Pope Benedict XVI’s Resignation: An Act of Holiness, Humility, and Courage

When I awoke to the news of Pope Benedict resigning the other day, I had to check my calendar to make sure it wasn’t April 1. Too bad on two counts: it was not April Fool’s Day, and it was not Spring in Kansas. To say the least, I am very sad that our Holy Father is stepping down–not the least reason being that he still has two important documents (on Faith and the New Evangelization) that are–or were–due out. Much ink has already been spilt in the media covering this event. What I’d like to do is summarize a few key points and link to some of my favorite pieces which attest to the truth of this post’s headline.

2009: Benedict left his pallium at the tomb of Pope St. Celestine V. As Scott Hahn puts it in this piece, Celestine did not resign because he was a saint. Like Benedict, he resigned in order to become a saint–to complete his earthly pilgrimage in a life dedicated totally to prayer for the Church.

2010: In his book Light of the World, Benedict argued that there are times a pope could, and should, resign. That year, according to Benedict, was not the right time. A pope should not resign in times of particular turmoil or when people are calling for one’s resignation–as was the situation at the height of the clergy abuse crisis that year and in the case of John Paul II in his declining years. Benedict was already tired in 2010, already using a pacemaker, but like JPII he kept fighting the good fight.

2013: In his papal resignation speech, Benedict explained that his strength had deteriorated over the last several months to the point where he was incapable of exercising the Petrine governing office. In making this decision, Benedict broke a centuries-old precedent, and went out in a markedly different manner from his predecessor, Blessed John Paul II. Why? As we saw throughout his pontificate, Benedict was his own man. He was JPII’s right-hand man, but he wasn’t JPII. Whereas JPII’s aim was to demonstrate the sanctity of life and dignity of redemptive suffering while remaining in the Chair of Peter to the end, Benedict wanted to achieve something different but complementary. His action exuded the humility and courage that are only possible in a person of great holiness. He did what he had discerned God was calling him to do, knowing he would be misunderstood and that people will feel he failed to live up to the heroic expectations they took for granted in the life of JPII.

2/11/2013: Why did Benedict choose this day to give his 2-week notice? Popes always do things for a reason. Here something at first very subtle appears more clearly when you consider the day in light of the Catholic liturgical calendar and in view of Benedict’s comments in 2002 before becoming pope. First, this is World Day of the Sick, and Benedict is sick. It makes sense he would unite with his sufferings with those of the whole world by vacating the Chair of Peter on that day. Second, and more importantly, this is the memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes, the famous shrine in France where countless healings have occurred. In his book God and the World, Benedict discussed how he felt a special closeness with St. Bernadette of Lourdes, “a simple girl…surrounded in a century of rationalism.” Nearing her own death, Bernadette had said, “My story is quite simple. The Virgin made use of me. Then I was put in the corner. That’s my proper place; I’m happy there; that’s where I’ll stay.” Sound familiar?

Finally, here are a few local media outlets for whom I was blessed to share my reaction to the pope’s resignation: