Few men willingly relinquish great power or position.
King Edward VIII did it in 1936, abdicating the thrown of Great Britain for the sake of the woman he loved. Richard M. Nixon did it in 1974, resigning the U.S. presidency rather than face his inevitable impeachment. Those abdications were relatively well defined and had become predictable. Not so the surprise announcement Monday that Pope Benedict XVI, vicar of the Roman Catholic Church, would retire at the end of this month, having completed almost eight years of what, for the last 600 years, has been understood to be a lifetime job.
Indeed, Pope Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II rejected the idea of retiring even after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2001 and as his health failed over the next four years.
And that, perhaps, makes the decision announced by Pope Benedict even more surprising. A Vatican spokesman said the pope began contemplating retirement last April and preparations for it have been underway for months, including work on a vacant convent on the Vatican grounds that will be his retirement home.
Speaking in Latin, Pope Benedict said he had come to realize that his “strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise” of his ministry, which “must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering.”
Faith can be a sustaining force, but the demands of responding to the challenges facing a pope, especially in these times, requires equal measures of physical and spiritual faith.
When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then 78, was elected by the College of Cardinals in 2005, he already faced a decade’s worth of challenges that would have taxed a leader in his prime. Secularism, especially in Europe, was displacing organized religion; there was a growing movement within the church for a return to a more “traditional” Catholicism and the church in the United States and parts of Europe was wracked by sex scandals. Those scandals were exacerbated by a hierarchy that did not adequately react to the horror of the deeds of pedophiles in the clergy.
Pope Benedict’s response to those challenges was mixed, often with success or failure being defined in the eyes of the beholder. In the matter of clergy sexual abuse, he took the unprecedented step of apologizing specifically for the abuse of children in Ireland, but he did little to discipline bishops and cardinals who looked the other way when abuse was uncovered.
American Catholics will watch with special interest as the process for selecting a new pope proceeds. While the church is shrinking in the United States and Europe, it is growing in Africa and Latin America. Will the new pope represent the emerging church, the old church or be someone with the rare ability to bridge the gaps between cultures and church?
Most Catholics today can remember at most six popes, including John Paul I, who served for only a month. For many, this next pope will likely be the last, especially if his reign is similar to those of Pope Pius XII or Pope John Paul II, who served 19 and 27 years respectively. And who the cardinals choose and what that new pope does will determine whether there are more or fewer American Catholics in the next generation.