When the alarm radio broke the surprise news of the Pope’s abdication a week ago, my involuntary tears were as unexpected as the announcement.
All I could think of was the physical and moral suffering that must have brought gentle Joseph Ratzinger to the decision, and my heart ached for him.
For myself too, if truth be told, because Benedict XVI’s intellectual fearlessness, absolutely lucid writing, and constant focus on the joy of relationship with Jesus has been an important accompaniment for me personally these past eight years. When the late Italian reporter Oriana Fallaci said she felt less alone when she read the works of Ratzinger, I know exactly what she meant. I will miss him.
At a week’s remove, I see the matter differently. As a priest friend of mine put it after listening to the Pope announce his decision at a consistory of cardinals, “I listened to him announce it: very sure of himself, serene, simple, matter of fact and above all humble. Saying to myself: 'This is so Benedict!'"
It is so Benedict. Upon reflection I doubt the Pope is anguished over his decision, though certainly he’s prayed about it and searched his conscience repeatedly. For eight years he’s been modeling for us what it is to accept life trustingly as it comes to us from the hand of a loving God: shouldering duties bravely, enduring crosses without complaint and enjoying life’s many beauties and blessings.
Indeed, the end of this papacy is coming as it began: a surprising decision accepted by a humble man. If you go back and watch his first words to us as Pope, you see a quiet man who really didn’t want to be pope accepting the office serenely and telling us he was nothing special – just a “humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord” who would do his best.
Which he has: and now with exactly the same serenity with which he accepted them, he’s handing back the keys of Peter, having done all his strength can do. It’s not really surprising that Papa Ratzinger would assess his infirmities matter-of- factly and act in the best interests of the Church he has spent his life serving.
There’s something more, though: he plans to retire to a monastery within the Vatican. For eight years Pope Benedict XVI has been insisting on the primacy of prayer. Christianity isn’t a set of rules, it’s a relationship with God, he told us repeatedly: if you don’t have a relationship with God, you miss out on the joy of life. When we say Christ is our Head, we don’t mean he’s like a CEO to be obeyed. We mean he’s like the center of the nervous system: cut off from him, we’re powerless.
Joseph Ratzinger truly believes this, and rather than abdicating responsibility for the Church, he is dedicating the final years of his life to the best thing he or anyone can do: pray and sacrifice for her. As he said in his parting words to the priests of Rome last week, he will be “always united” to them in prayer.