Yesterday the world received the bombshell announcement that Pope Benedict XVI would be voluntarily stepping down as Pope effective on February 28th at 8:00PM. It takes a German Pope to pinpoint the time to the minute! The details were sparse and we were all left to guess at the reasons and the timing. I have to admit that when I first heard the news I was dumbfounded and I even cried because I love the Pope very much as my spiritual father. The word Pope actually means “Papa”. But as I had time to reflect on this historic announcement, I began to see the clear hand of God at work. Pope Benedict XVI is such a humble and unassuming man who has made all his choices for the benefit of the Church over the past several decades that I knew he was taking this radical step for the good of the Church.
Reportedly Pope Benedict reflected on this decision for many months and believed deeply in his heart and conscience that he no longer had the endurance or phyical strength to carry out the onerous duties of a modern papacy. His judgment is impeccable so I trust that this decision was made with the utmost prayer and reflection. It is said that he is at great peace with his decision. That is good enough for me.
The Book of Ecclesiastes states that, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven; a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted.” (Ecclesiastes 3: 1-2) The same holds true for the Church and the Papacy. Blessed Pope John Paul II considered abdicating the Chair of Peter several years before his death, but obviously felt the God willed that he remain Pope in the midst of great infirmities to be a witness to perseverance in suffering. On the other hand, Pope Benedict discerned a different course and believed that he would help the Church by allowing a younger and more energetic man to replace him.
Maria and I always refer to John Paul II and Benedict XVI as the ‘Twin Towers’ because they have made such lasting and extraordinary contributions to the Church over the past three decades. They are very different men. Whereas John Paul II was always a man of great personal magnetism and charisma, Benedict is much more shy and unassuming. They both utilized their formidible intellects to further the understanding of the Faith, but John Paul approached the big questions from a more philosophical perspective, while Benedict thought more in terms of theology. John Paul was a born leader and visionary who would have been a leader even if he had chosen another path. Benedict was a man of reluctant greatness whose requests for retirement during John Paul’s Papacy were denied several times because, as John Paul II put it, “the Church needs you too much”.
When he was the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Pope Benedict was known by such monikers as ‘God’s Rottweiler’ and the ‘Panzer Cardinal’ because of his uncompromising defense of orthodoxy and truth. Upon his elevation to the See of Peter, many were surprised to witness the humility, refinement , and cultured tastes of this new Pope. He loved to play classical music and appreciate the arts. The Pope is really a sort of ‘Renaissance Man’. He even had a flair for fashion and traded-in the brown loafers worn by John Paul for the elegant red slippers.
I was privileged to see John Paul II at two different World Youth Days in 1993 in Denver and 2002 in Toronto. I only saw Pope Benedict up close once on his Apostolic Journey to the United States in April 2008. Maria, my in-laws, and I took the train into Manhattan on April 19th, the third anniversary of Pope Benedict’s election, and waited along the barriers on 5th Avenue to await his arrival. As the Popemobile rode by us about 10 yards away, I was convinced that the Pope looked right at us and gave us his blessing!
Now less than 5 years later Pope Benedict has a mere 16 days left as the Vicar of Christ. We must honor his prayerful choice and accept it. This move was very selfless and he will now not have the potential opportunity to canonize one or both of two contemporaries and friends: Blessed Mother Teresa and Blessed John Paul II. He will leave that to a successor. On February 28th, his last day as Pope, he will travel to Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence, to reside for the next few months. His permanent residence will be in a cloister behind the Vatican Gardens where he will live out his days in quiet solitude and leave the interpretation of his legacy to others. We love you, Pope Benedict XVI, and thank you for your love and service to the Church!
Yesterday we also celebrated the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes and World Day of the Sick.
Today is Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday. It is traditionally a day to relax and enjoy before we enter the penitential season of Lent. I wish you a great Lent.
Lastly, today we remember the birthday of another hero, President Abraham Lincoln.