Talk of Pope Benedict’s mystical experience of God telling him to resign the Papacy seems to have struck a chord with the secular media. The Guardian has the story here and the Telegraph has it here. And yet, if ever there was a non-story, this it is.
Let me try and explain. There is a very good old joke that goes the rounds of preachers (all the best jokes are old, by the way) and which I heard, if I remember right, from Nicky Gumbel, the rector of Holy Trinity Brompton. A young Londoner was in love with two girls, as sometimes happens, and had given the impression he was interested in marrying both of them, which again sometimes happens. But he really could not choose between them: one was called Claire and the other Maria. So he went to Church and knelt down in front of the altar, and prayed to the Almighty. He prayed really hard, and he asked for a sign: “Dear Lord,” said the young cockney, “Please tell me, ’oo shall I ’ave? Shall I ’ave Claire or shall it be the other one?” And he looked up, hoping for an answer, and there over the altar in large letters was God’s reply: AVE MARIA.
Mystical experience? Of course not. Neither for that matter was there anything mystical about the way Charles I consulted the sortes virgilianae. God does speak to people, Popes included, but he does so in rather a different way.
Essentially what happened to Pope Benedict is that he became convinced in prayer that it was the will of God that he should lay down the burden of office. He must have been thinking about this matter, and he prayed about it, and the conviction came, through long hours of prayer, that this was the right thing to do. And this would be the same process that any other Christian would go through when faced with a major decision; so that is why I call this a non-story, in that the story does not reveal anything specially privileged about being Pope, but points to the privileges that all the baptised and confirmed share. Each one of us can pray, and can take dilemmas to God, and the peace of mind that follows a decision is often the providential sign that this is the decision that God wants us to make.
The Pope, while he does have special powers vested in him by virtue of his office, presiding as he does over the Universal Church, at the same time approaches the throne of God just like you and me. Years ago, Catholics were told that Pope Pius XII had a vision of Our Blessed Lord when he was gravely ill in 1954. I remember reading about this as a child; but since then the Church has steered away from portraying the Pope as somehow more spiritually privileged than the rest of us.
Indeed the contemporary picture is the Pope as co-pilgrim with other members of the Church, which I think is the right emphasis. In other words, the holiness and saintliness of the Pope is a holiness and saintliness to which we are all called and in which we can all share. Benedict’s story of conversation with God in prayer is a reminder that all of us are called to speak to God in prayer, and all of us can discover his will for us in prayer.