News of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI (born Joseph Ratzinger) has been everywhere. He is the second non-Italian pope after Pope John Paul II to hold office. But beyond the news of his resignation, there is one palpable fear: What future does the Catholic Church have after the exit of Pope Benedict? Even though some commentators have tried to gloss over this fear, it is real.
The constellation of global views since the announcement, points to a church that is faced with an uncertain future, especially in view of modern schisms against it. The Catholic Church in Ireland, for instance, has been a subject of endless controversy, occasioned by the wounds of the sex scandals. It is believed that it will take almost another generation to heal the wounds and restore the confidence of the faithful in Ireland in the church. Added to the fear is the shifting of the epicenter of the Church from Europe to Asia and Africa, which definitely will seek greater recognition by and participation in the affairs of the Vatican.
This new fear is particularly real when it is considered that the ardent supporters of Pope Benedict’s new evangelization effort come from Philippines and West and Central Africa. The incursion of evangelical Protestantism into the church in Latin America is frightening. This has continually eroded the foundation of the church in such countries as Brazil and Chile. In 1996, for example, the Catholic population in Latin America stood at 81 per cent. What is the current rating? Seventy per cent.
The attraction of Catholics to Pentecostalism was given the vent by the promotion of charismatic movement by Pope John Paul II. Current statistics from Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life; the CARA Report, Summer 2012 show that the Catholic Church in the Oceania is 9 million, North America 85 million, Asia 130 million, Central America 162 million, Africa 186 million, Europe 285 million and South America 339 million. The percentage growth rate is more in Africa 21 per cent and Asia 11 per cent. It also shows that Catholics in Brazil are 69 per cent of the total population, while Mexico and Peru boast of 85 per cent and 81 per cent, respectively.
Others are Poland 92 per cent, Spain 75 per cent, Argentina 77 per cent, Philippines 81 per cent, Angola 57 per cent, and the U.S. 24 per cent. Countries with the least number of Catholics include Russia, China and India with one per cent each. How the new pope handles these divergences will determine the direction the church will go. Nonetheless, while some people are basking in the euphoria of the announcement of the Pope’s imminent exit, there are many unknown facts about the pope, the Vatican, the resignation and his possible successor. Put in another perspective: Catholics and non-Catholics across the world see Pope Benedict XVI in different lights.
To some, he presents radicalism and courage; to some, he is an urbane pacifist and intellectualist; and to some, yet, he is a humanist – a dogged fighter for social justice and human rights. There are still those who see him as the moving spirit of the new Church (Roman Catholicism) geared toward self-reform and purgation. Taking all this holistically, is it not better to ask: what does Pope Benedict XVI represent to you? This question has become pertinent since the Pope gave an indication during a consistory to resign his office from 8 p.m. on February 28, when the search for his replacement will formally commence.
He cited “advanced age no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry” as reason for this monumental decision. Interestingly, there have been divergent reactions to his resignation: some absurd, some incredulously incredible, and some extremist. In all of this, one central fact becomes increasingly unambiguous: the resignation jolted the world. Yes, it has set tongues wagging and elicited an avalanche of reactions from all over the world. Even those described as atheists and perceived enemies of the Catholic Faith have been thrown into quandary – visibly stunned by the decision. In whichever camp you may find yourself, the fact remains that the pope does not need anybody’s pity or sympathy. What he deserves is constant prayer and solidarity from the faithful. As the Vicar of Christ on earth, he is infallible and holy.
Whatever decision he takes (personal or in his official capacity as the head of the Church) is inspired by the Holy Spirit and for the good and furtherance of the faith. After all, there is no one higher than him in position in the Vatican. Therefore, he could not have deferred to anyone else other than God in reaching the decision to resign. Unfortunately, some people have failed to appreciate that the pope is the Head of a universal Church instituted by Christ himself with Peter as its first pope.
As successor to Christ, Peter (the head of the 12 Apostles) worked fervently, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to build a church that is beyond reproach or assault by human forces and infernal spirits. The foundation on which the church was built is so strong that past clandestine activities against it have failed to shake its foundation. This is why it has constantly forged a very solid and sound doctrine that has placed it high and above its contemporaries (if any).
Nevertheless, whether the pope chooses to resign or stay till death makes no particular difference, since the head of the Church remains Jesus Christ Himself. Jesus Christ handed over the keys of the Church to (Simon) Peter and promised him that no force on earth or beneath the earth would extinguish it. This promise has prevailed, despite the devilish plots of its enemies, particularly schists, to destroy it. Taken from the time Jesus instituted the papacy (with Peter as the first pope), it should be approaching 2,000 years now, I wonder if there is any existing institution worldwide with this track record of succession and survival. By implication, what the pope had done (by announcing his intention to resign) was in tandem with an existing tradition.
As in law, there are precedents to this resignation. Pope Benedict XVI is not the first pope to resign office. I am pleasantly amused each time I read conflicting reports about the current resignation. But Prof. Donald Prudlo – an associate professor of ancient and medieval history for Jacksonville State University – in his recent analytical presentation – has put a lie to all of it. He puts it very firmly thus: “This is not the first time a pope has resigned from his office, and it may not be the last.” According to him, the first resignation was in 235 when Pope St. Pontian was arrested and sent to labour in the mines of Sardinia. In order not to leave the Church in Rome without a head, he abdicated his office to allow a new pope to be named. In another incident – this time – pressure was mounted on a sitting pope to resign. This was the case with St. Silverius in the 530s. For refusing to resign, he was starved to death.
There was another instance: Benedict IX was a terrible pope in the 1040s. He attempted several times to regain office after resigning as pope. He eventually retired to a life of penance at Grottaferrata. Then Pope St. Peter Celestine V followed. His resignation on the Feast of St. Lucy, after only five months in office, was famous, because he emerged pope after a three-year conclave. However, he was an ‘unwordly’ hermit popular for his sanctity, holiness and miracles. He could not cope with the intrigues of the political world of the Roman curia, and voluntarily announced his resignation to a consistory of cardinals in 1294. For that he was made saint.
Pope Celestine V meant so much to the current pope such that he had to visit his tomb at Santa Maria di Collemaggio after the disastrous 2009 earthquake that leveled L’Aquila. As a parting gift, Pope Benedict XVI placed on his tomb the pallium (a liturgical vestment he received when he started his papacy in 2005). As a Benedictine hermit, Pope Celestine V must have inspired Pope Benedict XVI to adopt the name Benedict after his election as pope in 2005. I was going through Pope Celestine V’s letter of resignation of recent and was touched by its content.
I think it is proper to reproduce it for your reading delight: “I, Celestine V, moved by valid reasons, that is, by humility, by desire for a better life, by a troubled conscience, troubles of body, a lack of knowledge, personal shortcomings, and so that I may then proceed to a life of greater humility, voluntarily and without compunction give up the papacy and renounce its position and dignity, burdens, honours with full freedom. I now instruct the sacred College of Cardinals to elect and provide according to the cannons a shepherd for the universal church.” He surprisingly subsequently declared himself ‘useless’ and stepped down from the papal throne.
He handed over his ring, tiara and mantle to the cardinals, changed into a gray habit worn by Celestine hermits and hibernated to the mountains. His successor, Boniface VIII, made Pope St. Peter Celestine’s declaration to resign an official church law in 1298. And this is contained in the book of laws called Liber Sextus. There was yet another resignation in the papacy. This was in 1415, involving Gregory XII. He resigned the papacy (the last pope to do so, until the present resignation by Pope Benedict XVI). He, however, gave a precondition: That the Council of Constance accept his authority to elect a successor. His sacrifice ended the Great Western Schism.
One unavoidable question then arises: why is it rare for a pope to resign? The last one took place about 600 years ago. The answer is simple: most popes have felt that their call was directly from God and therefore they must hold on to the office until death, in order to demonstrate tenacity and responsibility. Among them was John Paul II who, despite his failing health, held tenaciously to the office until death. Nonetheless, those who thought their age or ill-health could jeopardize the smooth running of the church had had to resign. Among them were St. Celestine V, Gregory XII and now Benedict XVI. Close observers of the life of Pope Benedict XVI could not read the visible signs of the impending resignation, particularly after his trips to Mexico and Cuba.
He is one man that hardly betrays emotions. Maybe that was why nobody, including those very close to him, could decode the signs. But the pope has consistently exhibited a radical attitude to some issues. For instance, his visit to the United Kingdom two years ago was not anticipated. It was one visit that has helped to strengthen the bond between the church in Rome and England and remove all vestiges of doubt among Catholics in England, particularly Ireland. It also helped immeasurably to deal with the contentious issues of pedophile and other forms of sexual abuse involving priests.
Pope Benedict XVI’s relationship with other faiths has popularized his papacy and smoothed the rough edges in their relationships. This is exemplified in the church’s new attitude to ecumenism. No wonder there has been an outpouring of support and gratitude since the announcement of his resignation. Chief Rabbi of Israel, Yona Metzger’s reaction to the resignation was quite instructive. He captures the feeling of other faiths to the resignation thus: “He deserves credit for advancing the inter-religious links the world over between Judaism, Christianity and Islam”.
Pope Benedict XVI is seen globally as an intellectualist and a reputable theologian. His devotion to leadership, coupled with brilliant teaching, has marked him out as a pope to remember and to cherish. In the context of the church, he is more intellectual than pastoral. His ascendancy to the exalted office of pope, therefore, jolted many adherents who thought he did not have sufficient experience as a pastoral leader. Unlike his predecessor, who held several pastoral positions, Pope Benedict XVI spent the greater part of his pre-papal life teaching Theology and espousing doctrines to promote the faith.
This is why there is a new thinking among the leaders of the church that the new pope should have sufficient pastoral experience to be able to drive the new challenges facing it. He is also greatly devoted to Our Lady, just as his predecessor. It was indeed remarkable that he chose the World Day of the Sick and the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes to make the announcement of his renunciation of the office of pope. To be continued