When a pope retires, I have to change the proposed topic of my column. Now I know how a pastor must have felt in 1415 when Pope Gregory XII resigned, and in 1294 when Celestine V did the same. While papal resignations cannot therefore be said to have become a habit, they do remind one that Holy Orders are indelible, but the papacy itself is not.
We also are reminded, as we need to be in an age of diminishing attention spans, that there have been 265 popes. I recently read of a Protestant lady who converted to Catholicism upon being shown that list. God gave the Keys of the Kingdom to Peter, knowing that the Galilean fisherman had a limited life span. Since there is no re-incarnation, there is a succession, and that will go on until the end of time. Even calling Rome the Eternal City is extravagant rhetoric, “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14). No one knows this more clearly than Pope Benedict XVI, whose intellectual brilliance and eloquent teaching have enabled him to explain this to the world in remarkable ways, but never more so than by his own example.
Pope John Paul II died in the days of Easter, having taught a confused world, as Christ said when He rose from the dead, “Do not be afraid.” Pope Benedict XVI is relinquishing the Keys in Lent, and another will hold them in Easter. This gives a special import to the Forty Days on which we have now embarked. Pope Benedict enters a new phase of his life, when he will be devoted to praying for all of God’s holy Church. All of us can more closely identify now with the first apostles, who were called by Christ to change their lives. The fishermen became fishers of men, and that is why we are here now, worshiping the same Lord that they learned to worship after many signs and revelations.
As Lent is a time of abstinence, it would be good to abstain from the vain speculations of the media and self-appointed “experts” inside the Church and out, who see these things with merely human eyes and may use a papal resignation as a suggestion that the papacy is just another human office like a presidency or prime ministership. We should also remember that the world has been around a lot longer than we have, and if an asteroid changed the whole ecology of terrestrial life some 66 million years ago when it struck Mexico, as scientists have now determined, the Good News of Christ really is recent news. What is required at this crucial moment in history is that we follow the example of the first apostles: “So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him” (Luke 5:11).
– Father George W. Rutler