One year later, Cardinal James Stafford reflects on the meeting where Benedict XVI announced that he was stepping down as Bishop of Rome, noting that it was an “unexpected” moment of “shock” for all.
“Total surprise, total shock,” was the experience of all those present when they heard the Pope’s words that day, Cardinal Stafford explained in a Feb. 7 interview with CNA.
On the occasion of the one-year anniversary of the Feb. 11, 2013 announcement of Benedict XVI’s resignation, Cardinal Stafford, President Emeritus of the Pontifical Council of the Laity and Archbishop Emeritus of Denver, CO, spoke of his experience at being in the room when the pontiff revealed his decision.
Calling to mind the meeting where the announcement was made, the cardinal revealed that “it took place at a consistory of the cardinals,” which was “basically” a gathering of “the cardinals of Rome.”
The consistory meetings, he explained, were held regularly in order to discuss “the presentation of those who were being beatified and canonized within the Catholic Church.”
“So we were gathered in the room of the ‘consistorio,’ where we usually gathered with the Holy Father,” the cardinal observed, noting that they “were gathered around him in prayer” for the daily recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours.
The Liturgy of the Hours is the official set of daily prayers prescribed by the Catholic Church to be recited by clergy, religious institutes, and the laity, and consist mainly of psalms, which are supplemented by hymns and readings.
The cardinal also observed that there was “a presentation by the prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, of those that were to be presented and voted upon that day, for beatification and canonization.”
All of this “took place without any eyebrow raising,” he expressed, however “at the end of the prayer, “we were asked to sit down,” which “was something unusual.”
“We all sat down, including the Holy Father, Pope Benedict, and a rather extensive paper was brought up to him by his secretary to read.”
Originally, “I didn’t put any meaning upon all of that,” the cardinal reflected, stating that “I just thought we would be having an adjunct, that was somewhat unusual, but not very unusual,” but “within ten seconds” he knew something was happening because the Pope was “speaking in Latin, not in Italian.”
“I was alerted to the fact that it was about something very special by the fact that he was speaking to us not in the usual language of Italian, but in Latin,” Cardinal Stafford recalled, noting that the pontiff had not spoken to them in Latin “in this setting” since “his election,” so he thought “’I better listen in on this.’”
“So I listened very attentively, and very soon the words came out that he was resigning,” the cardinal observed, “and he continued about the reasons, but that came out within the first thirty seconds of his address.”
Then they “concluded the celebration of the Liturgy of Hours,” he explained, and Benedict XVI “left immediately, and we were left there stunned.”
“A cardinal who was sitting next to me said, ‘Did he resign?’ I said, ‘yes, that’s what he did. He resigned.’ And we just all stood at our places.”
Eventually “we came together in smaller groups, and began sharing some of our reaction to it,” the cardinal said, adding that “It was totally unexpected, and totally, historically, unexpected.”
When asked what he thought the legacy of this act and this time in the Church would be, Cardinal Stafford responded that “I think it’s too soon” to know.
Benedict XVI’s retirement officially went into effect on Feb. 28, 2013, and was a conclusion he came to “after having repeatedly examined my conscience before God,” he stated in his Feb. 11 address to the cardinals.
Speaking of the reasons influencing his decision, the retired pontiff cited his age as the primary factor, explaining that “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.”
Only two other Pope’s have resigned from their post in the history of the Church, the first being St. Celestine V in 1294, and the last was Gregory XII, in 1415.
The retired pontiff is now living in the Vatican’s monastery “Mater Ecclesiae,” which lies just west of St. Peter’s Basilica, and which contains a chapel, a choir room, a library, a semi-basement, a terrace and a visiting room that was added in 1993.
Alan Holdren contributed to this piece.