11 February 2013

B-16 Intentionally Grounds His Petrine Barque

Benedict XVI upon his election April 19, 2005 [AP photo: Domenico Stinellis]

It was a shock to the world the Pope Benedict XVI (ne Josef Ratzinger) offered a letter of resignation today from the Papacy during a consistory which was originally  just slated to canonize three saints.  Benedict XVI was elected pope on a fourth ballot on April 19, 2005 and who at age 78 was one of  the oldest Popes elevated to the Chair of St. Peter.  Cardinal Ratizinger had developed a reputation as a doctrinaire  Rottweiler as he headed the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the office of  Holy Inquisition) during most of Pope Blessed John Paul II’s  26 ½ year reign . Benedict XVI surprised critics as being a gentle German Shepherd during his nearly eight year tenure leading the Catholic Church.

Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation will take effect as of February 28, 2013 8 pm Rome time. There will be a two week period when it will sede vacante and then the College of Cardinals will meet to vote on who will become the next Pope.

Pope Benedict XVI Crest
Pope Benedict XVI had hinted at the possibility of resigning during an interview with Peter Seewald in 2010 if he did not feel that he was physically or mentally capable of fulfilling the mission of the papacy.  Some had speculated that Benedict XVI might resign at the conclusion of the Year of Faith, which is slated to end November 24th.  Yet Benedict XVI heeded his prayerful examination of conscience and chose the end of February.  This could be symbolic as the announcement was made on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes which is also the Church’s World Day of the Sick.  However the date also coincides with the signing of the Lateran Pacts (1929), when the Republic of Italy recognized the sovereignty and independence of the Vatican City state.

In his letter of resignation, Pope Benedict XVI noted:

 After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me. 

A papal resignation is permitted under  Canon Law  332 §2.  This is the first papal resignation in 600 years.  The last time that there was a resignation from the Chair of St. Peter  was in 1415 when Pope Gregory XII.  During the the Great Western Schism when there were three concurrent “popes”, Gregory XII in Rome, an anti-pope Benedict XIII in Avingnon and the Council of Pisa in 1409 also elected a third pope John XXIII.   At the urging of the Council of Constance, both Pope Gregory XII and John XXII resigned their claims to the papacy to clear the way for a pope whose title was unquestioned.  The anti-pope Benedict XIII refused to resign, was excommunicated and died two years later. Pope Celestine V was pressured to abdicate in 1294, Pope Benedict IX who “sold the papacy” in 1046, and Pope John XVIII who abdicated in 1009.

Pope Benedict XVI’s letter of resignation alludes to his perceived deterioration of mind and body which prompted his abdication. While there have been no public announcements of Benedict XVI’s diagnosis associated with the resignation, it is clear that the 85 year old pontiff was becoming frail and walking with more difficult.  A year ago, the Bavarian born pope began to use a “popemobile” of sorts to navigate the long aisles of St. Peter’s Basilica for liturgies.  There have been some reports that Pope Benedict XVI was grounded by doctors from taking trans-Atlantic flights.

Since Pope Paul VI traveled to the Holy Land in 1964, Popes stopped being secluded at Lateran Palace.  In fact, Pope John Paul II’s extensive travelogue evolved the papacy to being a pilgrim post for the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church.   So in Pope Benedict XVI’s mind, it would not behoove the mission of the Church at this time to have a leader who was grounded.

Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation does provide some complications.  Aside from sitting on the Chair of Peter, the Pope is also the Bishop of Rome and the head of the Italian Conference of Catholic Bishops.  Ordinarily, when Bishops retire, they are considered Bishop-emeritus.  It could be awkward to have a newly elected pope with a Bishop Emeritus hovering over him.  There will also be the matter on how to refer to the former Pope.  But since he would still be a Cardinal Emeritus, his title is likely to revert to Cardinal Ratzinger.

Details will have to be worked out over the post succession, but Pope Benedict XVI has indicated that he will not participate in the College of Cardinals conclave, slated to be in mid-March as he will move to  to Castel Gandolfo (the Papal summer residence).  When renovations of a monastery for cloistered nuns in Vatican City is complete, the former Pope Benedict will go for there for a period of prayer and reflection.  God willing, he will be able to continue publishing things like his trilogy of Jesus of Nazareth theological reflections which he wrote during his papacy.

White Smoke announcing "Habemus papam"
Even though Pope Benedict XVI will not actively participate in the College of Cardinals Conclave, his influence will be profound. Pope Benedict XVI has appointed 67 of the 118 Cardinals who are under 80 and eligible to cast ballots. Moreover, the remaining Conclave electors were appointed by Pope Blessed John Paul II, who Cardinal Ratzinger acted as “spiritual consigliare” so presumably the electors will choose someone who reflect Pope Benedict XVI’s sensibilities.  Depending upon the timing and duration of the Conclave, up to four Cardinals will lose their voting rights by the end of March 2013.

Until we see white smoke emanating from the Sistine Chapel indicating the College of Cardinals, which is the tradition since 1878 to announce that the Conclave has achieved a 2/3rds plus 1 majority vote for a new Supreme Pontiff, no one knows how the Holy Spirit will inspire the electors.  The participants are sworn to secrecy and sequestered at St. Martha’s during the Conclave.  Do not expect leaks from a Vatican butler to leak this time either.

While any baptized male Roman Catholic could be chosen, realistically, papability requires being a wearer of crimson couture; after all the College of Cardinals have chosen from amongst their ranks since 1378.

Looking purely at statistics,  half (59) of eligible cardinals are European, the largest delegation is from Italy with 28 electors or 23.7% (up from 20 or 17.8% overall in 2005).   But this presumes that blocs will vote together for geographic or linguistic reasons.  There were rumblings in 2005 that the Italians wanted the papacy back and they elected a German.  Moreover, Vatican II showed that with collegiality amongst bishops, bonds are strong with those in your conclave “class” as well as with brother bishops theological predilections.   Depending upon how long the College of Cardinals deliberations go, there may be a new Pope for Holy Week.

Generally, the Papacy is considered a calling to one's Earthly end.  Pope Blessed John Paul II's difficult health decline from Parkinson's Disease and the effects of his 1981 assassination attempt was a object lesson on the dignity of human life and natural death, the redemptive value of suffering and some might argue martyrdom.  One can draw lessons from Pope Benedict XVI's  "intentional grounding" as a selfless act which demonstrates humility and the desire to best serve the Lord in building the Kingdom of God.

h/t: Whispers in the Loggia

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