There have been four popes who have reigned during my lifetime but I only remember two of them, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict. As you probably know, the papacy is an ancient institution, tracing itself all the way back to St. Peter himself. I have a feeling that there will be a lot of papal history in the news in the next few days so I won't even try to put something here that is worthwhile. I'll just tell you what this means for me today.
When I started paying attention at mass, I heard "John Paul, our pope" all the way until I was ordained a priest. I can remember the transition from hearing "Daniel, Francis, William, and James, our bishops" to just "Daniel our bishop" and, eventually to "Jerome our bishop" but it was always preceded by "John Paul, our Pope". I was a priest when John Paul II died and I have to admit that I had a difficult time praying for "Benedict, our Pope." It was not because of the man. I loved the man himself and have admired everything that he has done as a pope. From reaching out to the Muslim world, to the great writings and encyclicals he gave us, and his strong encouragements of the use of technology, Pope Benedict has been a great pope. The problem I had with saying, "Benedict, our pope" was that I had always heard "John Paul, our Pope." It was a break with my childhood, a break with what had always been. Now a whole new group of Catholics will get to experience this difficult transition.
I can remember praying for Pope John Paul II during the last few days of his life. Pessimists griped that he could linger for months if not years in a vegetative state. It was good for the world to watch this man who had taught us so much about the dignity of life to also learn from him the dignity of death. So many people wanted him to retire but I think he knew that it was just as important to show the world that the church is not just an anti-abortion political cabal. We honestly believe that all life is gift from God that should be respected from natural birth to natural death and that suffering is a constitutive element of being human.
Yet, Pope Benedict has gone in a different direction and decided to retire. Is he giving into the liberal wing of the Catholic Church and trying to limit the influence of the papacy by making it seem just like every other temporary position in the church? I don't think so. There's a part of me that thinks the papacy is too important of an institution to not have someone who has already done the job who can advise a successor with difficult decisions. I know that there are some who will say that having a retired pope somewhere in the world is a problem. What type of authority does he have? What authority is taken away? What do we call him? Is it still appropriate for him to wear papal clothing? etc.
But, I have a feeling that having a former pope will actually be an incomparable asset. Dare I suggest that this Pope has learned something from our presidential system. I recently heard part of the book, "The President's Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity" by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy. It talked about how former presidents, even presidents from different parties, would support and advise current presidents, especially on matters of foreign policy. For instance, President Nixon apparently turned out to be one of President Clinton's most important advisers on China. This Pope who has lived through so much can now be an invaluable source of wisdom for the next pope and ensure continuity at a time when it is so important. And, if he chooses not to do that, he can also be a fierce prayer warrior for whoever is the next pope.
Thank you, Pope Benedict, for your years of service and know of my love and prayers as you enter into the next part of your life.