If Pope John Paul II’s choice to remain in the papacy despite his infirmity was a witness to human dignity in spite of weakness, Pope Benedict’s decision to stand down on 28 February, after much prayer and conscience-searching, gives many powerful messages about humility. The decision about whether to stay on or stand down never used to arise; but modern medicine means that choice must now be faced. It is for each pope to decide.
Although the decision came as a bolt from the blue, it was not a total surprise. Benedict XVI said, in a November 2010 interview, that popes who are no longer able physically, psychologically and spiritually to cope with the demands of office should have the right — “and in some circumstances, even the obligation” — to resign. In this he was stating canon law, which provides for a papal resignation; and the norms promulgated in 1996 by John Paul II for the election of a Roman Pontiff also envisage the possibility of a vacancy in the office of the Bishop of Rome being triggered not just by the death of a Pope but also by his “valid resignation.”
But Pope Benedict’s use of the word ‘obligation’ now looks as if he saw leaving office as a duty once he was no longer able to cope with its burdens. At the age of 85, having been warned by his doctors not to do more transatlantic travel, and after seven years in office, he had reached the conclusion that now was the right time — while he was still mentally fit enough, as church law demands, to understand the gravity of the act.
Was he influenced by his experience of the Vatican during the long illness of Pope John Paul II, which some took advantage of to block necessary reforms? Was his decision shaped by the changing demands of a global Church in a fast-moving media environment? We can only speculate. But what we do know is that prior to John Paul II’s death he had wanted to retire to spend more time in prayer and study. He saw his election not as the fulfilment of an ambition but as a further service God had called him to.
His departure, when he stands down on 28 February, gives the same, humble message. He will retreat to a monastic house, into silence and contemplation, and cease to be a public figure. His resignation will be treated as the canonical equivalent of a papal death, triggering all the sede vacante procedures which are essential to the College of Cardinals’ discernment of a new pope. That process will not be under his shadow; nor will he try to influence it.
If Pope John Paul II’s fragility challenged a culture in which youth and fitness are worshipped, Pope Benedict’s resignation challenges a culture in which, all too often, people and the offices they occupy are confused.
After he steps down on 28 February, the governance of the Church will be entrusted to the College of Cardinals, under its Dean, Cardinal Sodano. The College cannot make any decisions which belong to the papal office. But it is the Dean’s responsibility to call the world’s cardinals — the list is here — to Rome to elect the next pope. The Conclave must begin no sooner than 15 days, and no later than 20 days, from the moment that the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI takes effect. That means the Conclave to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI should begin sometime after 8pm on 15 March and before 8pm on Wednesday 20 March. Before it begins, the cardinals will meet for a period of 10-14 days to discuss the needs of the Church and the signs of the times.
Whomever they go on to elect, one thing is sure: Pope Benedict’s decision will come to be seen as the courageous act of a humble man, whose service of the Church –expressed, above all, in a powerful intellect rooted in holiness — was outstanding.