The Pope who became a pilgrim: Benedict's resignation remembered

Father Benedict Catholic News Agency Credit Lauren Cater CNA 22815 Father Benedict (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) officially retired from the papacy two years ago today. | Lauren Cater/CNA

Two years after his historic resignation from the papacy, Benedict XVI's presence continues to be felt by those around him as he keeps his promise to remain in quiet and prayerful service to the Church and the world.

"We always know that Pope Emeritus Benedict is present in the Vatican, with his prayers," said Fr. Scott Borgman, English-language official for the Pontifical Accademy for Life. This presence, he told CNA in a Feb. 10 email interview, "is a very reassuring affection which we experience often."

At 8 p.m. on Feb. 28, 2013, Benedict XVI stepped down from the papal throne, less than three weeks after announcing his resignation to the world. 

Earlier that evening, the former pontiff stood from the balcony of Castel Gandolfo's papal residence, overlooking the thousands who had filled the lake town's small main square. 

"I wish still with my heart, my love, my prayer, my reflection, with all my inner strength, to work for the common good and the good of the Church and of humanity," Benedict told the crowds in off-the-cuff remarks just hours before his resignation would take effect.

Looking peaceful and happy standing a few stories above the square, Benedict XVI assured the world that, in stepping down, he would "simply be a pilgrim" who was "beginning the last part of his pilgrimage on earth." 

For the next two weeks, the See of Peter remained vacant until the election of Pope Francis on March 13, 2013.

In the two years following his resignation, Benedict's days have been filled with prayer and study, largely out of the public view. He now goes by the simple title "Father Benedict."

Upon first hearing of Benedict XVI's impending retirement, the first of its kind in centuries, Fr. Borgman explained he was  at once surprised and relieved: "Surprised because no one had seen this for 600 years," he said, and "relieved because, finally, after years of intense labor, he would be able to rest and serve the Church in another very important way through his prayers."

"He immediately became a kind of benevolent grandfather figure," Fr. Borgman said. "We all have that image of the slight, humble pontiff with the piercing blue eyes and that saintly smile." 

Throughout his papacy, the Vatican official said, Benedict XVI "infused the Church with life through his humility and service," from his support for "victims of abuse to his many journeys and diplomatic relations," as well as his "love for the poor and respect for the deposit of the Faith."

Over the course of his eight-year pontificate, Benedict XVI was often subjected to negative, inaccurate, and editorially selective depictions in the secular press, such as in the areas clerical sex abuse and gay marriage. 

"We suffered alongside him with the misrepresentations which were so common in the popular media," the Vatican official said.  

Despite these depictions in the press, however, "history will tell how amazing his contribution has been and will continue to be for those who read his writings," he said.

Fr. Borgman recalled his impression of having personally met Benedict XVI, twice during his pontificate, and  once – accidentally – last September. "I was quite overcome by affection and gratefulness to God for the gift of this great man to the Church," he recalled.

Benedict XVI also served as an important role model for priests, who "benefited greatly from his theology and his teaching on the lives of the Saints," Fr. Borgman said. "He was extremely paternal for us priests and represents the Supreme Pontiff in a very clear way, but also a personal Father figure."

"As a convert, I am always impressed by the wisdom of God in giving us an earthly Father who unites us and guides us according to what Jesus intended when he founded the Church!"

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