbulent times. The scandals that grew under John Paul, who came from the heroic school of dissenter-priests, who’d himself bravely resisted the Nazis and the communists, and who probably couldn’t believe priests would do such things as the crimes of which they were increasingly accused, had to be faced and addressed by Benedict. Maybe he hopes he took the burden on his back and, as he leaves, can bear it away.
To what is vulgarly—and it is vulgar, and fascinating, too—called the horse race with regard to his successor:
We will be hearing a great deal of speculation the coming weeks. We should keep in mind that it doesn’t matter all that much what insiders say about who might have an inside track. Nobody thought it would be Karol Wojtylwa in 1978, just as nobody thought his predecessor, John Paul I, would die 33 days into his papacy. Almost nobody thought Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—too old, too conservative—would succeed John Paul II in 2005.
People never know. It’s always surprising now.
They ask if it will be a European, or a cardinal from one of the developing countries. They ask: Will the Italians make a comeback after the papacies of a Pole and a German?
But if you go at the question through a different lens, the great question becomes: Will the College of Cardinals throw the long ball or a shorter one? Will they pick a relatively young man of accomplishment, high energy, and an assumed long future—a 21st-century priest who will have time to put his imprint on the church and the age? Or will they choose an older man who, like Benedict, might have a more limited amount of time and, for that reason, seem be a safer, less decisive choice?
It would be electric if the next pope were an African.
Or a South American.
Or young Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle from the Phillipines, or Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico City.
It would be less electric but nonetheless stirring if he were our friendly neighbor to the oft-ignored north, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, formerly archbishop of Quebec.
But the papacy is not like the old American vice presidency, the choice doesn’t hinge on geography. Nobody said, “How about a Pole?” before John Paul was chosen, and no one said, “A German is best,” to argue for Cardinal Ratzinger.
The outcome will be determined more by questions like these:
Who is the most ardent, loving and truth-minded among us? Who, in that group, has been able to do things?
What is the mood of the cardinals as they begin to think and ponder? What assumptions do they hold about what the world most needs?
What specific and pressing need of the church—the re-evangelization of Europe and the West, growing tensions with Islam, the need to dramatically reach the world’s young, the need to make the church new again, to have it understood as a revolutionary force again—is in their view predominant? And which cardinal’s gifts, character, talents and history most closely match that need?
Do the Cardinals long for a certain stability? By March 31, Easter, we will have had three popes, including the new one, in eight years. If the cardinals long for stability, do they achieve that through the choice of a young man? Or will they in the end think no, a tried and true veteran might be the stablest choice in a charged and changing world?
What will the Holy Spirit do? In what direction will the Holy Spirit lead them? That is the most important question of all.
And nobody knows. But this decision: it will be momentous.