February 15, 2013


Courage marks Holy Father’s decision to resign from papacy

A year and a half ago, when Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein resigned as archbishop of Indianapolis for reasons of health, he made it quite clear that he was not quitting. He has given up his sacramental, pastoral and administrative responsibilities, but he continues, as archbishop emeritus, to pray and to teach.

Now, we learn that Pope Benedict XVI has decided to become the first Roman pontiff in 600 years to resign his position as bishop of Rome.

After much prayer and discernment, the Holy Father concluded that his age and declining health prevent him from carrying out the Petrine ministry as effectively as is needed—especially today.

In making this announcement, the pope also said, in effect, “I’m not quitting.” He plans to retire to a monastery—as Archbishop Buechlein has done—and to dedicate himself to prayer. We can hope that, in his life in a Vatica monastery, he will also continue writing and teaching as he has done so successfully for more than 60 years.

Much will be written in the days, weeks and years ahead about the “legacy” of Pope Benedict both before and after he was elected pope nearly eight years ago in April 2005.

Surely his scholarship and his ability to teach with clarity and conviction are at the top of this list. His ability to defend the faith unhesitatingly while maintaining a loving and compassionate regard for all must also be noted. Then, of course, there is his reverence for the sacred liturgy and his unwillingness to accept change simply for change’s sake. His commitment to protecting the environment, which earned him the nickname “the green pope,” will surely be remembered. And much, much more.

But for now, the Church and the world are rightly amazed by Pope Benedict’s decision to resign. What does this unusual step signify—especially if it’s true, as we have asserted, that he is not quitting but simply entering a new and final stage of his ministry as a priest and bishop?

Church history will be the ultimate judge of what this action means, but I think there are some things that we can—and should—say about this extraordinary action by a man who has always said “yes” when called by God to serve his Church.

First of all, this decision is courageous. For a man who loves and respects Church tradition the way Pope Benedict does, to break with 600 years of papal custom cannot have been easy. Much prayer and discernment—and a willingness to face the possibility of harsh criticism—obviously went into this decision. The pope clearly believes that this action is in accordance with God’s will or he wouldn’t do it. We applaud his courage, and pray that he can faithfully carry it out for his own sake and for the good of the Church.

Secondly, this action is consistent with Pope Benedict’s frequently stated conviction that “in our generation, the Christian faith finds itself in a much deeper crisis than at any other time in the past.” The Holy Father believes that the demands of the new evangelization and the witness to our Christian faith require a degree of leadership and energy that he can no longer provide effectively.

Rather than slow down and reduce his effectiveness as a result of his advanced age and declining health, the pope believes he should step aside and let someone else lead the Church in these challenging times. We don’t have to agree with the pope’s assessment of his abilities, or effectiveness, to respect the humility and sensitivity of this decision.

Finally, the decision to retire to a monastery and devote his life to prayer is itself a powerful statement. By this action, the pope reminds us that nothing is more important than prayer.

In just a few weeks, Pope Benedict will freely surrender the most important position in the Church and what is perhaps the world’s most visible and highly respected religious and moral pulpit. In taking this action, the Holy Father reminds us that, in the end, every one of us is called to surrender to God everything we have and everything we are. As good stewards, we will all be asked to render an account of how we have developed and used the gifts we have received from God.

This Lent, we are especially invited to spend a few moments in prayer thanking God for the current pope and his many gifts to our Church. We should also ask the Holy Spirit to bless us with a new pope who can lead us in the challenging years ahead!

—Daniel Conway

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