Lawrence P. Grayson
The Church is at an historic moment, one that has not occurred since the Middle Ages. Pope Benedict XVI has resigned the Chair of St. Peter, effective February 28, at 8:00 pm Rome time. He is the first pope to step down since Pope Gregory XII voluntarily resigned in 1415 to end a schism when two men claimed the title.
Is it coincidental or significant that Pope Benedict chose to end his papacy on the Feast of Pope St. Hilary, whose pontificate had several parallels to his own? Both popes followed giants in the papacy. Hilary succeeded Pope Leo the Great, whose 21-year reign was marked in 452 by his persuading Attlia the Hun to turn back from invading Italy. Benedict followed Pope John Paul II, increasingly being referred to as “the Great,” whose 27-year reign was marked by helping to defeat Communism and cause the collapse of the Soviet Union. Hilary and Benedict both served for seven years, during which time they continued the initiatives of their predecessors, as well as working for church unity and episcopal discipline. In the 5th century, Pope Hilary strove to strengthen and consolidate the church in Spain, France and Africa. In the 21st century, Pope Benedict began a movement for new evangelization, not only to revitalize the faith of existing Catholics and instill in them a greater zeal, but to reach out to new people, in new places, in new ways.
The papacies and lives of Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) and Pope John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla) were closely linked. In their early youth, both were involved in World War II, but on different sides in the conflict. During the war, when Poland was occupied by the Germans, Wojtyla worked in a stone quarry and chemical factory, while he studied for the priesthood in a clandestine seminary in Krakow. At that same time, Ratzinger had his studies at Traunstein seminary interrupted when he was drafted to serve in an anti-aircraft unit in Munich; as the war wound down, he deserted the German Army. At the Second Vatican Council, Fr. Ratzinger served as a theological consultant to the archbishop-cardinal of Cologne; Bishop Wojtyla contributed to the drafting of the Apostolic Constitution Gaudium et Spes.
A few years after Cardinal Wojtyla was elected pope, he chose Cardinal Ratzinger to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a post he held for 24 years. The two men then worked in close collaboration for the rest of the pope’s reign. When Pope John Paul II died in 2005, the cardinal wished to leave the Roman hierarchy and return to his teaching and writing. But this did not occur. On the third ballot of the conclave to elect a new pope, Ratzinger was chosen by the voting cardinals. At 78 years of age, he was one of the oldest men ever elected to that position.
The last almost eight years have been difficult for Pope Benedict. He has had to deal with the escalating worldwide problem of sexual abuse by priests and the secretive handling of these matters by their bishops. He has worked to bring many in the Anglican Church back into union with Rome, even establishing a structure of personal ordinariates headed by former Anglican priests and allowed to maintain certain of their ecclesiastical traditions. He lifted the excommunications on the bishops of the Society of Saint Pius X as part of the effort to bring the Society into full union with Rome, restored the traditional Latin Mass as one of two forms of the Roman Rite, and revised the English translation of the Novus Ordo Mass. He worked to improve the administration of Vatican finances, and foster closer Catholic-Jewish relations. In addition, he continued his role as teacher of the faith in issuing three encyclicals, giving over a thousand homilies and addresses, and publishing numerous books. There are many significant titles among his publications, including the three-volume set, Jesus of Nazareth, on the life of Our Lord, the last volume of which was published only a few months ago, in November 2012.
The deterioration of the Pope’s health has been very noticeable to Vatican watchers. In the past few months, he no longer walked down the long aisle of St. Peter’s Basilica to offer Mass, but rode in a cart. He needed help up and down the steps of the altar, recently has been using a cane, grasps a glass of water with two hands, and has ben advised by his doctor not to take any trans-Atlantic plane trips. Clearly, his health is no longer up to the demands of the papacy.
His resignation is a very humble and generous act, offered for the good of the Church. His desire when he steps down is first to go to Castel Gondolfo, the summer residence of the Popes, and then retire to a cloistered monastery on the grounds of the Vatican to spend the remaining days of his life in prayer and reflection.
Pope Benedict’s influence will still be felt. The conclave to pick his successor is planned to convene in mid-March, with the expectation that a new pope will be chosen before Easter. There currently are 117 cardinals under the age of 80 who are eligible to vote. Pope Benedict has elevated 67 of them to cardinal, while Pope John Paul II elevated the remainder.
May the Holy Spirit enlighten each and every one of the voting cardinals to select the best person to serve as the 265th successor of St. Peter.
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Published March 2013