On the abdication of a pope.
Today is Ash Wednesday, which represents the start of Lent for Roman Catholics. Though I had given some thought in recent days to the question of how I might mark Ash Wednesday on this blog, my plans for a special Ash Wednesday post evaporated after I heard the news of Pope Benedict XVI's decision to abdicate the Throne of Peter. If you'd like to read some reflections from me specifically dedicated to Ash Wednesday, this post from last year still captures my thoughts on the subject. Instead of posting something new on Ash Wednesday this year, I'm going to share some personal reflections on the Holy Father's decision, in the hope that doing so will help others who, like me, find themselves stunned and even disappointed by this week's events.
Though hindsight suggests that Pope Benedict XVI had been dropping hints for a long time regarding his intent to step down, his official announcement Monday morning caught the world by surprise. I was as surprised as anyone else - after all, the last papal abdication took place nearly six hundred years ago (!) - but on reflection I thought: If anyone would do it, this pope would. Pope Benedict XVI has shown himself to be a bold and creative theologian who possesses what may be the keenest intellect of any pope we've seen in modern times, yet he is also a man of genuine and disarming humility, as I discovered personally when I witnessed his visit to New York five years ago. Furthermore, as Adam DeVille wrote on Monday, "those who have read Joseph Ratzinger closely [have] known him to be a man who, very quietly, nonetheless insists on doing things his way where possible. He has never been one to go with the crowd; he has long been a man who refutes expectations; he has been a man of surprises who has often done things in a unique fashion." Indeed, all of that has been proven again this week.
As I consider the Pope's decision, I also can't help but recall that, as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger made it clear that he desired nothing more than to enjoy a quiet retirement in his native Bavaria. Joseph Ratzinger's acceptance of the burden of the papacy was a remarkable act of self-sacrifice and a sign of an authentic poverty of spirit - the same poverty of spirit that has now led a man conscious of his growing physical diminishment to take an exceptionally rare and courageous step. Though I am sad that Pope Benedict XVI will only lead the Church for two more weeks, I pray that God may give him great consolation in the remaining days of his earthly life. Well done, good and faithful servant. AMDG.