tell it as it is
The papal resignation: The valor needed for the world's salvation
Pope Benedict XVI shook the Catholic world when he announced he would resign from his post on February 28, becoming the first pope to resign in almost 600 years. Even the Vatican spokesperson admitted he had been caught off-guard.
The pope's announcement came at the end of a fairly routine ceremony for the canonisation of new saints. At the end of the ceremony, the pope unceremoniously put out his statement in Latin. To put it in a proper context, this is the "Vatican II" (starting in the early 1960s), where mass no longer has to be conducted in Latin. Most priests, bishops, even some cardinals present in the room, did not know Latin. They only got a clue that something big had just happened before their very eyes from the reaction of some in the room who understood Latin. When the pope left, there was silence in the room. Everybody was thunderstruck.
His resignation came on the same day that North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test. The test is worrisome, not only because North Korea is one of the last remaining rogue states, but its latest nuclear test was much more powerful than its previous two, and there are indications that Pyongyang might have "miniaturised" the explosion, which means the real capacity may be more powerful and thus more dangerous for the regime's neighbours.
The pope's announcement came one day before the anticipated State of the Union address by President Obama before the United States Joint Session of Congress. His address, cerebral yet limited by all measure, bore the enormous burden of the partisan schisms in American politics. The US is no exception to the new norm of rifts and ruptures that plague every society in the world these days.
Many people opine that Pope Benedict XVI's abrupt resignation is a game changer for the role and mystery of the papacy. They have called it the Catholic Church's "Obama moment", referring to the first black president. Many compared his departure to the view of his predecessor, John Paul II, who saw the papacy as something that God gave him and that only God would take away in his death. Pope John Paul II turned his own wrenching final days of terminal illness into a symbol of his community with the hurt and suffering of common man, and with his God. Not since 1415 has a pope has resigned, when Gregory XII relinquished his tenure amid a leadership crisis in the Vatican known as the Great Western Schism. The factions were so divided that it took two years before the next pope was chosen.
While the Catholic Church and the world found the papal resignation unexpected, for Pope Benedict XVI himself, it might have been something he had been contemplating for some time.
In 2009, the fourth year of his papacy, Benedict XVI stopped off in Aquila, Italy, and visited the tomb of Pope Celestine V (1215-1296), a recluse and devout priest who was elected against his will. He resigned five months later, but not before issuing a decree allowing popes to resign. Celestine V's body was exiled from Rome as he was seen as a disgrace to the Church for his resignation. Medieval Italian poet Dante (1265-1321), in his book "Divine Comedy", consigned Celestine V to hell because he was seen as renouncing the call from God.
After a prayer, Pope Benedict XVI laid upon the tomb of Pope Celestine V, the pallium, a woven band, the symbol of the episcopal authority invested in him as pope in 2005. It was a deeply symbolic gesture signalling Pope Benedict's perception and appreciation of this little understood pope, both from inside and outside the Church.
The following year, the pope again went out of his way to visit and pray at the Cathedral of Sulmona, near Rome, where relics of Pope Celestine V are kept.
Pope Benedict XVI's papacy has often been compared with that of his predecessor John Paul II. It was said that if John Paul II were a rock star, his successor would be an academic scholar. However, there is no denying that in his relatively short and bland tenure, Benedict XVI has shown great strength of character and spirit. His job, he realised, would be to uphold the core principles and beliefs of the Church; at the same time it must change with different secular narratives to make itself relevant. There are people who will criticise him for not having done enough on the issues of child sexual abuse, priesthood for women, contraception and homosexuality. There will be those who fault him for having gone too far, as in his 2006 Rosenburg lecture when he referenced a historical quote that offended Muslims around the world. His decision to lift the excommunication of a bishop known as a Holocaust denier damaged the Church's relations with Jews, despite the fact that during his first foreign trip as pope, to his native Germany, he visited a synagogue and addressed the painful history of the Nazi period.
In the days, weeks and years ahead, historians will do what they do best - evaluate and judge Benedict XVI's legacies. Not one of their verdicts may be relevant to this son of a police officer and a hotel cook who was drafted into an anti-aircraft battalion in Hitler's army, but who deserted at 18 and was captured by American soldiers and held for several months as a prisoner of war. He has served the Church with his conscience intact, and does so as he leaves. His resignation underlines an immense spiritual courage and strength. No one can doubt the sincerity of his intention to do good by his institution, the Catholic Church, and of millons of Catholics, over the earthly lure of power and status.
As the old Jesuit saying goes: there is a messiah and there is a man. Pope Benedict XVI willingly and voluntarily teaches us that he is simply a man, a servant of God. He was chosen and elevated to the highest position, but he is telling us that it must only be for a period of time. The platform of his papacy may be heard in one of his statements before his election as pope, and it is something we all should ponder and heed:
"We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism, which does not recognise anything for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires."