Lent began yesterday with Ash Wednesday, when Catholics are reminded of human frailty and the need to focus their energies towards the spiritual instead of the material. Lent is marked by intense prayer and fasting. Yet, this year will be different from any other Lent in recent history.
Pope Benedict XVI has abdicated and will leave the Vatican without a Pope as of 10 p.m. on Feb. 28. The news of his resignation shocked the world. It left people wondering about the role of the papacy and the role of faith in the world today.
You may wonder why the world still needs priests and popes. Catholics believe that Jesus Christ wants priests so that the people of God can encounter Him. Since the priest forgives sins and consecrates the bread and wine — making Jesus truly and physically present —he is acting in the person of Christ. St. John did this, and St. Paul and St. James, and the other apostles as well.
The Bible says that Jesus told St. Peter, a common fisherman, that he would be the rock upon which the living Church would be built. So, what happened when he died? Another leader had to be selected as his successor. That is who Pope Bendict XVI is for Catholics today, the head of the Church, sitting in Peter’s seat as the Bishop of Rome, where Peter died and was buried.
Joseph Ratzinger was one such priest, who by God’s will became a Cardinal and then a Pope.
He chose the name Benedict in memory of the last Pope Benedict (the 15th), who worked for peace during the First World War. The goal of Benedict’s papacy was to work for peace between peoples by bringing Christ to them.
Many in the media will say that Benedict was too conservative and too different from— if not worse than — his predecessor, John Paul II. However, they neglect to notice that Benedict, when he was still known as Cardinal Ratzinger, was that pope’s right-hand man for 20 years.
When looking at Benedict’s decision, many will also look for a scandal, or glibly say that the legacy of his papacy is the mishandling of sexual abuse cases. They neglect to recognize that Benedict did virtually everything he could have done to prevent sexual abuse, as Pope. Sexual abuse is an atrocity, and much has been done to prevent it and to prosecute those who have committed it, but naturally much still needs to be done.
In the cases the media will point to, Benedict wasn’t to blame. Rather, the bishops of the dioceses where the abuses were being committed failed to act. For example, in the case of Father Lawrence Murphy, whose bishop was also guilty of both sexual misconduct and of using church funds to pay off blackmailing lover, Benedict made no decision. The disgraceful bishop gravely mishandled the case.
Father Murphy’s penal process or canonical trial were in fact given up, but only days before his death, and only in order to more quickly remove him from any ministry whatsoever. Benedict didn’t cover anything up. The bishop did.
Many will also say that Benedict is being selfish by resigning. He isn’t. He has committed his life after retirement to prayer for the Church. Imagine, for a moment, what it takes for a man to give up the power of the papacy — leadership over one billion Catholics. It takes courage to give up one’s beloved child to someone else, trusting that they will take care of her as well as you have.
His resignation saddens me, but it isn’t a tragedy. He understands his own frailty, and wants Catholics to have a Pope who is more mobile, who can reach God’s people as Jesus did, with His hands and feet. With World Youth Day in Brazil coming this summer, it seems that Benedict believes that someone else would be better equipped to greet the Church in the world’s largest Catholic country.
In resigning, Benedict has also set a new standard. No Pope has resigned in over 600 years, but now it has become a viable option. Although this will weaken the papacy, and will undoubtedly lead to some trouble for future Popes, it will also protect the Church against less than admirable Popes.
Catholics will be given another shepherd, who will be different from Benedict — just as Benedict was different than John Paul II — but who will display the same continuity in teaching and in love that Benedict displayed when he was elected and throughout his service as Bishop of Rome.
The pope recognizes that the Church, in today’s world, must be guided by someone who is best able to serve her. He believes that, given his age and his frailty, there is another that shepherd for our generation.
Celebrating Ash Wednesday yesterday at the Vatican, the Pope marked the sign of the cross on the foreheads of those in attendance. In traditional words, at the distribution of the ashes the priest says, “Remember, thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” Catholics around the world heard that yesterday, but perhaps no one understands it better than the pope. His humility is astounding. Benedict has been a great shepherd of the faithful Catholics around the world, and a model for anyone wishing to live life to the full. His decision to resign should make us deeply respectful of him, and confident in the goodness of what is still to come.
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