He's announced that he's going to abdicate on Feb. 28th, at 8pm Rome time. Well, won't that be a birthday to remember (I'll try not to take it personally, Holy Father). I woke up today, my alarm ringing, and I was tempted to hit snooze. But the text from my friend saying that Pope Benedict XVI had decided to abdicate woke me up. Questions flooded my mind. When was the last time a pope abdicated? Was there any lead up to this announcement? How bizarre is it going to be for Conclave to be held while the previous pope is still alive? How bad is his health - what's going to happen to him once he ceases to be Pope Benedict XVI? Who could possibly succeed him? Initially, I was just stunned. Then, actually a bit upset. Then came a bit of a "well, it happened" attitude. And then sadness.
As the day has gone on, I've reflected more and more about how great a pope this man is, how great a man this pope is, and how lucky I am to have grown up with him as my spiritual father. When my high school campus minister ran through the halls on April 19th, 2005 screaming "we have a new pope!" I wasn't affected much. I didn't know the Church the way I do now. I wasn't familiar with his (or any) theological writings. I didn't know about his relationship with John Paul II. But 8 years have passed, and God has blessed His Church with an amazing shepherd who has done his hardest to fight the good fight and finish the race. I grew up with Pope Benedict as my spiritual father. I would probably still be upset, feeding my knee-jerk reaction that consisted of "hey, thanks for just leaving, papa," if not for the fact that - hey, this is Pope Benedict XVI we're talking about. The man is a genius. He's methodical, wise, straightforward, insightful, clear...and most of all: holy. He would not have made this decision rashly - He and God have been discussing this for a long time.
Kudos to him (or whatever the German equivalent is). To be brave and humble enough to say that he can no longer lead the Church in the way she deserves. Not only is that a humble move, but a very humbling one for all of us. It's a reminder to all of us that Pope Benedict XVI knows exactly what the Church is: not some thing to be tinkered with, but a living body with Christ as its head, something to be nurtured and cared for. He understands that the Church is bigger than he is. He understands that the papal office does not subsist in him. He, qua pope, subsists in the papal office. Popes may change, but the Church endures.
I can't wrap my head around how much Pope Benedict XVI has done for all of us. He didn't even want to be pope. He kept asking John Paul II if he could retire - and the late pope's answer was always "I need you here." And Ratzinger obeyed. He took on his predecessor's World Youth Day celebrations (I went to all three that he attended). He dealt with sex abuse scandals. He invited Anglicans back into full communion with the Church. And amidst all this (and in no way was that an exhaustive list), he continued to write with a depth and a clarity at which I have constantly been amazed. Obviously, he has a different personality than his predecessor. But they were close friends - their minds were the mind of the Church, and I know that Blessed Pope John Paul II is praying for him today.
I've been at the John Paul II Institute since August, and we've read a ton of Pope Benedict's writings - and they're all amazing. The pope has influenced me in so many ways, and I have grown so much, just from reading what he wrote. From seeing how he truly saw the papacy (and especially his and JP II's papacy) as a continuum, to having my week of final exams be a kind of personal retreat because of how he forced me to live the faith while studying his material, he always inspired. Will he ramp up how many books he publishes, now that he will have more time and less stress? Here's hoping. If not, well, what he's already written will continue to move people towards Christ and His Church for lifetimes.
My housemates and I discussed possible successors over breakfast this morning. Is there another intellectual like Pope Benedict? We don't know. Who will replace him? Ouellet? Scola? Dolan? It's all speculation. Regardless, this really is the end of an era. The last of the major players of Vatican II. He knew how to make you face your God.
Lent is starting in a little over a day. A time of fasting and of repentance. We should add some prayers and fasting for our beloved Pope Benedict XVI. On Feb. 28th, when my birthday rolls around, I will be much more inclined to instead celebrate the wonderful leader and spiritual guide that Joseph Ratzinger was as pope, and will continue to be once he abdicates. I'll be praying for you, papa. And I'll be eating Eggs Benedict in honour of you, too. God bless ya.
"Well done, my good and faithful servant." (Matthew 25:23).