For the first time in almost 600 years, the global leader of the Catholic faith has chosen to relinquish the papacy rather than stay on as Pope until death.
Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world on Monday by announcing he will resign effective Feb. 28.
“After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths due to an advanced age are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry,” he told a meeting of Vatican cardinals, according to The Associated Press.
Petrine refers to the Pope’s role as successor to St. Peter.
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Archbishop Martin Currie of the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. John’s was as surprised as anyone by the news. Benedict will be the first pope to resign since Pope Gregory XII stepped down in 1415.
However, Currie can understand Benedict’s reasons for doing so.
“It’s very understandable, because the role that the Pope has from the time he wakes in the morning and goes to bed at night, every moment of his day is planned for him,” said Currie, who added that Benedict’s decision may set a precedent for future aging popes.
“He’s dealing with this committee and that committee, he’s expected to travel — the physical energy and the psychic energy required to carry this on is enormous, and at 85, he’s recognized that his resources are diminishing, and for the good of the church he has made this decision.”
Benedict, then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was elected as the successor to Pope John Paul II in 2005 at the age of 78 — the oldest newly elected pope in almost 300 years.
Some speculated at the time that Benedict was chosen to succeed John Paul II to give cardinals time to further evaluate younger candidates who might one day serve as pope.
“To have a new man, it would give the cardinals time to reflect and think about where the church is going and what type of person may be needed for this 21st century in which we are living in,” said Currie.
John Scott, a retired professor of philosophy at Memorial University, said Benedict’s decision to resign shows the church’s human side and may promote change within it.
“I think it can be seen as a hopeful sign of the institutional church acknowledging its own human needs,” he wrote in an email to The Telegram on Monday.
“Just before his recent death, Cardinal Carlo Martini said that the Church is ‘200 years behind’ in recognizing its responsibilities to act more alertly, wisely and courageously within the contemporary world. The Pope’s decision does strike me as a courageous step toward accepting this criticism. By choosing not to follow Pope John Paul II’s example in this matter, he may be setting a precedent that can trigger other important changes in the church’s current vision and practice of leadership.”
Concerns have been expressed that the Catholic faith has fallen behind the times socially, particularly with respect to the position of women in the church, its perceived intolerance towards homosexuality and its views on abortion rights.
The stain of numerous claims of sexual abuse involving priests has also hurt the Catholic Church. Benedict, who has been accused of protecting some church officials from such allegations during his time as cardinal, was the first pope to meet with victims of abuse, according to a report from The New York Times.
Tried to open church up
Currie views Benedict as a figure who tried to make inroads in the areas of humanism, interactions with other denominations of faith, and cases of sexual abuse that have been linked to priests.
“He has tried to open the church up,” said Currie.
“Pope Benedict is a marvellous man and I can see how he, in his very clear and precise way, would say it’s time to let go of the reins,” said Bishop Peter Hundt of the Diocese of Corner Brook and Labrador.
“I can see how he would say he is not able to do the job the way he should and it’s time to let a younger man take it over.”
Pope John Paul II, despite ill health, carried on in the position until he died a month before he turned 85. Hundt said both men may have responded differently to their situations by virtue of what they felt they were called to do.
“Two people can be in similar situations and God calls them to do different things,” said Hundt. “The one thing that amazed me was how, in John Paul’s frailty, a lot of people were able to identify with him in a new way and his ministry took on another dimension and another message through his frailty. I have no doubt he felt God was calling him to continue for that and other reasons.
“God could be calling Pope Benedict in a different way, in terms of telling him he doesn’t need to do (what Pope John Paul II did).”
Danny McCann of Port au Port, who is an active member of the Catholic Church in western Newfoundland, was also not surprised.
“He was having difficulty performing his duties and being in public,” said McCann.
“He had lots of support around him I’m sure. Obviously, it’s something he feels he can’t carry on in the state of health that he is in.”
McCann thinks one of the interesting legacies Pope Benedict XVI will leave is linking the papacy to the ubiquitous social media phenomenon. Last year, the pope opened a Twitter account.
“It seemed like he was trying lately to stay in touch and obviously felt that was a direction the church needed to be going in.” said McCann.
Speculation has already begun on who will replace Benedict — a decision is expected before Easter. Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the Canadian head of the Vatican’s office for bishops, is among those who have been named as a potential candidate. He is 68.
“Whoever is elected I think will probably be a younger man who will be much more in tune to how communication works in today’s world,” said Currie. “I think that will be an area you’ll have to deal with.”
He said the issue of communication is particularly relevant given the Western World has “experienced an eclipse of God.”
With files from the Western Star