Benedict’s clear guidelines
When Pope Benedict XVI announced his retirement, the world was astounded. The clue as to why he took this courageous decision is probably contained in that part of his resignation announcement where he states: “Today’s world is subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith.”
Contemporary popes have been subject to unprecedented pressures. Benedict was not alone in his dilemma of sustaining his leadership of the Church while his health deteriorated. The private secretary of Pope Paul VI, Monsignor Pasquale Macchi, revealed after the death of the Pope that he left secret instructions that, in the event of his becoming “non-compos mentis” (not of sound mind), the papacy should be considered vacant and a conclave called. His successor, Pope John Paul II, was however determined to stick it to the very end.
In 1995, I was part of a ministerial delegation headed by Tonio Borg when we had talks with our counterparts in the Ministry of Home Affairs in Rome. During the visit we were also privileged to be granted front seating during the Pope’s outdoor Mass in St Peter’s Square and were later introduced to him.
John Paul II was already suffering from the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. We could see that the illness had already marked him and taken over his mental and physical capabilities. His suffering was clearly visible in his faintly expressionless face and bent body. Ten years later, the slow-developing disease took its final toll.
For John Paul, the suffering was an opportunity to join himself “more intimately to the mystery of the Cross of Christ”. In his book The Pope In Winter, author John Cornwell wrote: “This was a Pope who, immobile, and often speechless, was clearly incapable of managing the Church. The question – and it was being asked all over Rome - was this: how much does he understand the prodigious enterprise over which he presides?” Clearly, Cardinal Ratzinger, so close to John Paul II, could see the damage that was being wrought to the Church. He was evidently determined to avoid all this from happening again under his watch.
In his resignation announcement, Benedict stated that “strength of mind and body has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me”.
Pope Benedict has set an example for future popes and other leaders who stay too long. Those who keep a firm grip on the reins of power instead of yielding to the inevitable dictates of wear and tear are only deluding themselves and creating unnecessary problems to the institution and people they are supposed to lead.
On the other hand, Pope John Paul II set an opposite example. Terminally ill and crippled by his disease, he set himself the task of leading through his suffering. He saw his public suffering as a demonstration of faith and devotion to the Church not as a hindrance to his performance.
But let God be the judge. There ought to be truth in both contentions made.
In his resignation speech, Pope Benedict made it clear that the job required someone who was fit and vigorous. A wider interpretation of this is that the Church needs a new leader who is mature and experienced but young enough to tackle the Church’s deep and long-standing problems over a long period of time, as well as being sufficiently independent of mind, tough and determined to establish his authority over a fragile Church, rebellious clergy and a deeply sceptic public.
As the 117 cardinals that will gather at the Vatican to elect a new Pope, they will for sure be guided by that strong message from Pope Benedict.
Insiders say that the process of election is divided in two parts. First, the cardinals decide on what is most important for the Church in the near and distant future and, then, they try to shortlist the candidates who would fit the criteria.
So, besides age and vigour, as clearly indicated by Pope Benedict, the cardinals will also focus on the problems of the Church and the possible solutions. They will be considering, among others, the growing Church in Third World countries; the loss of faith and trust in the Church in the western world; historical burdens that could rule out candidates from former-colonial countries such as the UK, France and Spain; the USA is also problematic because one cannot envisage someone from the only remaining superpower in the world leading also one of the largest denominations in the world, the slippery search for unity of the Christian Churches and last, but not least, the resurgence of fundamentalist Islam.
This will probably bring down the list of likely candidates to a very small number. Let us pray to God to lead and guide the cardinals at the conclave to take the right decisions. The impact on the Church and the future of the world is now, to a certain extent, resting in their vulnerable hands. It is indeed a very heavy burden that only God can lighten and solve.