A Pope between Winter and Spring

by on Monday, 18 February 2013 Comments

The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI has come for most commentators as a big surprise. How can someone in a position of power voluntarily relinquish it? Power and honors exert so strong an attraction on us that we often see political, economic or clerical leaders cling to them till the end of their lives. Therefore, the departure of the Pope comes as a testimony of personal humility: Benedict XVI has recognized publicly the fact that he no longer had the physical strength necessary to carry on. The fact that he made this announcement on the day marked on the Catholic liturgical calendar for praying specially for the sick makes such recognition even more moving. The gesture made by Benedict reminds me of the words addressed by Jesus to Peter: "I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." (John 21,18) Let us first admire the courage and clarity of someone able to evaluate what he still can reasonably do or not do. This is certainly a lesson in inner freedom.

But two additional questions were raised when Benedict XVI's resignation was made public. The first one might have troubled many Catholics - though it has been asked also by many people who do not belong to the Church: is not the office of the Pope "something special", something sacred somehow? Did not his predecessor, John-Paul II, and several other popes before him, show another example when they persevered till the end, notwithstanding the burden of their illness? Benedict XVI alluded clearly to this when he said in his declaration that the office of the Pope was not carried on simply by "doing things' but also by prayer and by offering one's sufferings. It is not primarily an administrative office, but a spiritual one as well. Still, he also made it very clear that personal discernment could lead different people to reach different decisions. This Pope, whose style has often been presented as conservative, finished his Pontificate with a revolutionary decision, one that will have a profound impact. A Pope is no longer a "prisoner" of his own status, but rather someone who, like many elderly people nowadays, must cope with an ever evolving health situation: what is the best way to live the remaining years of ones' life? Silence and prayer are indeed an option worth considering. By doing so, the Pope has highlighted the humanity, the frailty of any spiritual leader – and spiritual leaders may show also their leadership in the way they renounce their charge. I personally think that the Pope's decision will help advance towards Christian unity: the Bishop of Rome can peacefully resign when his health compels him to do so, as every other bishop and Church leader does The Pope is not "divine", he is a man who can recognize the moment when someone else must take charge. A humbler vision of the Papacy may help to cement unity around it, as many Protestant leaders have already noted in the past. Relinquishing the "magic" of the Papacy will actually make the Papacy stronger, by highlighting the role it can play for all Christians.

The second question that has been raised is to know whether the Pope resigned because of the crises that have agitated the Catholic Church these last years. It seems that Benedict XVI rather thinks that he has helped the Church to return to the basics, that he has put the house more or less in order, and that he can thus leave without failing his duties. For sure, his pontificate has been a tormented period. May Spring now come on the Church, and may she become able to better listen to the voices coming from Asia, Africa and South America, so as not to be only a house of sorrow but also and foremost of praise and of joy. This is certainly the wish of Benedict XVI himself, and he has certainly sacrificed much of himself in order to allow other people able to harvest one day what he has sown.

Photo by Giuseppe Ruggirello [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

Help us!

Help us keep the content of eRenlai free: take five minutes to make a donation

AMOUNT: 

Join our FB Group

Browse by Date

« July 2019 »
Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
8 9 10 11 12 13 14
15 16 17 18 19 20 21
22 23 24 25 26 27 28
29 30 31        

We have 4470 guests and no members online