Remembering Pope Benedict’s resignation five years later
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO, Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation
The momentous occasion of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation five years ago on February 11, 2013, stands as an important moment in the life of the Catholic Church and in the life of the world. To his brother Cardinals gathered in consistory that February morning five years ago, he startled them, the Church and the entire world with these moving words:
After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.
Dear Brothers, I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects. And now, let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff. With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.”
Pope Benedict XVI submitted his resignation freely, in accordance with the Church’s Code of Canon Law. It was an unprecedented decision in modern history and offers the church and the world a profound teaching moment. It is perfectly in line with one of the greatest teachers of the faith that the church has ever known. By his bold and courageous decision, Benedict told us that we must be painfully honest with the human condition, that we cannot be enchained by history. A man who had been the champion of tradition and labeled "conservative" left us with one of the most progressive gestures made by any pope. This man known for brilliant writing, exquisite kindness, charity, gentleness, humility and clarity of teaching, offered us the epitome of a courageous and humble decision that will forever mark the papacy and the life of the Church. Benedict’s resignation provides a rare but profound example of humility in action. True leaders put their cause before their power and self-interest. Far from a failure or weakness, his resignation was the most shining moment of Benedict's papacy, and what will turn out to be a historically brilliant move. He has set a new course for the church.
The Great Teacher
Benedict was pigeonholed from the beginning as the “conservative” pope. For eight years on the chair of Peter, Pope Benedict turned to Scripture far more than doctrine, making connections between the early Christians and people of our time struggling to live their faith. He tackled contemporary social and political issues by emphasizing a few main principles: that human rights rest on human dignity, that people come before profits, that the right to life is an ancient measure of humanity and not just a Catholic teaching, and that efforts to exclude God from civil affairs are corroding modern society. For Benedict, Christianity is an encounter with beauty, the possibility of a more authentic, more exciting life. His mantra was about friendship with Jesus and with God.
Benedict set the stage for the age of the New Evangelization by focusing in on three basics. His first three encyclicals examined the three cardinal virtues: Faith, Hope and Love. His first three books focused on the center of the Catholic Faith: Jesus Christ. This great teaching pope lectured every Wednesday on issues like the catechesis, the Fathers of the Church, the Saints, the Doctors of the Church, the Psalms and prayer. In October 2013, he held a synod on the New Evangelization and in his opening speech declared "The Church exists to evangelize!" Pope Benedict brilliantly emphasized the need for intense theological life, constant prayer and quiet contemplation which would naturally give way to good moral living, a commitment to others, and a life of charity and justice.
Early in his Pontificate, Benedict XVI told a group of priests in northern Italy, while he was vacationing, "The pope is not an oracle; he is infallible on the rarest of occasions, as we know." Acknowledging that the Church was moving through some painful moments, he admitted, "I do not think that there is any system for making a rapid change. We must go on, we must go through this tunnel, this underpass, patiently, in the certainty that Christ is the answer...but we should also deepen this certainty and the joy of knowing it and thus truly be ministers of the future of the world, of the future of every person." So many moments of his papacy seem to have been lived out in a dark tunnel where light was very distant.
As I look back over nearly eight years of his Petrine Ministry, I am grateful for the special moments I spent in his presence. I had known Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and later Pope Benedict XVI for many years. I was with him in Rome, Germany, Australia, the United States and Spain on his unforgettable papal pastoral visits. I served as the English language media attaché at two Synods of Bishops where we had the privilege of being with Benedict for days on end in the Synod Hall in Rome. When I was with the Pope in Cologne for his first World Youth Day in August 2005, he exclaimed to the throngs of young Christians and the curious mixed in: "The Church can be criticized, because it contains both grain and weeds, but it is actually consoling to realize that there are weeds in the Church. In this way, despite all our defects, we can still hope to be counted among the disciples of Jesus, who came to call sinners."
If any pope dealt with the weeds among the wheat during his pontificate, it was Benedict XVI. He called sin and evil by their right names, and invited people to become friends with Jesus Christ. He faced head-on scandals and was unafraid to speak about them; he admitted errors made under his watch; he reached out to schismatics and experienced rejection of his efforts for unity; he extended peace branches to the great religions of the world unafraid to name the things that divide us and also the great hopes that unite us. He walked among kings and princes but never lost the common touch. As one who was not expected to travel due to old age, he surprised all of us with a daunting schedule of world travel during his papacy. Aware of the “filth” in the Church in so many areas, it was then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who pushed for new rules to weed out abuser priests in the Pope John Paul II years and who wrote those rules into law as pope. Benedict, too, was the first pope to meet with victims of sex abuse, the first pope to apologize for the crisis in his own name, and the first pope to dedicate an entire document to the abuse crisis in his 2010 letter to the Catholics of Ireland.
It was Benedict who established the new financial watchdog agency, who opened the Vatican for the first time to outside secular inspection through the Moneyval process (the Council of Europe's anti-money-laundering agency), and who began to tackle the problems of the financial mismanagement and lack of transparency at the Vatican.
During these days of retrospection and commemoration of the fifth anniversary of Benedict’s resignation, many feel that in order to highlight the positive aspects of the “Franciscan” era, we must describe in negative terms the pontificate of Pope Benedict. That is not only absurd, but it is also indicates blindness, deafness and ignorance to what this great man accomplished. Comparisons between Francis and his predecessor are inevitable, and it’s no secret that Pope Francis is more appealing to the crowds… the huge masses that continue to throng the Vatican to catch glimpse of the first Pope from the New World. There is a shift in tone under Francis in what could be described as a "moderate" or “pastoral” direction and a real concern for those on the peripheries of society and the Church.
Let us not forget that many of the reforms now underway under Pope Francis’ leadership actually began on Benedict's watch, especially in two chronic sources of scandal for the church: money and sex abuse. I am convinced that if today we are basking in Franciscan light, we must forever be grateful to Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict XVI who has made Francis possible for the Church and the world. We owe Benedict immense gratitude.
Having had the privilege of serving as one of the “spokespersons” for the Vatican during the momentous papal transition last year, I experienced everything up close, and emotions were very high at various moments. One of the most touching moments of that Roman experience took place on February 28, the last day of Benedict’s pontificate. His carefully orchestrated departure from the Apostolic Palace and the Vatican captured the heart and mind of the world. The touching farewell from his co-workers on that crisp, Italian afternoon, the brief helicopter flight to Castel Gandolfo, his final words as Pope, reminding us that he would become “a pilgrim” in this final stage of his life, moved the world. There were no dry eyes in Rome that evening. I was sad to witness this incredible leave-taking. I grieved because I knew deep down inside that this great Church leader, teacher, a real “doctor” of the faith had been very poorly served by some of his closest collaborators during his papacy.
Joseph, our brother
In the Old Testament, we find the moving story of Joseph, who, after generations of family turmoil, disunity and even hate, united his family in forgiveness and love. In emotional scenes that could easily be part of a great opera, Joseph questions his brothers, who do not recognize him, about their beloved father, still grieving over the supposed death of his missing son. When he confronts them and sees that they have undergone a change of heart, he embraces them and utters the immortal words, “I am Joseph, your brother” (Genesis 45:4).
St. John Paul II taught us the profound lesson of suffering and death with dignity. Joseph Ratzinger taught us the meaning of sweet surrender – of not clinging to power and the throne, of prestige, tradition and privilege for their own sakes. Pope Benedict taught us what it means to serve the Lord with gladness, humility and joy. He was for us, Joseph, our brother - the one that many refused to accept in the beginning, but in the end, recognized and embraced as a beloved brother.
During my German language studies in Pope Benedict’s Bavarian homeland, I learned the wonderful expression “Vergelt’s Gott!” It is much more than a mere “Danke” or “thanks” but really means, “May God repay you or reward you!” As I look back over those momentous days five year ago, I say,“Vergelt’s Gott, Heiliger Vater!” The Church and the world will never be the same because of what you have done for us!
Rev. Thomas Rosica, CSB
Chief Executive Officer