And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.
When this story broke, I started receiving texts from all my friends, many of them far from church-minded, asking what this meant. I suppose in a world where the Church is so often perceived to be shackled by the traditions and precedents of the past, it would be surprising to hear of a Pope breaking with tradition -- a 600 year old one at that.
In fact, one friend asked in jest (I'll save you from the colourful part that preceded this statement), " ...the Pope! You can resign that?!" Humour and incredulity aside, the answer as we all know by now is yes, it's possible.
Indeed, it is strikingly rare that we experience something unprecedented in our 2000 year history as a Church and this should be reassuring. Consider the nature of change in the Church. There are some who claim that the Church can't change, or rather that it won't change. But as we have seen in Pope Benedict's announcement, it does change, when it's required. It moves, much like the great tectonic plates of the earth move -slowly, but with global impact. And really, one just has to do some church hopping and experience the liturgical diversity in the Catholic Church to realize that Councils like Vatican II are examples of this tectonic movement. They're not breaks but seismic shifts.
So really the more interesting question is why the changes? Again, if I take a look at history, the most influential changes in the Church resulted not from outside pressure but rather from an internal desire of the faithful for reform. Seriously, think about it, the most radical changes always come from those who are most ardently faithful to the Church. The question we hear the saints constantly asking themselves is: "how can I be more faithful?" The answers they receive to such questions are what so often in history move them to so courageously strive for change, for reform.
So when the Pope decides to break with a 600 year old tradition it's because he's discerned that today the most faithful course of action is to "recognize that 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" (Pope Benedict XVI resignation address). It's a great lesson to us all. It's a sign of humility. But it also reveals to us his tremendous faith. It's this profound faith and that of the saintly men and women who have preceded us that constantly encourages us to chill out and realize God is in control. Regardless of the challenges and the endless speculation that may surround such historic events -- we should always be mindful of Christ's great promise that 'the gates of Hell shall not prevail'.
CNS photo/Paul Haring