In the middle of the 12th century, Pope Eugenius III, overwhelmed by the pressures of his office, sought the counsel of Bernard of Clairvaux, a fellow Cistercian and future doctor of the church. Bernard’s advice to Eugenius took the form of a short treatise, which he called the “Book of Consideration.” The work became a spiritual classic and has been esteemed for centuries by Eugenius’s successors, including Pope Benedict XVI. The current supreme pontiff has called Bernard’s work “required reading for every pope.” Benedict has also said that one passage in particular enjoys a special meaning for him: “Let emperors and others who have not been afraid to be worshipped as divine enjoy that opinion,” Bernard writes to his pope. “As for yourself, consider that you bear the title of ‘supreme’ not absolutely, but relatively.” Pope Benedict takes this passage to mean that a pope should remember that he “is not the successor of Emperor Constantine but rather the successor of a fisherman.”
As pope, Benedict has never forgotten that he is the successor of Peter, the weak, sometimes even foolhardy Galilean fisherman who denied the Lord, repented and then, astonishingly, became the rock upon which Jesus built his church. The Gospels attest to the intrinsic connection between Peter’s human weakness and the charge he receives from the Lord to strengthen the brethren. It is especially poignant, then, that the current successor of Peter should feel compelled to resign his office in the face of his own physical weakness and diminishment. In recent months there was growing speculation about the pope’s ability to carry out his duties; foreign trips have been curtailed on occasion; and even his appearances at Saint Peter’s Basilica have required careful planning and much support. As Pope John Paul II’s health declined, many people wondered whether he would resign. John Paul, as we know, opted to go on. Many people believe that the late pope’s choice made him a powerful witness to the redemptive qualities of suffering.
Pope Benedict, however, sees things in a different way. On Feb. 11 the pope explicitly pointed to his declining health as the reason for his resignation. “I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry,” the pope said. “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 barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary.” Thus Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II answered the same question differently: Should an ailing pope resign? We should avoid the temptation to pronounce judgment on the choice of either man, especially as his choice relates to the other’s. Prayerful discernment is a deeply personal exercise. Two people can reach very different conclusions in outwardly similar circumstances; God speaks in each human heart in an utterly unique way.
Pope Benedict spoke from his heart on Feb. 11. The statement was characteristically humble. The pope is naturally introverted; the shoes of the fisherman have not always fit him comfortably. To be sure, he suffers in comparison to his charismatic predecessor. But there is something more: Five years old when the Nazis came to power in his native Germany, the pope witnessed first hand the destructive power of a cult of personality. One can easily see why, given this experience, the pope can become visibly uncomfortable when the crowds chant his name. We must distinguish, he says, between the man and the office, between contact with the person of the pope and “being physically in touch with this office, with the representative of the Holy One, with the mystery that there is a successor to Peter.” Pope Benedict knows full well the truth of what Bernard wrote to Eugenius: You are Peter, not Jesus.
Pope Benedict may have had Bernard and Eugenius in mind at the time of his surprise announcement. Yet the pope’s decision owes as much to the history of the last five decades as it does to the previous six centuries. Benedict’s final act is rightly seen as one in a series of reforms and adaptations, some daring, some mundane, through which the postconciliar popes have gradually shed the trappings of an earthly court. That is as it should be. The pope is not an absolute monarch in command of a militant church; he is a singular minister of unity at the service of the church universal. Monarchs die in office; servants merely decrease so that their masters may increase. In gratitude for Joseph Ratzinger’s many years of faithful service as priest, bishop and successor of Peter, the church throughout the world now joins her prayer with his: “Lord, now you let your servant go in peace; your word has been fulfilled; my own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people.”