“Pope’s resignation stuns world leaders,” says the Catholic Herald’s headline; and not just them, it stunned most of us; it certainly stunned me, and I have not yet regained my balance. Getting over the deeply held assumption that popes don’t resign is going to take some time, as the implications of the Holy Father’s decision work themselves out. Cardinal Dziwisz, Pope John Paul’s former secretary, has caused something of a stir by saying that the late pope had decided to remain Pope while dying an agonising death from Parkinson’s disease because “you don’t get down from the cross”: this has been interpreted as a criticism of the present Holy Father, though the cardinal denies this. Pope Benedict’s abdication has also been interpreted as an implicit criticism of Pope John Paul’s decision not to abdicate, but to die in office even though towards the end he became incapable of governing the Church. That’s also nonsense. The two men were, are, very different: the end of both pontificates reflects the deep integrity of both of them, each in his own way. Pope John Paul’s final years were, at the time, profoundly inspiring. I have been looking through what I wrote at the time, and have found this: “‘Be not afraid’: it has become almost the watchword for his papacy: not because he has obsessively repeated it for others to follow, but because he has lived it out himself. He is in constant pain; his hands shake with Parkinson’s disease; and still he does not spare himself. The older and more frail he becomes, the more his courage shines out, and the nearer his papal service comes to being a kind of living martyrdom.”
But John Paul’s was not necessarily an example for others to follow in the same way. Benedict is his own man: and his abdication has also manifested great courage and holiness. The secular world, which has not hesitated to criticise his pontificate, has been almost unanimous in its admiration for the manner of his going. “A noble resignation,” the Times newspaper called it, and the paper went on to say: “It is no personal failing that Benedict XVI is the first pontiff in 600 years to resign his office. It is, rather, a manifestation of the immense demands imposed on the Pope by a worldwide Church and of his humility in resolving that he is too frail fully to meet them. It is a noble and selfless decision.”
All true, absolutely true. And yet, and yet; I cannot rid myself of the feeling that when, at one second past 7pm, GMT, on February 28, Pope Benedict XVI reverts to being Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, for me he will still be the Pope whatever the juridical procedure says. This isn’t a matter simply of procedures in canon law; the feelings are engaged here, and at the deepest level. Catholics love their pope; and for the pope simply to disappear, for this beloved person to say, in effect, that after the end of this month we will never see him or hear from him again is like a kind of bereavement without a death and the final closure that a good death brings. We are being told by the Vatican authorities that we will have a new pope in place in time for Easter. But I rebelliously find myself saying that I don’t want a new pope: I’ve got a Pope, I’d like to keep him, please.
Well, I can’t. We’re just going to have to get used to it. And living through the coming weeks is not going to be easy. Once there is a new pope in place, it may get easier: but he, too, will have his problems when he comes to assume the burden of papal office, problems that no pope before him has had, because of the circumstances of his election. His predecessor will be not merely still alive but in close proximity: they cannot avoid occasionally meeting, as they walk in the papal gardens where Pope Benedict’s (sorry, Cardinal Ratzinger’s) residence will be situated. Perhaps as the new Pope takes the air he will hear the sounds of beautifully played Mozart floating through the air from the cardinal’s grand piano. It will all be strange, passing strange.
There is one comfort. The wretched Hans Küng has taken the opportunity for (let us hope) one last bitter jibe at Pope Benedict, saying not only that his decision was “understandable for many reasons”. but also that “It is to be hoped, however, that Ratzinger will not exercise an influence on the choice of his successor”. He repeated his old tired criticisms of the Pope, saying finally that “During his time in office he has ordained so many conservative cardinals, that amongst them is hardly a single person to be found who could lead the Church out of its multifaceted crisis.”
Well, there’s some comfort there: what that actually means is that the Holy Father has appointed a number of men of his own mind, all capable of bringing to completion a radical pontificate which needs a few more years for its work to be finally done, to be made lasting and secure. All the front-runners are exponents of the Ratzingerian revolution. So Hans Küng’s hope that “Ratzinger will not exercise an influence on the choice of his successor” has already been frustrated. For, though Pope Benedict will undoubtedly refrain from any direct interference in the choice of his successor, the die is already cast, and cast by him. Whoever emerges from the conclave as pope, it will be someone he has already chosen. Thank God for that, at least.