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WHEN A POPE RESIGNS

February 18, 2013 · 

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By Fr. Shay Cullen

It is 719 years since a Pope resigned the Papacy and stepped down from the Seat of Peter. What led up to the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI is a matter of much discussion and reflection. Will it usher in a new practice where Popes will be expected to resign like other bishops at 76 or perhaps 80?  Benedict is 85 and cannot continue the mission of preaching the Gospel, he says. His acceptance and humility in admitting his fragility and incapability is an inspiration to many.

He knew it was the right and best action for the Church; he made way for another who could carry the burden. He most likely reached this decision after his return from Mexico, some insiders speculate. He chose the day to announce it when the church celebrated the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, the World Day of the Sick. He told the Cardinals and the world that he no longer had “strength of mind or body” to fulfill his duties.

He could have waited until his 86th birthday in April but perhaps he felt unable to carry out the Easter ceremonies. Now the Cardinals will have to hurry up the conclave and seclude themselves in the Sistine Chapel and elect a new Pope. No mobile phones or internet enabled tablets are allowed, this is to prevent leaks as to how the voting is going. Even Cardinals know how to Tweet.     

The revelation that Pope Benedict had a severe fall and cut his head that led to profuse bleeding during his visit to Mexico, March 2012 was perhaps one factor among others that may have led him to the wise decision to resign the Papacy. In his wisdom, he had apparently foreseen the need, years before, especially with the on-set of the illness in Pope John XXIII, who did not resign despite the sever advancement of Parkinson’s disease and died incapacitated in office.

When he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he realized the need for a Pope to resign. In 2004, he told a book author, Peter Seeeald, that the provision in Canon Law allowing a papal resignation was wise and as The Tablet reported, Pope Benedict said: “If a Pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign,”

Some years ago after I gave a presentation at a conference in Rome hosted by the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, I was invited to L’Aqulia, a town in the central mountains of Italy. There I made another presentation on preventing child abuse in the home and community and received a medal from the Bishop and Mayor.

In the basilica of L’Aquila lies the remains of Pope Celestine V who resigned as Pope in 1294. Pope Benedict XVI visited L’Aquila sometime in 2010 after the devastating earthquake in 2009 that killed 350 people. He prayed over the tomb of Celestine leaving behind a memento of his installation as Bishop of Rome and Pope in 2005 as reported by The Tablet. Perhaps he was thinking of the possibility of resigning then.

His resignation was a surprise but understandable. His daily work load spiritually guiding and managing a church of over 1.2 billion members is enormous. He has a heart condition and a pacemaker. He had a secret operation last year to replace the batteries; it all takes its toll.

The great challenges and disappointment over the revelations of clerical child abuse was surely another factor in his resignation. As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he had to review almost every case of clerical child abuse and it made him sick. He did his best to apologize and speak against it and meet victims. He fiercely scolded the Irish Bishops for their systematic cover up of clerical child abuse. Later, five Bishops resigned. But his action may have been too little too late, some say.

However, during the interview with Peter Seeeald, he was asked if that scandal would cause him to resign, he replied, “no, one does not run away when there is great danger.” Yet despite his efforts at reform, the task had been neglected for too long by fractions in the Vatican and a reluctant predecessor. The moral authority of the Church was weakened and credibility and influence has greatly contracted. Perhaps it became too much to bear. There is an on-going renovation of a disused convent in the Vatican for his retirement.  A great challenge now awaits the next pope. Few will want that burden and this time the Cardinals will be wise to let the Holy Spirit choose. [end] 

Email: shaycullen@preda.org (Fr. Shay’s columns are published in The Manila Times, in publications in Ireland, the UK, Hong Kong, and on-line.)

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