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Pope Benedict XVI has announced that he is to resign on February 28, 2013.
When a parish priest retires he’s supposed to head for the hills. His successor doesn’t want him hanging around the parish undermining the new regime.
It’s much the same with the handover of power in any organization. The one leaving is supposed to do just that. When you step down you should lay low and let the new guy strut his stuff.
But what happens when a pontiff exchanges the white soutane for an old black cassock? What happens when he puts aside the miter and crozier for an old felt hat and a walking stick? What’s to do when he swaps the throne of Peter for an easy chair?
We’ve never seen anything like it. A pope retires. First he’s headed off to the papal mountain retreat Castel Gandolfo. Then we’re told that he will live in monastic type setting within the Vatican. He will revert to his previous status as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
Then what? What must it be like for a new vicar of Christ to have the former head of a billion Catholics living on his doorstep? Won’t it be a strain to have Joseph Ratzinger around? Will he slip into a side door of St Peter’s to say Mass every morning? Will he worship at the high altar with the other bishops? Will he sit in the consistory to vote for his successor? Won’t he be looking over the shoulder of his successor every chance he gets?
I don’t think so. Knowing the man as we have come to know him, we have seen a truly humble and gentle person. Joseph Ratzinger is essentially a shy and retiring scholar. He’s a musician and yet the quintessential quiet man.
Instead of causing trouble for anyone he will probably set a fantastic precedent for a new millennium of just what the role of the successor of Peter should be.
Pope John Paul II opened up a new role for the pope–one of global apostle. He stepped out of the Vatican and onto the world stage. He became the first truly international pope–an evangelist for a world of instant access, instant travel and instant communication.
This development in the papacy is, in itself, an amazing new direction for the millennia old institution. For the first time since the Apostles Peter and Paul the prince of the Apostles has become a traveling missionary–reaching out to the entire world. John Paul II showed the apostolic power of the pope in a fresh and dynamic way. He became the predominant religious leader in the world. Benedict XVI showed that he understood this new development by calling his trips around the world “apostolic journeys.” Benedict did his best to step into the shoes of global evangelist, but this role can really only be carried by a man young and energetic enough to endure the rigors of travel and the difficulties of being a global mass media personality.
With Benedict’s retirement, what may develop, is a papacy with two parts. A pope emeritus who is a theologian and man of prayer–a man with over forty years experience of the papacy, the Vatican and all its workings, and therefore a man who remembers and can advise and guide the younger man.
Remember the role of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. After her husband died she became a senior member of the English royal family, a trusted adviser to the queen, a friend of the young royals and a fixed point of continuity and tradition. The senior pope–papa emeritus–becomes just that: a senior adviser, a friend and counselor and an advocate and supporter of his successor.
A man more driven by ambition and ego than Joseph Ratzinger may find such a role impossible. He will not. A man of his intellect and creativity will be able to function in exactly this role as an elder statesman–a wise retired abbot and a theological and ecclesial consultant.
I met Joseph Ratzinger once on a visit to Rome. I was walking across St Peter’s Square when I noticed the famous figure of the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith heading across the square wearing a cassock, overcoat and simple black beret. I smiled and bid him good morning. He smiled back politely and nodded and went on his way to the office. He always did seem better behind the scenes.
His farewell this week was rather like my meeting with him. A simple man walking across the public square of history–happy to be headed to the privacy of his study–where he has some work to do.