Hey, what’s the deal here? Popes don’t resign! At least, they almost never do. Only four have quit in the last 1,000 years, the most recent more than 600 years ago in 1415. That was before America was discovered. It was before Gutenberg invented his printing press.
So unlikely was the possibility that hardly anybody even believed Pope Benedict XVI at the beginning of his service when he said he would step down if his age or health ever prevented him from carrying out his duties. So when he actually did announce on Monday that he was stepping down on Feb. 28 due to health issues from old age, it was almost stunning.
It’s a sad commentary on the modern age when someone can shock us by merely keeping his word, isn’t it? Other popes have hung on to the bitter end despite becoming more and more incapacitated. Why didn’t this one?
If there is a deeper reason for the pope’s resignation, it can be found in one part of his remarks to cardinals Monday. “In today’s world,” he said, “subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary.” The church needs someone strong enough, in other words, to preserve the church’s traditions in a world of rapid change shaken by questions of faith.
Ironically, Benedict’s very radical move – breaking a 600-year precedent counts, right? – will help him preserve that conservative approach. He is now in the nearly unprecedented position of being able to have a profound influence on who his successor is. He has already handpicked a majority of the College of Cardinals who will vote on the new pope.
So the church that serves 1 billion Catholics worldwide will remain, to fall back on a cliché, an island of stability in a sea of change. Too often these days, the voice of tradition gets lost in the shout for progress, and the past gets forgotten in our mad dash to the future. That will be less likely to happen now.
True leaders live by the words they preach. They teach us by their own example.
Pope Benedict XVI has just shown us how it it’s done.