Benedict XVI’s Act of Humility

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

“Have you considered resigning?” journalist Peter Seewald asked Pope Benedict XVI in an interview which was published in English in book form — The Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times — by Ignatius Press in 2010. “When the danger is great one must not run away,” he replied. “For that reason, now is certainly not the time to resign. Precisely at a time like this one must stand fast and endure the difficult situation. That is my view. One can resign at a peaceful moment or when one simply cannot go on. But one must not run away from danger and say that someone else should do it.”

Peaceful wouldn’t exactly be the word to describe the current moment, of course . . . 

“Is it possible then to imagine a situation in which you would consider a resignation by the Pope appropriate?” the reporter pressed.

“Yes,” the Pope said. “If a Pope clearly realizes he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.”

His statement today makes clear he feels an obligation on account of the physical. 

Joseph Ratzinger never expected or wanted to be Pope. His election was “a shock” to him and he’s always been well aware that “the responsibility is in fact enormous.” He told Seewald in 2010: “I had been so sure that this office was not my calling, but that God would now grant me some peace and quiet after strenuous years. But then I could only say, explain to myself: God’s will is apparently otherwise and something new and completely different is beginning for me. He will be with me.”

Pope Benedict XVI has always, necessarily, been aware of his age, noting his “diminishing” physical strength in that same interview. Pope Benedict said: “I trust that our dear Lord will give me as much strength as I need to be able to do what is necessary. But I also notice that my forces are diminishing.”

He also said:

It is correct that as Pope one has even more cause to pray and to entrust oneself entirely to God. For I see very well that almost everything I have to do is something I myself cannot do at all. That fact already forces me, so to speak, to place myself in the Lord’s hands and to say to him: “You do it, if you want it!” In this sense prayer and contact with God are now even more necessary and also even more natural and self-evident than before.

One doesn’t make a call like this one lightly, needless to say.

When I was in Rome this fall, one morning I sat with a high-ranking Vatican-official friend, only yards away from the Holy Father, as you typically are in Vatican City, who was talking about some of the goings-on around us. And I was overwhelmed by a sense of the burdens on the Pope. Personnel, personalities. Obviously, of course. But sitting with this friend, who knew B16 as a man, it took on a new weight. The burden. The cross. For an 85-year-old, who has lived a full life already. He talks about some of these things, too, in the Seewald book. The challenges of personnel, the evils — it would be quite the haul even for a young man.

As George Weigel writes in his book, Evangelical Catholicism, there is so much renewal and reform work to be done, within the Vatican, within Catholicism. What an act of humility to know the strength isn’t there, and that, having put you in this position for the time, God has done his work with you there.

How deep his faith, that he knows this is what God wants now. How many of us wonder about decisions? Imagine the depths of the discernment here. What courage and strength of faith. When you consider all he has said, what coherence. 

When I got to spend a few minutes with Pope Benedict this fall, I saw a man whose very physical strength came from his love for Christ and the cross and the people who pray for him, with him, for the world. A group of us were given messages by him for the world. I was given one for women throughout the world (“it is for you to save the peace of the world”!). And as we received the messages, each of us thanked him. Artists, scientists, workers, women, we wanted to thank him for reaching out in love to everyone in the world. The charities of the papacy, the teachings of the Church, they speak of love, are drenched in love, whatever the conventional take might be. I specifically thanked him for the series he wrote on Jesus of Nazareth. They are great gifts, so that we might better know Him who showed us how to live, who makes living possible. You saw him uplifted by the gratitude and the love, as you could see in his eyes at so many moments like that, at countless Masses around the world. 

John Paul taught us how to die. Pope Benedict shows us how to step aside in humility and love.

This photo comes from my iPad, from December: 

At the time he had just been talking to a small group from the Americas:

Dear friends, the love of Christ impels us to devote ourselves without reserve to proclaiming his Name throughout America, bringing it freely and enthusiastically to the hearts of all its inhabitants. There is no more rewarding or beneficial work than this. There is no greater service that we can provide to our brothers and sisters. They are thirsting for God.

He feels that thirst and lives to help quench it. But he knows there is a man better suited for this coming moment. God bless him. 

His remarks that night were also even a little bit of an indictment. The group was Catholic “leaders.” And yet when the world looks around, what do they see of Catholics? Are we being who we say we are? The world needs real Catholics, and the Pope implored us to be that, ever faithful, vigilantly so, radically so. 

He will leave the papacy having invoked a year dedicated to the renewal of the faith, knowing what Catholicism is and why. He leaves the teacher, with his legacy focused on teaching the faith. With the prayer that the one who succeeds him — and Peter — will help the world know God’s mercy in love in the most revolutionary of ways. Who will, united in prayer with so many throughout the world, help set the world ablaze in love of God and that mercy.