Reaction to the Holy Father’s Resignation

This article originally appeared in the parish bulletin on Feb. 17, 2013

On Monday I was awakened long before the sun came up by a phone call from a friend who had seen on the news that Pope Benedict had read a letter announcing his resignation. I guessed it might have been the imagination of some reporter and went back to sleep. But when I awakened in the morning I felt certain that the phone call had been accurate. I sat up and prayed for a little bit before letting my feet hit the floor, and felt convinced that everything was going to be just fine. A long perusal of various websites confirmed the news. For the first time since 1415, a pope had resigned.

On Monday, February 11, Pope Benedict assembled the cardinals who were in Rome for a consistory at which he announced the canonizations of Antonio Primaldo and Companions, Laura di Santa Caterina da Siena Montoya y Upegui, and Maria Guadalupe Garcia Zavala. They will be canonized on May 12. Then he announced something else:

Dear Brothers,

I have convoked you to this Consistory, not only for the three canonizations, but also to communicate to you a decision of great importance for the life of the Church. After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.

 Dear Brothers, I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects. And now, let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff. With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.

 Since no one seems to know quite how to react to this news, reporters have spent days revealing to us “how this will affect Minnesotans.” Although you don’t need me to expound on my feelings, I do want to say that I give thanks to God for the pontificate of Pope Benedict, and for the great humility he has shown in stepping down from the Chair of St. Peter. Not quite 86 years old, he perceived his own flagging strength was no longer adequate for leading the Church and decided to act boldly and do what had not been done since the last papal resignation almost 600 years ago. I believe Pope Benedict is forging a modern-day process his successors will have available to them to spare them the enormous weight of the ministry of St. Peter for the rest of their lives. Perhaps resignation will not be chosen frequently in the future, but Pope Benedict’s precedent makes it clear that popes of our era can actually do what Church law has long held possible.

I imagine there will be many reflections on all that the gentle and holy man we have come to know as Pope Benedict has given the Church and the world. We can enjoy these memories without yet having to mourn him, and when his successor is elected we will know that the retired pope (will we again refer to him as Cardinal Ratzinger?) will be praying for the whole Church. He intends to move into rooms in a monastery of cloistered nuns within Vatican City, where, as he announced, he will live “a life dedicated to prayer.”

The last phase of Pope Benedict’s life will begin at 8:00 PM Rome time on Thursday, February 28, when, as he put it, “the See of Rome, the See of St. Peter will be vacant.” It will be the beginning of a period called the Sede Vacante, or “vacant see.” The term conveys the idea of an empty chair. Almost all officials of the Roman Curia (the machinery that runs the Vatican) will lose their offices at that moment. On a date that as of this writing hasn’t been revealed, the conclave will begin. The current rules call for a conclave to be delayed until 15 to 20 days after the Sede Vacante begins, but that could be waived by Pope Benedict while he is still pope so that the Church will not be without a pope for very long. At any rate, the 117 cardinals who are under the age of 80 will enter the conclave and amid much prayer will elect a new Supreme Pontiff, most likely in only a few days. Let us all pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

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