The Catholic world is largely shocked by the publication of Pope Benedict XVI’s letter of resignation this morning. The secular world assumes the worst—no, it desires the worst, and by insinuation worms doubts into the minds of even the faithful.
The secular world will tear through the brief letter and fixate upon the line about a “world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith.” It will weave from these deconstructed words an existential tale of despair, scandal, and an authority which realizes it is no longer in touch with reality.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Benedict’s resignation is utterly consistent with his character. It is traditional—he brings from our history and our law a fact and feature of the Papal Office: one can and—under certain circumstance—should put aside that office.
His resignation demonstrates once again the firm mark of a father and a teacher. A father knows that his role is to provide example, instruction, and discipline, and ultimately put himself aside for the good of his own. The Petrine ministry is not exercised for a man, or for bishops and priests, or even for Catholics alone. It is a ministry exercised for all those seeking God and for all those towards whom God’s mercy is extended. It is a demanding office.
As with every text published by Benedict, this letter of resignation has no imbalance, flab, impression, or vagueness. Not a word goes astray. It is shot through with paternal love and professorial clarity.
An honest reading of this document can only lead to profound gratitude and sympathy for a suffering father who must understand each act and decision he makes as having “great importance for the life the Church.”
No one could doubt that this Holy Father has meditated profoundly, and I expect repeatedly, on The Pastoral Rule of St. Gregory the Great—that sixth-century handbook for those who hold the highest spiritual authority, what Benedict and others have called the ars artium (“the art of arts”). Much of the book is a warning against the wrong reasons for grasping or holding on to power, followed by an outline of the virtues needed to exercise leadership well. In the first book of The Pastoral Rule we find this line, which I believe has quietly echoed for some weeks in the Holy Father’s thoughts: “He must be a man whose aims are not thwarted by the frailty of his body.” The office of Peter is not a spiritual thing which discounts human nature. That sacred ministry resides with a person, but that person must have the nature to exercise its rigors.
Benedict XVI has marked his pontificate by humility. If anything, he has tried to depersonalize the use of authority, even that uniquely personal authority, the Petrine Office. Yet we must always remember that the “person” of the Papal ministry is St. Peter, who with his successors acts in the person of Christ. The papacy is a lived authority and a living authority and one that must respond to the needs of the Age. It is natural that we love the concrete that we know, and love the particular character of our popes. And we must do our best to accept that like a humble and adored teacher, Benedict now forces on his students a hard lesson: that the teacher should never be the focus of our final attention and love.
Our age has become overly focused on a model of “leadership” which is nothing short of superficial, for whom the shallow gilt of charisma and “personality” have blinded everyone to questions of duty and responsibility. Benedict’s resignation teaches us once again that leadership—while exercised by a person—is not about that person. Benedict has set before our eyes the old Roman sense of officium—duty, office, responsibility. Benedict’s embrace of the Petrine office has always been a reluctant one, and that reluctance is born of clear self-knowledge and deep understanding of the history and purpose of papal authority.
The following words are taken from one of the Holy Father’s General Audience in 2008. He spoke on St. Gregory the Great and his reluctance to sit on the throne of St. Peter, reluctance that gave way to grace, prayer, and action:
Recognizing the will of God in what had happened, the new Pontiff immediately and enthusiastically set to work. From the beginning he showed a singular enlightened vision of the reality with which he had to deal, an extra-ordinary capacity for work confronting both ecclesial and civil affairs, a constant and even balance in making decisions, at times with courage, imposed on him by his office.
These are not words set down in a theoretical fashion. They rise from the Holy Father’s lips with experience behind them.
More moving are Benedict’s closing words from the following day’s audience. Again, speaking on St. Gregory and his lonely pontificate, he ends:
Gregory remained a simple monk in his heart and therefore was decidedly opposed to great titles. He wanted to be—and this is his expression—servus servorum Dei. Coined by him, this phrase was not just a pious formula on his lips but a true manifestation of his way of living and acting. He was intimately struck by the humility of God, who in Christ made himself our servant. He washed and washes our dirty feet. Therefore, he was convinced that a Bishop, above all, should imitate this humility of God and follow Christ in this way. His desire was to live truly as a monk, in permanent contact with the Word of God, but for love of God he knew how to make himself the servant of all in a time full of tribulation and suffering. He knew how to make himself the “servant of the servants.” Precisely because he was this, he is great and also shows us the measure of true greatness.
The Holy Father’s reasons for resignation spring from a grave sense of office and a faithful belief in what that office truly is. He has remained through his pontificate faithful and true to his vocation of father and teacher. Both father and teacher must daily put aside themselves to be true to their calling.
The papacy is not a mere person, it is not a great man, it is certainly not a bloodline or earthly principality. It is the ministry of the Bishop of Rome, Successor of St. Peter. It is a sacred office entrusted to the entire Church. It is an enduring stewardship through time. Behind the Vicar stand the Kingship of Christ and the enduring nature of His Church, yesterday, today, and forever.
By the grace of the Holy Spirit, Pope Benedict XVI has resigned. His Holiness has resigned because he understands his office and he wishes with firm resolve to help us to understand this and deepen our faith by remembering him for what he is and by lifting up our hearts and minds to the eternal Father and His Son, Our Supreme Pastor and Lord, Jesus Christ.