All over the internet I am seeing photos of Pope Benedict with his back turned to the camera. I don’t like them.
It is already widely reported that abdication should have been expected. The Holy Father indicated that he might do it on several occasions, citing the common good of the Church. He made it clear that he could not leave the ministry due to the difficulties that it presents, but only due to his inability to fulfill his responsibilities.
But it has not happened in 717 years. Shouldn’t he stay on to the bitter end, like Blessed Pope John Paul II did? But Pope Benedict is not John Paul II. Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, secretary to the late pontiff, is reported to have said that John Paul remained on the Chair of St. Peter, despite the fact that he could barely sit up, because he believed “you cannot come down from the cross.” Ultimately, it is a decision only one man can make. Two times Pope Benedict prayed before the body of St. Celestine V, the only other pope to voluntarily abdicate, once leaving his pallium on the tomb.
St. Celestine was only pope for five months and issued a formal decree permitting the abdication of popes in order that there would be no question about the legality of his action. Benedict XVI actually is in the ideal position to know if and when it is the best interests of the Church to step down. He is not doing it because he is afraid of suffering.
It is such a rare occurrence, however, that it makes one wonder. I would suggest that he is just being true to his character as the “reform in continuity” pope. He believes that this kind of decision is appropriate for the Church of today. He has said that under the right circumstances of incapacity a pope might not only be permitted to resign, but may also have an obligation to do so.
Pope Benedict is the Servant of the Servants of God. It is as simple as that. It will be interesting and a blessing for us to be able to experience the Church with a pope emeritus in this information age. Who knows how it will all pan out, but I think it would be a mistake to think that the Holy Father has turned his back on the petrine ministry. As pope he is acting in the interests of preserving and promoting the ministry he has exercised so well.