Thanks to the Internet, today I was able to watch live as Benedict XVI took a short helicopter ride from Rome to Castel Gandolfo and bade good night to a cheering crowd before withdrawing to spend his last hours as pope in relative quiet. It was one of the saddest, strangest things I've ever seen. You can talk all you want about historical precursors like Celestine V and Gregory XII, but the fact remains that this is very strange. Belying the polite applause and the smiles, the pain and uncertainty visible on the faces of many of the people surrounding the pope in today's video told of the strangeness of the event; Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Benedict's personal secretary, could be seen crying as the pope bade farewell to the staff of the papal household, and I'm sure that many others shed tears as Benedict XVI left the Vatican for the last time as supreme pontiff.
Though I respect Pope Benedict's decision to renounce his office, this is an event that I had sincerely hoped would never come to pass. I had taken note of Benedict's comments over the years regarding the theoretical possibility of his abdication, but I never thought he would really do it. Popes generally serve for life, and there are very good reasons, both practical and theological, why papal abdications should remain rare; for a concise summary of some of those reasons, here is a fine post on the subject by Father Ray Blake. Pope Benedict XVI chose to vacate the Chair of St. Peter after long and careful discernment, "having repeatedly examined my conscience before God" and "well aware of the seriousness of this act," as he said seventeen days ago. I may continue to struggle with this decision and its implications, but I take some consolation in the awareness that the one who has chosen this path knows the Church and its needs far better than I ever will.
In the past few days, I have spent some time reflecting on my personal history with Pope Benedict XVI. My first exposure to the then-Cardinal Ratzinger's work came during my undergraduate years at Georgetown University, when I bought a copy of The Spirit of the Liturgy, then newly translated into English, from an old Irish lady who sold Catholic books during the weekly coffee hour after the nine o' clock Mass at Old St. Mary's Church in Washington. The Spirit of the Liturgy remained my only real exposure to Ratzinger's thought until April of 2005, when I decided that I should start reading his other books to get a better idea of what this new pope was like. Three years later, during my philosophy studies at Fordham, I became deeply immersed in the pope's writings when I took a graduate seminar on the theology of Joseph Ratzinger taught by Avery Cardinal Dulles. Pope Benedict XVI made a pastoral visit to the United States during the semester that I took that seminar, and I had a chance to see the Pontiff in person when he visited St. Joseph's Seminary at Dunwoodie. Over time, I have come to feel a deep personal affection for this pope that I never really felt for his predecessor: John Paul II always seemed larger than life to me, perhaps too much of a rock star, while the introverted and scholarly Benedict XVI was someone I could easily relate to.
In a homily preached at the noon Mass I attended today at St. Basil's Church in Toronto, Father Mario D'Souza, C.S.B. suggested that Pope Benedict XVI possessed three qualities essential for the exercise of the Petrine ministry: he was holy, he was humble, and he was brilliant. Looking ahead to the conclave that will elect the next successor to St. Peter, I pray that the new pope will possess the same qualities. I also pray for His Holiness Benedict XVI, now the Pontiff Emeritus, as he follows the example of his patron St. Benedict of Nursia in embracing a life which "belongs wholly to the work of God." AMDG.