The Corner

Benedict, the Papacy, and Old Age

Benedict XVI suffers from a host of maladies, including arthritis, volatile blood pressure, hearing loss, loss of vision in his left eye, and irregular sleep, which must contribute to the exhaustion that Peter Seewald noted in his description of the pope’s condition earlier this winter. Benedict’s health since then has not improved.

As pope, he was never young or even, as John Paul II was at the beginning of his pontificate, youthful though middle-aged. When did Benedict begin to entertain the possibility that he would lay down the keys of Peter if he ever found himself losing the strength to hold them any longer?

His thoughts on the matter were clearly communicated pretty early on, or at least clearly telegraphed. You probably already know about his gestures toward St. Celestine V, the 13th-century hermit who was conscripted into the papacy at age 79, served for five months, and then left to return to his life of solitude and prayer. Here was another hint — consider this passage (h/t/ Rocco Palmo) from Benedict’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est (2006):

There are times when the burden of need and our own limitations might tempt us to become discouraged. But precisely then we are helped by the knowledge that, in the end, we are only instruments in the Lord’s hands; and this knowledge frees us from the presumption of thinking that we alone are personally responsible for building a better world. In all humility we will do what we can, and in all humility we will entrust the rest to the Lord. It is God who governs the world, not we. We offer him our service only to the extent that we can, and for as long as he grants us the strength.

To the aristocracy of youth, the aged are as the poor to the rich, but the Catholic Church declares a “preferential option for the poor,” and so it’s fitting that the man elevated to her highest office is, with respect to youth, usually so glaringly impoverished. His aptitude for eldership he inherits from his Mater Ecclesia, who is good at being old. The more ancient she grows, the more she becomes herself. Time is her friend.

Many people admired John Paul’s decision to honor his old age by attaching it to the highly public nature of the modern papacy, as if to bless old age in general. “Be not afraid!” was the watchword of his pontificate. In his last years its meaning ripened into “Be not afraid . . . to be infirm, an imperfect human specimen, a mere mortal on the threshold of death. So too is the vicar of Christ.”

Benedict has negotiated the relationship between his old age and the papacy differently. He chose his papal name in honor of the founder of Western monasticism, and it’s to a monastery that he moves now after leaving the Petrine office. For many years he applied his native gifts in the service of the Church, and now that he’s spent them his faculties are boiled down to his power to pray and meditate, to what Jesus called “the one thing necessary.”

“Indeed, if God is asking me to do this,” Benedict explained in his farewell Angelus address on Sunday, “it is so I can continue to serve the Church with the same dedication and the same love with which I have done thus far, but in a way that is better suited to my age and my strength.”

That is, even the pope can be promoted, and even a man well into his ninth decade can grow into a new state of maturation compared with which ordinary adulthood is sterile, like prepubescence. God cuts away the branches that don’t yield fruit and trims clean the remaining branch that does, so that it might yield yet more.

And the righteous will flourish in a green old age. Is anything too hard for the Lord?


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