The wound is still fresh and the shock of the blow makes the sting all the worse. The sadness that comes with death is something we are all too familiar with, but the ambiguity of the papal resignation leaves us confused. So many of us see Pope Benedict XVI as a spiritual father, whose works from both before and during his pontificate affect us profoundly. How could he leave us this way? Even as we seek to understand his reasons, we are left frustrated and uncertain.
Theologians and those who study the nature of the Church will give us some answers in time. They will discuss how Pope Benedict has placed the office before the man and reaffirmed that the Petrine ministry is not about the personality of the Pontiff. They might consider how the terms of service for others who hold office in the Church—from pastors to bishops to cardinals—often no longer last until death but a retirement age that reflects increasing lifespans. They will debate what this means for how we treat the modern papacy and the almost sacramental character it seems to have for those who hold it. The questions of protocol and rank for former popes will surely need clarification.
For now, though, the prospect of the empty chair is still before us. There is no use pretending that it doesn’t sting, or that the whole idea sits easily with us. Yet for all the angst this decision will bring, we must not lose sight of the profound humility shown by Pope Benedict. Along with his blessed predecessor, Pope Benedict gives a powerful witness to our utter dependence on the grace of Christ. He gives testimony to the confidence we must have that the Holy Spirit is guiding us even through uncharted waters.
It must be a terrible thing to examine one’s conscience as Supreme Pastor of the Church—the spiritual weight is undoubtedly immense. As much as we might be tempted, we can never fairly second-guess this prayerful decision of him who will stand before Christ and render account for the whole of His flock. Even as we struggle to comprehend his decision, we must respect the abiding faith that inspired it. So we must come to terms with the empty chair and endure a time of Lenten sadness that necessarily precedes Easter joy. Let us then grieve for a time, all the while taking comfort that the Holy Spirit is still at work in the Church, and Christ is still drawing the barque of Peter towards heavenly shores.
When the prior of the Dominican House of Studies announced at the end of our conventual Mass Monday morning that the Pope had resigned, he asked us to sing the Salve Regina for the Holy Father. The Salve is how we end most every day as Dominicans, imploring the protection of the Blessed Virgin. No matter what troubles us in our religious life, all the friars preachers—from the novices to the nonagenarians—entrust their worries and cares to her intercession, and ask her to keep us under her mantle and draw us to her Son. And so, at the prior’s word, we fell to our knees, and prayed that Our Lady would turn her eyes to Benedict, our shepherd and teacher, and walk with him on this, his twilight journey.
Image: Statue of Saint Peter (Helinski Cathedral)