Wednesday, February 13, 2013

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.


At 2/14/2013 10:51 AM, Blogger Michelle said...

I was not surprised, and am surprised by all the surprise. Benedict's strength as pope in my mind has been his ability to distinguish between his pastoral roles and the theological realm. This is a very pastoral decision on a number of levels, and feels to me like a very powerful way to model the poverty of spirit we are all called to express.

At 2/14/2013 11:41 AM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Thank you for your candid reply. As I wrote above, the decision is certainly in character for Benedict - in that sense, I would agree with you that it is not surprising in hindsight. Even so, it did surprise many people who know the pope personally, as you and I do not, and that says something.

Naturally, this decision is also surprising insofar as it is one without recent precedent. I had certainly read the Pope's previous comments on the question of abdication, but I never thought he would actually go through with it; that seems to be a fairly common reaction, including among many cardinals.

On a secondary level, I think that the precise timing was a matter of surprise for many - if Benedict had resolved some time ago to take this step, why did he go through with it now and not, say, at the end of the Year of Faith, which would perhaps have brought a clearer sense of closure? I read somewhere that the Pope was thinking of leaving office last year when he turned 85, but then put off doing so to deal with particular issues that don't need to be mentioned here.

The 'Benedict wanted to abdicate earlier' story seems plausible to me, but the fact remains that papal abdications are still surprising as a rule because they are so infrequent - and I candidly hope that they remain so, as I really do not want this decision to establish a precedent for more regular papal 'retirements.'

At 2/20/2013 12:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe that the appropriate word is 'resignation.' The Pope is not a king. Abdication suggests a monarchy - an unhealthy image of Church. Christ alone is King to disciples.
Linda Dailey

At 2/20/2013 6:51 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Actually, the best term for what Benedict did would be 'renunciation,' as that was how he characterized the deed himself when he announced it to the cardinals. Nonetheless, I would argue that 'abdication' is a better term than 'resignation,' as resignations are generally contingent upon the acceptance of another authority and abdications are not. (Ordinary bishops can resign because the pope must accept their resignation for it to take effect; no one can do this for the pope.) Like it or not, the structure of the Church contains monarchical elements - one of which is the fact that popes, like kings, can abdicate their offices.


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