This guest blog comes from Tom Washburn, OFM, a Franciscan who blogs at A Friar's Life:
The pope has resigned or retired. That statement really takes a while to settle in. Writing in the New York Times, Fr. Jim Martin noted that "Rare is the person who will voluntarily relinquish immense power." In the last few weeks, we have become experts in church history, learning about Gregory VII, Celestine V and other popes who have resigned. Yet perhaps we should also be looking at the humble Saint of Assisi and founder of the Franciscan Order. After all, it isn’t only popes who resign. St. Francis resigned too! When St. Francis resigned as leader of the Franciscan Order, he offered a lesson in holiness, humility and power. I think these are things that Pope Benedict is teaching us as well and will, in the end, be his most lasting legacy.
We know we live in a world that highly values power and authority and seeks these things among supreme goals in life. “Climbing the ladder” is one of the things that you do to be successful and it is no different in the church. Just as in most spheres of life, so too in the church, people often seek positions that bring prestige and authority. Consider, then, the radical example of St. Francis. He stepped down from the top job of the order he founded.
Let me sketch a brief version of the life of St. Francis. He was a member of the emerging middle class in early 13th Century Assisi. His father was a wealthy cloth merchant with dreams that his son would attain glory on the battlefield and perhaps enter the ranks of the nobility, thus elevating his family to a higher level. But then occurred a series of encounters with God that changed everything. The Voice spoke to Francis, "Who is it better to serve, the master or the servant?" Finally, Christ from the cross in the Chapel of San Damiano on Assisi's outskirts spoke, saying, "Francis, rebuild my church."
The young troubadour would leave behind his quest for earthly glory and embark on a quest for God. Others began to follow. In 1209, the then 12 "lesser brothers" sought and received the approval of Pope Innocent III to begin more formally this new way of Gospel living. By 1220 there were more than 5,000 friars living the Franciscan way of life with St. Francis as the General Minister or head of this new and expanding Order. And precisely at this great moment of success for this new venture, the Holy Man of Assisi, did something radical in the eyes of the world— he resigned as head of the Order and let someone else lead. In perhaps the ultimate embrace of the poverty he so highly valued, he did not allow himself to own or possess even this movement that he himself had created, but in humility let it be handed off into the loving hands of other brothers. Even the Order was not his. He was merely, for a time, its steward.
I think Pope Benedict has a Franciscan heart and understands this reality well. When meeting with the priests of Rome recently, the Pope said, "I am strengthened and reassured by the certainty that the Church is Christ's." The Holy Father knows that the church never belonged to Benedict. Like St. Francis, Benedict was merely its steward for a time. St. Francis realized something similar. He understood that he never intended to create such a thing as a Religious Order, but simply wanted to live the life of the Gospel and if others wanted to join him in doing that, what a wonderful thing.
Each of the last two popes now have taught us something so powerful in the way the ended their papacy. Blessed Pope John Paul gave us an incredible witness to the dignity of human life, suffering so publicly in his final days, reminding us that even a life of pain and illness is one that is full of dignity and grace in the eyes of God. And now Benedict shows us that even when the world heaps upon us the greatest of honors and power, we can still assume them in poverty and in humility and put them aside when our work is done.
St. Francis wrote in his Admonitions, "'I did not come to be ministered to, but to minister,' says the Lord. Let those who are set above others glory in this superiority only as much as if they had been asked to wash the feet of the brothers; and if they are more upset by the loss of their superiority than they would be by losing the office of washing feet, so much the more do they lay up treasures to the peril of their own soul."
It makes you wonder, perhaps Pope Benedict reflected on the example of Il Poverello as he discerned his humble and holy decision.
St. Francis of Assisi, pray for the church, pray for Pope Benedict and pray for our next Holy Father.