It was about six o’clock in the morning, Pacific Time. I was jolted awake by a chime from my phone indicating an incoming text message. Since to be awakened first thing in the morning by your phone never means good news, I stumbled from bed and stared blearily at my phone. Once my mind started processing, shock seeped in:
Just heard on the news that the pope is stepping down at the end of the month for health reasons.
The colleague who had sent the text was obviously in shock also because the original text included uncharacteristic spelling errors.
One blessing of modern smart-phone technology is instant access to the Internet, which I immediately checked. Sure enough, this wasn’t an early April Fool’s Day joke. I stumbled back to bed but could not get back to sleep.
When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope on April 19, 2005, I was ecstatic. We had turned on the television in the conference room at Catholic Answers, and when the announcement was made the room erupted in cheers. The rest of the day went by in a blur of excitement. After the news yesterday, the atmosphere in the office was the exact opposite of how it had been that day nearly eight years ago. We were still doing what we could to learn news of what had happened but with heavy hearts and (no pun intended) a sense of resignation.
In the rearview mirror, signs that this was a possibility suddenly come into focus—much like the sign to the exit on the freeway that you were looking for and missed until you passed it by. There were the remarks in interviews from Pope Benedict that he believed that a pope who could not continue in ministry should retire. The reports that the Pope was looking increasingly frail. The multiple consistories in the past couple of years, raising a number of men to the College of Cardinals. But there was also the fact that “popes just don’t resign.” Well, evidently, until they do.
It is fruitless and not particularly spiritually healthy at this point to publicly speculate on who the next pope will be. When a pope dies, the Church grieves. There are nine days of Masses for the repose of the pope’s soul; there is a period of mourning before the conclave opens. It gives the faithful time to transition from anxiety to hope, from sorrow to joy. Something like that is needed now, I think. We need to take stock of the papacy of Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict XVI—as, curiously in retrospect, he signed himself in the Jesus of Nazareth series—to reflect and appreciate all that he has given the Church.
This Lent will be an appropriate time for reflection and appreciation, and perhaps a bit of grief.
Let’s not forget though that Lent is preparation for Easter and that, with the Risen Lord, the Church will rise again. A new successor to St. Peter will be chosen, handed the keys to the kingdom, and reminded that service means to allow oneself to be carried “where you do not wish to go” (John 21:18).
The challenge of the Petrine service is for the successor to St. Peter to always discern what the Lord is asking Peter to do in this time and place. For John Paul II, the challenge was to remain to the very end, trusting that the Lord would provide for the Church despite his personal infirmities. For Benedict XVI, his challenge evidently was to know when to step down, trusting that the Lord would provide for the Church even though Benedict no longer felt capable to continue in office himself. If I had to speculate on anything, I would guess that neither John Paul II nor Benedict XVI at the beginning of their papal ministries suspected where their commitment to allow themselves to be carried wherever the Lord wished would ultimately lead them.
So it will be with the new pope, whoever he will be. Let us pray for him, that he, too, will hear the Lord’s voice and, like his predecessors, will follow the Lord wherever it is the Lord has for him to go.
St. Peter, pray for him!