In an interview given 10 years ago, the then-Cardinal Ratzinger was asked about the possibility of his retiring from his position at the Vatican: “Yes, I had the desire to retire in 1991, 1996, 2001, because I had the idea I could write some books and return to my studies.” He then added, by way of explanation: “But, on the other hand, seeing the suffering Pope, I cannot say to the Pope, ‘I will retire, I will write my books.’ I have to continue.” Little did the 75-year-old suspect that he would actually succeed the suffering leader who inspired him, and ascend to that same sacrificial helm just two years later.
During the conclave in which he was elected, Pope Benedict XVI recalled that: “At a certain point, I prayed to God, ‘please don’t do this to me’.” But, when it was thrust upon him, Benedict did not refuse the Petrine ministry, and presented himself, on his election, as “a simple, humble labourer in the vineyard of the Lord.” And so, instead of enjoying a quiet retirement, Benedict committed himself with quiet resignation to the most public, most demanding ministry in the world – and at an age when cares and concerns ought finally to be cast off.
Thus, instead of writing for a small audience of fellow scholars, the frail pontiff preached to the world. He crossed his crosier with the flashing swords of our era, denouncing the “dictatorship of relativism” in the post-modern West and calling pre-modern Islam to justify itself before the demands of reason. To each and all he offered again the kernel of Christianity in all of its radical and radiant simplicity: “God is Love!” Benedict invited the world to embrace the riches which are offered in and through true friendship with Jesus Christ.
But, as the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, Benedict knew the problems facing the Church are not always external. The grave sins of sexual abuse and the disgraceful scandals that have emerged from every level of the Roman Curia – from its bankers to its butlers – have besmirched the purity of the pontiff’s message. When Moses’ arms grew tired, Aaron could be trusted to hold them up, as the battle raged (cf. Ex 17:12); Benedict’s prayerful decision to abdicate his throne will prompt the election of a new Moses – one, we hope, who will surround himself with faithful brothers willing to help him in his own coming hours of need.
“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (Jn 13:1). Pope Benedict now goes on, not to his long-deferred and well-deserved sabbatical of reading and writing, but to live out the same vocation as his long-suffering predecessor in solitude, silence, and prayer: “Though I am now retiring to a life of prayer,” he has said “I will always be close to all you and I am sure all of you will be close to me, even though I remain hidden to the world.” With the same Christian resignation that led him to the papal throne, the shepherd now resigns himself to the care of the Good Shepherd. The act itself is his final homily: a lesson in leadership, humility, and piety, a performative sermon preached, not in word alone, but in deed. We wish Pope Benedict “a safe lodging, a holy rest, and peace at the last.”