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Vale, Pope Benedict!
The low-key announcement of retirement by Pope Benedict XVI was characteristic of the brilliant but humble style of a man who served faithfully as Holy Father of the Catholic Church for the relatively short period of eight years.
His resignation, the first by a pope in 600 years, honours the papacy as much by the dignity of his retirement as by the courage with which he exercised the heavy burdens of his office.
It has long been a tradition of the papacy that once elected, a pope remains in office until his death. This tradition goes back to the first Bishop of Rome, the apostle St Peter, who was martyred in Rome during the persecutions by the Emperor Nero, and whose remains are buried under the magnificent Basilica which commemorates Peter's 30-year leadership of the Church after the Ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven.
Pope Benedict has broken that tradition in the most decisive way, remaining in office only long enough to ensure an orderly transition to his successor, who will be elected in the Vatican in March by the cardinals of the Catholic Church who are under the age of 80.
In his letter of resignation, the Holy Father made clear that he had decided to resign some time ago, in the best interests of the Church.
In a letter to the Cardinals, he wrote, "Dear Brothers, I have convoked you to this Consistory, not only for the three canonisations, 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 barque 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 recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil 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."
He concluded, "With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer."
Benedict's eight years as leader of the Catholic Church were characterised by courageous leadership in the style of his predecessor and friend, Blessed John Paul II, the first non-Italian pope since the 16th century.
He gave inspirational leadership through his three encyclical letters, through his visits to many countries as pope, through his extraordinary writings (including weekly sermons and three books on Jesus Christ), and in his administration of the Church where he had to deal with issues of major complexity, including rebuilding relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, establishing the Anglican Ordinariate, the continuing scandal of sexual abuse and relations with governments which persecute the Church, such as the Communist Party in China.
One of the Church's most perceptive observers, Damian Thompson, religious affairs editor of London's Daily Telegraph, wrote, "Catholics will be deeply shocked and, in most cases, dismayed by this decision, which I see above all as an act of self-sacrifice by a man not prepared to see the Church suffer as a result of his increasing frailty.
"Benedict XVI's achievements as pontiff have been remarkable. He has renewed the worship of the Church, reconnecting it to the majesty and deep piety of the past.
"He has forged new links with non-Catholics, for example by bringing ex-Anglicans into the fold through the Ordinariate.
"He has promulgated teaching documents further integrating the love and teaching of Christ with the structures of the Church – structures that, it would appear, he feels now unable to continue ruling."
Attention now inevitably turns to the question of who will be his successor. This will be decided by a Conclave of Cardinals, all of whom were appointed by either Blessed John Paul II or Benedict himself. To be elected pope, a cardinal normally requires the support of a two-thirds majority of the cardinals.
The intense speculation around the succession is really pointless. There is a clever saying that the man who enters a Conclave as pope leaves as a cardinal.
Certainly, the cardinals themselves believe that the decision as to who is to serve as the successor of St Peter will be inspired by the Holy Spirit, although it will be taken after intense discussion and prayer by about 117 cardinals of the Church from around 50 countries, representing all five continents.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 26 No 2 (March 2013), p. 3
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