Pope Benedict XVI’s surprise resignation
Pope Benedict XVl’s decision to resign shocked and surprised millions of people all over the world, both Catholics and non-Catholics. This was not only a once in a lifetime event and a massive news story but something which last took place 600 years ago. We witnessed history before our eyes – the last Pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII in 1415.
Addressing cardinals on Monday morning, Pope Benedict XVl said: “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.”
He added: “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 April 19, 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.”
The Pope’s resignation is not only historic in itself but will no doubt set a precedent for his successors, namely that it is perfectly acceptable to step down from the papacy due to old age or ill health. Ironically, Benedict, long considered by Vatican watchers to be a conservative, has proved to be a moderniser in this regard, and his decision to step down will have far-reaching consequences for the Holy See.
What is Benedict’s legacy? When the Church’s cardinals had to elect a new Pope almost eight years ago they were not sure about the future direction of the Church. Was the time right for major reform within the Church? Was it time for a so-called ‘liberal’ or somebody from Latin America or Africa to lead the Church?
In the end the Church chose continuity, stability and a ‘safe pair of hands’ by electing the conservative Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and a respected theologian, as the first German Pope and, at 78, the oldest man to become Pontiff in 275 years.
So to a considerable extent Pope Benedict can be considered to be a transitional figure, but he nevertheless left his mark on the Church. He continued Pope John Paul’s practice of travelling abroad and undertook 24 apostolic journeys to Europe (including Malta in 2010), Latin America, Africa, Australia, the Middle East and the US. He also embarked on 30 apostolic visits within Italy.
During his papacy, Benedict published three encyclicals – including one in which he criticised the world’s banking system and called for finances to be guided by ethics. He also completed his ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ trilogy on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, and soon after he became Pope he questioned why the European Constitution didn’t mention the “inalienable Christian roots of its culture and civilisation”.
Benedict XVl will be remembered for his attempts at dialogue with the Muslim world, even though he angered many Muslims during a lecture at the University of Regensburg in September 2006 when he quoted a 14th-century Christian Emperor who had said: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached”.
However, in late 2006 he visited the Blue Mosque in Istanbul where he joined Muslim clerics in silent prayer. This was only the second papal visit to an Islamic holy site in history. A year later Pope Benedict met Saudi King Abdullah at the Vatican – the first time a Saudi King had an audience with the Pope.
Part of Pope Benedict’s legacy is undoubtedly an improvement in Christian-Jewish relations. In 2009, he became only the second Pontiff to visit Israel, and in 2006 he visited Auschwitz. It was not an easy trip to make for a German Pope, and he said at the death camp: “To speak in this place of horror, in this place where unprecedented mass crimes were committed against God and man, is almost impossible – and it is particularly difficult and troubling for a Christian, for a Pope from Germany”.
Following the Pope’s resignation announcement, a spokesman for Israel’s Chief Rabbi, Yona Metzger, said: “During his [Pope Benedict’s] period there were the best relations ever between the Church and the chief rabbinate and we hope that this trend will continue. “I think he deserves a lot of credit for advancing inter-religious links the world over between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.”
Benedict’s relations with the Jewish community, however, were not without controversy. In January 2009, he lifted Pope John Paul’s excommunication of four ultraconservative bishops, including Richard Williamson, a Holocaust denier. After protests from Jews, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Catholics, Benedict acknowledged his mistake, saying he was not aware of the bishop’s declaration on the Holocaust.
Pope Benedict also had to face the fact the Church was being rocked by crises over the sexual abuse of children by priests in Europe, the United States and Australia, although most of the abuse took place before he took office. The Pope issued a number of apologies, but many critics argue that he could and should have done much more. In 2008, he met sex abuse victims in the US and Australia and apologised for such abuse.
During his visit to Malta in 2010 he held an emotional meeting with victims of sexual abuse by priests and expressed his “shame and sorrow over what victims and their families have suffered”. A month before his Malta trip he issued a personal apology to the people of Ireland and to the victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests.
Pope Benedict also improved relations with the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians and the Vatican established diplomatic relations with Russia in 2009. He reached out to Anglicans by allowing them to join the Catholic Church while retaining a collective identity, and in September 2010 he visited the UK, marking the first State visit to Britain by a Pope.
The Pope’s social policy was definitely conservative, and he retained the core traditionalist values of the Church. He was firm in his opposition to priests being allowed to marry, women priests, abortion, gay marriage, euthanasia, the right of divorced Catholics who remarry to receive communion, and birth control.
The Pope caused controversy on his first trip to Africa in March 2009 by stating that condoms were not a solution to the AIDS epidemic – but were instead part of the problem. However one year later Benedict took the world by surprise when he told a German Catholic journalist that the use of condoms could be justified in exceptional circumstances.
Benedict also had to deal with a scandal over the Church’s business dealings when his butler was accused of leaking his private papers to the press. Paolo Gabriele was sentenced to 18 months in prison in October 2012 but received a pardon from the Pope in December after he said he felt guilty for betraying the pontiff’s trust.
After February 28, Benedict will first go to the papal summer retreat at Castel Gandolfo, and then move permanently into the four-storey Mater Ecclesiae convent, in the gardens behind St Peter’s Basilica. A conclave to elect Benedict’s successor is to be held in mid-March and some 115 cardinals under the age of 80 will be eligible to choose a new Pope. It should be a very interesting conclave.