The Editors

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.”

Comments

Thomas Poovathinkal | 2/25/2013 - 10:56am

"Many people believe that the late pope’s (J.P.II's) choice made him a powerful witness to the redemptive qualities of suffering."

And not a witness to and an example in following the CRUCIFIED LORD, until the very last breath?

MICHAEL LYDON | 2/24/2013 - 10:43pm

I appreciate your statement that two different people - even popes - suffering from the same infirmities of age and diminishment can resposibly make two radically different decisions. I applaud the holy example of Pope Benedict who displayed humilty in admitting his weakness, courage in doing something very bold, generosity by giving up the Petrine ministry to another, more suitable, bishop and a great deal of trust-faith-hope in the Holy Spirit to provide a new Bishop of Rome for the Catholic Church. Kudoes to Pope Benedict XVI!

CAROL STANTON | 2/24/2013 - 11:46am

I applaud what appears to be a courageous decision on the part of Benedict XVI, for himself and for future occupants of the Chair of Peter. At the same time, I dread what may be a fuller story yet to be revealed. What the Vatican staff has yet to grasp is that they no longer have control of information. This may be the last "Secret" Conclave !

Anne Chapman | 2/22/2013 - 10:25pm

Sometimes I wonder if the pope ever thinks about the words he says, because he seems not to actually live them much of the time. For example, " 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.

And yet the popes, including Benedict, have long acted like Constantine rather than like the fisherman - running an imperial church with absolute and unquestioning obedience to the emperor (pope) expected. He no longer has a secular kingdom beyond the Vatican as previous popes did, but the fact is that the pope lives like a monarch and even dresses like one - not a bit like a peasant fisherman.

As far as being a "singular minister of unity goes" - one wonders how anyone can look at how divided the church is today and possibly believe that this pope has done anything but drive divisions among the people of God. This pope and his predecessor have presided over a 34+ year period when divisions that first started becoming obvious after John Paul II assumed the papacy accelerated with Benedict's papacy. To say that Benedict is a "singular minster of unity" is to avoid looking at the reality of the deeply divided church of today. Perhaps his successor will begin to repair the divisions, but at this point it might take a true miracle to heal the church of the damage done during the last almost 35 years. But, if the new pope continues on the path of Benedict and his predecessor, those divisions will continue to tear apart the church until only the "smaller but purer" will remain ("purer" in Benedict's understanding if not that of others).

This church needs a fisherman - not another Constantine. It's very existence may depend on it.

Tim O'Leary | 2/25/2013 - 7:43pm

Anne - it is hard to imagine what you mean about Pope Benedict XVI being like a Constantine. Dissent in the Church is actually a sign of the opposite of imperialism. The last several popes have remained strong when teaching the true faith, but have been meek as lambs when it comes to managing the organization of the Church.
To permit Catholic colleges to hire anti-Catholic teachers and get away with calling themselves Catholic, or have pro-abortion "Catholics" politicians still receive communion, or permit weak bishops to mismanage everything in their diocese from child abusers to heretical teachers. Even the LCWR heresies last year were handled with ever so soft gloves.These are all signs of a meek leader, certainly not a Constantine.

I do not know if this soft approach to scandals in the faith is wise, but that has certainly been how it has been handled. Maybe, we will get a Constantine next. I am not sure that would be wise, but that is what we might get, especially if we get an African as pope.

LEONARD VILLA | 2/22/2013 - 1:27pm

The Pope is more than a "minister of unity" according to the Faith. That has tones to my mind of a lessening of the office approaching a primus inter pares notion which sees the Church wrongly as a democracy in a false notion of collegiality, a chairman of the board mentality. The Pope is a unique bishop with the sacramental munera of teaching, governing,and sanctifying his diocese. His governance is unique because he is Bishop of Rome and Bishop of the Catholic Church. Pope Paul VI signed the conciliar documents, "...I Paul Bishop of the Catholic Church."

Matthew Malone | 2/22/2013 - 5:40pm

Thank you for your comment Mr. Villa. You will note that we referred to the pope as "a singular minister of unity".

singular |ˈsiNGgyələr|adjectiveexceptionally good or great; remarkable: the singular beauty of the desert.• strange or eccentric in some respect: no explanation accompanied this rather singular statement.• Mathematics (of a square matrix) having a zero determinant.• Mathematics denoting a point that is a singularity.Grammar (of a word or form) denoting or referring to just one person or thing.single; unique: she always thought of herself as singular, as his only daughter.

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