The Pope’s Third Embodiment
It is Benedict XVI’s state of life after the resignation. He is no longer the vicar of Christ, but neither has he returned to private life. He is “pope emeritus,” and he acts as such: an unprecedented innovation in the history of the Church
by Sandro Magister
ROME, April 7, 2014 – The more the months go by, the more Benedict XVI’s resignation of the papacy manifests its exceptional novelty.
Other popes before him had resigned: the last was Gregory XII, in 1415. But Joseph Ratzinger was the first to want to be called “pope emeritus” and to continue to wear the white robe “within the precincts of Saint Peter,” bewildering the canonists and bringing fears of the installation of a diarchy of two popes at the summit of the Church:
Of course, Ratzinger no longer has the powers of pontiff of the universal Church: he stripped himself of them by exercising for the last time and in the highest degree precisely his powers as “vicarius Christi.” But neither did he return to being what he was before he was pope. After these two “embodiments” he now has a third that has no precedent in the history of the Church. It is the new “embodiment,” the new state of life that he sees as connected to the commitment “forever” taken on with the acceptance of his election as successor of Peter.
This is what he explained at his last general audience on February 27, 2013, the eve of his resignation of the papacy:
“Allow me to go back once again to 19 April 2005. The real gravity of the decision was also due to the fact that from that moment on I was engaged always and forever by the Lord. Always – anyone who accepts the Petrine ministry no longer has any privacy. He belongs always and completely to everyone, to the whole Church. In a manner of speaking, the private dimension of his life is completely eliminated. [. . .]
“The ‘always’ is also a ‘for ever’ – there can no longer be a return to the private sphere. My decision to resign the active exercise of the ministry does not revoke this. I do not return to private life, to a life of travel, meetings, receptions, conferences, and so on. I am not abandoning the cross, but remaining in a new way at the side of the crucified Lord. I no longer bear the power of office for the governance of the Church, but in the service of prayer I remain, so to speak, in the enclosure of Saint Peter. Saint Benedict, whose name I bear as Pope, will be a great example for me in this. He showed us the way for a life which, whether active or passive, is completely given over to the work of God.”
The novelty of Benedict XVI’s action is being brought into new light today by Valerio Gigliotti, a professor of history and of European law at the university of Turin and a specialist in relations between state and Church, in a book recently published in Italy:
It is the first time that a work of scholarship – but a compelling read as well – has analyzed the resignation of the papacy under the aspects of history, law, theology, and literature, over the span of two thousand years.
The book begins with what are presumed to be the first cases of papal resignation, some of which are hardly more than legendary but met with great fame during the Middle Ages.
It proceeds with an in-depth reconstruction of the most famous resignation, that of Celestine IV, canonized in 1313, exactly seven hundred years before the “renuntiatio” of Benedict XVI.
It continues with the papal resignations – spontaneous, arranged, or imposed – over the period of the larger and smaller schism of the West between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when the Church was divided between popes and antipopes.
It arrives at the idea of resignation examined and then rejected by four popes of the twentieth century: Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II.
Coming finally to the grand gesture of Benedict XVI, perfectly in the path of tradition but also profoundly innovative, which professor Gigliotti summarized as follows on the eve of the publication of his book, in an article in “L’Osservatore Romano” of February 28, the first anniversary of the resignation:
“The resignation of Benedict XVI fuses the traditional with the contemporary in a completely new perspective, which has its roots in medieval mysticism, from Meister Eckhart to Sandaeus to the Franciscan model of renunciation.
“Kantorowicz’s felicitous and now classic intuition of the twofold, double nature of the person of the supreme pontiff, man and vicar of Christ, is now being enriched, through the resignation of Benedict XVI, with a third component, that of continuation in the service of the Church after the act of resignation. No longer a political embodiment and mystical embodiment of the pope, but a ministerial embodiment that takes on its identity and responsibility precisely at the moment of resignation: these are the three embodiments of the pope.
“Joseph Ratzinger’s decision to remain ‘near the Lord, in the precincts of Saint Peter’ in the capacity of ‘Roman pontiff emeritus’ legitimates a new juridical and ecclesiological configuration for the ‘renuntiatio papae.’
“It is the opening of a real and proper ministeriality, which in the figure of the pope takes on the traits of an authentic mysticism of service. The perspective, if one looks carefully, is Christological even before it is historical and juridical. It is the institutional regeneration of ‘kènosis,’ newness in continuity, a new beginning.”
At his last Angelus as pope, on February 24, 2013, the second Sunday of Lent, in commenting on the Gospel of the Transfiguration Benedict XVI compared the new life awaiting him after resignation to “scaling the mountain”:
“Dear brothers and sisters, I hear this word of God as addressed to me in particular at this moment of my life. The Lord is calling me ‘to scale the mountain’, to devote myself even more to prayer and meditation. But this does not mean abandoning the Church; indeed, if God asks me this it is precisely so that I may continue to serve her with the same dedication and the same love with which I have tried to do so until now, but in a way more suited to my age and strength.”
On Mount Tabor Jesus spoke of his “exodus” with Moses and Elijah. He also spoke with Peter and the other two apostles he had brought with him.
And for pope emeritus Ratzinger as well now is not only a time of contemplation, but of conversation. His successor Francis has confirmed this: the “wisdom” and “advice” of the pope emeritus – he said in a recent interview – “bring strength to the family” of the Church.
In some cases, Benedict XVI has spoken openly and to all. For example, in the few dazzling pages with which he shed light on the pontificate of John Paul II, which he said remains to be studied and assimilated today:
In other cases, he has advised his succussor in strictly confidential terms. For example, after the publication of the summertime interview with Francis in “La Civiltà Cattolica.”
Jorge Mario Bergoglio had sent Ratzinger a copy of the interview and had asked him to jot a few notes down in the space between the title and the text.
But the pope emeritus did more, he filled and sent to Francis four whole sheets, too many to have written nothing but compliments.
In an interview last March 15 with the German television channel ZDF, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, prefect of the pontifical household and secretary of the pope emeritus, said:
“Benedict XVI granted the request of his successor, offering a few reflections and observations on particular observations or questions that he believed could be developed further on another occasion. Naturally I will not tell you about what.”
Of course, with Ratzinger’s resignation the figure of the pope emeritus has entered into history for the first time, And day after day this figure also contributes to “making” history, in an unprecedented dialectic relationship with the pope in office.
The translation of the announcement made by Benedict XVI in Latin on February 11, 2013, resigning from the papacy:
And the explanation that Benedict XVI gave of his resignation at his last general audience as pope, on February 27:
Last February, at the first anniversary of Benedict XVI’s resignation from the papacy, the journalist and writer Antonio Socci – who had been predicting this action since 2011 with impressive foresight – brought up a few questions on the coexistence of the two popes, on the practical role of the pope emeritus, and on the sense of his decision.
Following this, the website “Vatican Insider-La Stampa” posed questions to Benedict XVI, receiving answers to them. And it published the results:
But without dispelling all of the questions raised by Socci, in the four articles he dedicated to the question:
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.