We are well into lent and it appears the leader of the Roman Catholic Church has given up work. Pope Benedict XVI, 265th pontiff of the Catholic Church, announced his retirement on Feb. 11. He will be leaving his role on Feb. 28 and his successor is intended to take over by the end of March, just in time for Easter.
Although many support Benedict, others have responded to his decision with disappointment, suspicion and claims that he has betrayed or failed the church. Amid criticisms of failed leadership, speculations of scandal, and outright mockery, there is no shortage of negative conclusions people are drawing.
The question has been asked how a man, who is seen as infallible one day, becomes fallible the next. Perhaps it will help if we separate the person from the role. The Pope is seen as the supreme leader of the Catholic Church, bringing God’s message to the people. By reason of his office, he has full, universal and unhindered power over the church. The papacy is traced to the unique commission given by Jesus to the apostle Peter and despite some sketchy periods, there has been a direct line of successors ever since.
It is not impossible for a Pope to resign but it is extremely uncommon. The last resignation was Pope Gregory II, 600 years ago and ironically a Benedict was involved then. Benedict XIII was an anti-Pope, a concurrent leader not recognized by the church. He also left his unofficial office at that same time, but not without some controversy.
Beyond the name, we still face the current Pope’s impending departure, and after centuries of Popes being committed to their marriage to the church until death did them part, should this be seen as negative and unholy? Peter himself was martyred for his commitment to Jesus, and it has now become expected that the Pope remain in his role until his strength diminishes to the end. There was speculation over the possibility of Pope John Paul II’s retirement over a decade ago, but his reassurance to stay until his death proved true.
Even John L. Allen Jr., author of the 2005 biography The Rise of Benedict XVI, stated that retirement was not an option. He affirmed that despite the strenuous role of the job, “the papacy is a burden one carries from the moment of election to the moment of death. There is no six-year term to serve, followed by writing one’s memoirs and then afternoons on the golf course.”
Interestingly, however, Allen also raised the point that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger never wanted the role. In fact, Ratzinger (who would become Benedict XVI) had publicly stated at the time of Pope John Paul II’s death that he had hoped to retire shortly to live with his brother and write. He had tried to retire three times in the previous 15 years but his requests had been refused. Soon after his election he told German pilgrims, “I had thought I had done my life’s work and could now hope for a peaceful end of my days. So with deep conviction, I told the Lord: ‘Don’t do this to me! You have younger and better men who can do this work with different verve and strength.’”
Knowing this, it places this burden of supreme leadership in a different light. Is a man who is given the role without option then obligated to an early death from the stress of the position?
All things considered, the next few months at the Vatican will be fascinating to observe. My hope is that the next Pope will find strength in his new role at a tumultuous time in history, and that the man, Joseph Ratzinger, will find the peace and rest he had hoped for decades ago.