I will confess to having been shaken when I saw the news yesterday that His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI was going to resign from his position as Supreme Pontiff at the end of this month. It is a momentous occasion when a new Pope is to be chosen and, for several hundred years, has been caused only by the death of the preceding Pontiff.
John Paul II, of blessed memory, decided to carry his burden to the end of his life, even though, as the years passed, he was a physical shadow of the vibrant figure who stepped onto the balcony of St Peter’s in 1978. The contrast between the vigorous ski-ing, footballing Pope, and that of the hunched and mumbling figure as his end neared was stark, but His Holiness, guided by the Holy Spirit, wanted to show how service to God can come from anyone, no matter their state of health.
When Cardinal Ratzinger, as he then was, was chosen to succeed the first Polish Pope, he was already a man rich in years, one of the oldest to follow in the shoes of St Peter.
For that reason it does not seem inappropriate for him to step down from the office, citing his inability to carry out his tasks to the full. He too will have prayed deep into the nights for guidance and will only have made his decision public once clear in his own mind that he is doing God’s will. And, remarkably for this day and age, the news was not leaked by anyone – possibly the first time that has happened with a major news story since the cavemen discovered fire!
I wish His Holiness every blessing in his life after the Papacy, and he will be in my prayers and those of hundreds of millions of others.
I do not intend to guess who will succeed him. People far wiser than me will have the chance to get it wrong! One article I read today mentioned the “informed speculation” after the passing of John Paul II. One writer listed 20 papabile. He did not mention Cardinal Ratzinger!
I, along with the rest of the Catholic Church, will trust the Holy Spirit to guide the Cardinal Electors in making their choice at the imminent conclave.
The “passing” of a Pope is a memorable and sorrowful occasion in the life of the Church and its members.
The new Pontiff will be the fifth only in my lifetime.
Pope Paul VI was Pope when I was born and I was one of four Pauls in my primary school class. (I think, at least in Scotland, Benedict did not catch on as a name over the last few years).
Pope Paul was a modernist in that he was really the first Pope of the modern age to travel outside Italy. As mass media and global communications made contact round the world easier, he travelled, bringing the Vatican to those who could not visit the Holy See.
He died when I was 12, and I do not remember much of the mourning for him.
He seems to me to have been under-valued and under-rated. He took the Church forward from the Second Vatican Council established by his predecessor, John XXIII and acted as a bridge to the real “Modern Age” Papacy.
He was succeeded by the Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Albino Luciani, who took the name John Paul I, in recognition of the contributions of his two immediate predecessors.
The “Smiling Pope” as he became instantly known blew cobwebs off the Curia and in only 33 days had started momentous changes in the administration and operation of the Vatican and the Church. He took as his motto “Humilitas”.
But he died.
I do remember his death very clearly. It was a complete and utter shock to all. It prompted speculation about the nature of his death, by writers who linked it with the Vatican Bank/Banco Ambrosiano/Roberto Calvi scandals.
Some books were produced explaining how and why the Pope had been supposedly murdered. With hindsight they fall into the category of the Da Vinci Code – books that rattled along, telling a good story, but one with no connection with reality.
In terms of impact, one of the shortest Papacies on record had an effect far out of proportion with its duration.
Pope John Paul I, in only a few weeks as Pope, gave the Church new impetus, after the tail end years of Paul’s Papacy, when the world seemed, at least to the press, to be passing the Church by.
After John Paul I’s tragic early death, the Cardinals re-convened in Rome again. Nobody could have anticipated such an early return, and very few, I think, would have predicted that, at the close of the Conclave, we would have the first non-Italian Pope since the 16th Century.
Maybe, after the shock of sudden death, the Cardinals were guided to choose a fit and healthy young Cardinal.
I believe that the choice they made was, quite literally, inspired.
Karol Wojtyla was the man chosen to take over the role of Vicar of Christ.
Amongst his earliest word as Pope were these, said about his predecessor:-
“What can we say of John Paul I? It seems to us that only yesterday he emerged from this assembly of ours to put on the papal robes — not a light weight. But what warmth of charity, nay, what ‘an abundant outpouring of love’ — which came forth from him in the few days of his ministry and which in his last Sunday address before the Angelus he desired should come upon the world. This is also confirmed by his wise instructions to the faithful who were present at his public audiences on faith, hope and love.”
Cardinal Wojtyla showed his intention to follow on the road set by John Paul I by taking the name John Paul II. His reign, from October 1978 until his death in 2005, was the second longest in the two thousand year history of the Church. He was a remarkable man, even before he became Pope, and even more so after he was elected.
By choosing a Polish Pope when the Cold War was at its height, the Catholic Church was catapulted into the struggle between the West and the Soviet Bloc. The Polish people, struggling under the yoke of Communism, were inspired by their Cardinal, who was now their Pope.
He had lived through the Nazi occupation of Poland in World War II and the Soviet domination of his county thereafter. He was as outspoken as he could possibly be about the wrongs being done to his compatriots, and it is not coincidental that amongst the Poles the Soviet policy of clamping down on religious observance had its least success.
Whilst Pope Paul had started the process of Popes travelling abroad, John Paul II made it what seemed almost a daily occurrence.
It would be easier it feels to list the countries he did not visit, than the ones he did.
I remember with joy the coverage of his visits to Poland and to Ireland, amongst the 129 countries he visited.
I particular recall his visit to the UK, and especially the Mass at Bellahouston Park in Glasgow, where it seemed to my 16 year old eyes that the whole of the Catholic Church in Scotland had gathered on a sunny day to praise God and to listen to a man whose presence was an inspiration to millions upon millions all round the world.
His vigour had helped save him too the previous year when Mehmet Ali Agca had attempted to assassinate him in St Peter’s Square. An older men, or a weaker one, might well not have survived being shot. But John Paul II, by the grace of God, did. He continued his Papacy for another 24 years after his shooting.
Again the conspiracy theories grew to explain the murder attempt. The Bulgarian Secret Service, the KGB, the Masons (following on the P2 and Licio Gelli scandals), more about the Banco Ambrosiano. All of the above and more were placed in the frame.
An official Italian investigation in 2006 concluded that the murder attempt was the work of the Soviet Union, through the Bulgarians.
Meanwhile the Pope had met with, and forgiven, Mehmet Ali Agca.
Pope John Paul II was vigorous in his proclaiming of the Church’s message, even where this was not in tune with the mores of the day. He was conscious that the Church was not a democracy, and that an entity which had existed for two thousand years, through many different challenges and overcoming numerous obstacles, had only done so by being loyal to God’s teachings.
As the secularisation of the developed West continued, it was seen as almost a sign of being a crackpot to profess to have faith in God. Many called for the Church to “relax” its views on lots of emotive issues, almost as if governed by focus groups. A determination by the Pope to stick to the teachings of the Church was seen as him leading a reactionary movement, with his lieutenant being Cardinal Ratzinger.
As the years passed, and John Paul’s health deteriorated, as I have said, his struggles were offered by him as a sacrifice and as an example of Christian duty.
He died in April 2005. It was, though by no means unexpected, a hugely emotional loss for the Church, and the millions upon millions whose lives he had influenced over the years of his Papacy were saddened immensely at his passing, although praying that he was receiving his eternal reward.
He was undoubtedly one of the most remarkable, influential and historic figures of the last 100 years.
For many of course they had only ever known one Pope, so when the Cardinals gathered in 2005, as well as being a strange experience for many members of the Church, awaiting the white smoke, it was new for many of the Cardinals too.
It was seen as a surprise when the 78 year old Cardinal Ratzinger was chosen to succeed. He took the name Benedict XVI.
He was expected to be a hard-liner, a “Rottweiler”. However, in my view, he was not.
Yes, he stuck to the Church’s teachings. Yes, he showed no desire to “move with the times”.
But the “fire and brimstone” Pontiff some commentators had expected did not come to pass. Instead we saw a Papacy which dealt as best as it could with the ever changing nature of the times led by a Pope who has been one of the great thinkers of the Church over the last century, and whose book “Jesus of Nazareth” is a scholarly and religious masterpiece.
If you took the time and trouble to read his speeches and sermons, rather than listen to what the secular media portrayed as his views, you could see a man whose understanding of the issues was unrivalled. He too, like John Paul II, had grown up in a country shaped by injustice and war.
But now he too is passing from the Papacy after a life of service to the Church although his is not the tragic passing brought by death.
Will Benedict XVI be seen as a “great pope” in years to come? Who knows? God does, but that is all.
His announcement of his decision to resign matched the conduct of his papacy. As he said:-
I have convoked you to this Consistory, not only for the three canonisations, but also to communicate to you a decision of great importance for the life of the Church.
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 steer the ship 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 recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me.
For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.
Dear Brothers, I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects.
And now, let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff.
With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.
As a final service as Pontiff, he has laid down the burden, to allow a new “fisher of men” to take on the role and responsibility.
Strangely, despite the widespread comment about the almost unprecedented nature of a Papal resignation, the last being almost 600 years ago, there was a far more recent, although fictional, example.
Morris West wrote a book in 1981 called “The Clowns of God” about a Pope who, after seeing divine revelations, resigns. Benedict is not going for that reason, but his decision, whilst different from that of John Paul II, who decided to soldier on to the end, will have been made with the same heartfelt prayers for spiritual guidance.
So we await the gathering of the Cardinals again, for the fourth time in my lifetime.
The ending of a Papacy is always a time of sadness; the start of one always one of great joy.
I pray that the Cardinals will be guided in their hearts to do the best for the Church and for the world.
I pray that His Holiness Pope Benedict has the opportunity, as he hopes, to continue to serve the Church through life dedicated to prayer.
One legacy he has left in Scotland is the Pope Benedict XVI Caritas Award, presented to final year school pupils who become actively involved in the faith in their school, church and community. It has already proved to be a marvellous way of mobilising the young in their faith, and for the benefit of others. All lessons of use in future life. The award is named in recognition of his first Encyclical, on the theme of love.
Pope Benedict was very different from his predecessor. Speculation is rife that the Cardinals will go back to a Karol Wojtyla type rather than Joseph Ratzinger model. Maybe in terms of age and vigour they might.
Posted by Paul McConville