In the weeks to come experts, pundits, and churchmen will dissect Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation from the papacy. In his own words, the Pope has decided to resign after having come “to the certainty that [his] strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.” Many have already noted that the move to resign is perhaps not so far out of left field as the initial reaction had it. Benedict XVI once explained in an interview that a Pope who is “no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office . . . has the right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.” Others will not be so generous in their conjectures. They will imply there might be other reasons for the resignation. They will claim he’s playing politics, or hunt for a scandal to tie the resignation to. In fact, commentators were making the suggestion almost as soon as the news broke.
I think there is a much simpler, and much holier, explanation. We need look no further than the man himself for it. Pope Benedict XVI has spoken powerfully on the abundant need for people who know the faith today, and the even greater need for those who live it well. He wrote in 1985 that the best arguments for the Christian faith lie in “the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.”
Throughout his papacy and career as a theologian, the Pope has emphasized the importance of these two themes for the church. He has written eloquently on the ability of music to draw people — those with faith and sometimes those without it — closer to God. He has called for reforms to Catholic liturgy, advocating changes that would better reflect the symmetry and nuance of the Catholic faith.
But he has written more powerfully still about the other great argument for the Catholic faith — the saints. He has spoken with urgency about the world’s great need for saints — not just stories about good men and women who have gone before us, but living witnesses to the truth of the gospel. Being Catholic is not simply about what you know, he has reminded us time and again, but what you do. When he visited the Catholic University of America, where I am president, in April 2008, he put it this way: “Far from being just a communication of factual data — ‘informative’ — the loving truth of the Gospel is creative and life-changing — ‘performative.’”
The creative and life-changing living out of the Catholic faith that Benedict XVI has called for does not find its source in an ethical system or code, but rather in a deep friendship with God nourished by the Church. That is the message the Pope offered at his inaugural Mass as Pope in April 2005. He said on that day, “If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation . . . open wide the doors to Christ — and you will find true life.”
The Pope offered the very same message yesterday by the humble act of resignation. For nearly eight years the Pope has been the supreme leader of the Church, guarding her against evil, teaching her by his words, proclaiming her truth to a world in need of it. He closes this chapter of his life with a single, humble act. In doing so he leads by example, leaving us with two powerful reminders. The first is that our successes are really gifts of God, to be used for his greater glory and for the benefit of his creation. These gifts do not belong to us. They are, as the Gospel’s parable of the talents teaches, entrusted to us for a time so we can do our very best to use them well.
The second reminder is about loving God. Pope Benedict XVI has shown the world that friendship with Jesus Christ — the source of his strength as theologian and Pope — is what really matters. The friendship with which Benedict accepted the papacy is the same friendship that led him to give it up. It is a friendship that has found a welcome home in the heart of this humble Pope. His magnificent contributions to the Catholic Church will not be forgotten. Nor will his example.
— John Garvey is the president of The Catholic University of America and author of the foreword of a forthcoming collection of Benedict XVI’s writings on education, A Reason Open to God.