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'His last Great Act'


The holy city of Jerusalem is even older than Rome, the eternal city.  There is plenty of news here, but it was the news from Rome that hit like a thunderbolt.


I began the day praying not far from where Jesus told Peter, the first pope, it would be his mission to strengthen his brethren in the faith.

Since those words were spoken two millennia ago, most of St. Peter's successors have accepted that mission until death.  There were a few exceptions when there was a dispute over legitimacy, but the last pope to resign freely was Celestine V in 1294.

It is canonically possible, as Pope Benedict XVI demonstrated with his astonishing decision Monday, for a pontiff to resign.  But what is foreseen by law is incomprehensible to the Roman Catholic imagination and it was profoundly unsettling to hear the news.

A great certainty had suddenly been called into question.  Popes are simply popes.  There are no ex-popes.

The title "pope" comes from "father," the most familiar form of address is Holy Father.

It is not possible to renounce one's fatherhood.  It is possible to be a bad father, but not to stop being one.

The most exalted title of the pope is "Vicar of Christ," and Christ knew suffering and death.  It was to this image Blessed John Paul appealed when he responded to questions about why he did not resign as his health declined: "Christ did not come down off the cross."

Benedict knows this better than anyone.

His knowledge of Church history is second to none.  He spent more than 20 years at John Paul's side.  He asked to retire twice, at age 65 and at age 70.  Both times he was refused.

At age 75, the normal retirement age, he did not ask a third time.

Witnessing John Paul suffer to the end, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger would not ask for his leave.

So why now?  There is another title the pope carries and it appears last in the litany of papal offices, as if it were the crown of them all: Servant of the Servants of God.

Indeed, papal biographer George Weigel characterized Benedict's resignation in precisely those terms, calling it "his last great act of service to the Church."

That can be understood two ways.

First, that judging himself lacking the strength necessary to serve, Benedict had the humility to recognize it is the service the Church needs, not any particular servant.

Second, while papal resignation was always possible in principle, it seemed impossible in practice.  Benedict has re-established it as a live option.

The Church will certainly regret this before long, as a pope in a period of crisis — health or otherwise — will hear insistent voices calling for resignation.  They will not be as easily dismissed now and consequently the papacy will be weakened.

The judgment Benedict evidently made though is the Church can no longer afford a chief shepherd inadequate to the task.  He alluded to that in his address to the cardinals, speaking of the onerous demands of a rapidly changing world.

Indeed, papal biographer George Weigel characterized Benedict's resignation in precisely those terms, calling it "his last great act of service to the Church."

Benedict's decision liberates his successors to make their judgments about increasing frailty, mental incapacity or otherwise, free of the burden of resignation being unthinkable.  It is likely he saw in this a positive service to the Church, rather than a concession to infirmity alone.

The Pope is not infirm.  He gave a typically lucid address extemporaneously a few days ago that lasted a half hour.  He completed the full round of Christmas ceremonies six weeks ago.

My conviction is he decided to do this not only because of the diminishment of strength that goes with being 85, but because he judged it a positive good for the Church he has served without reserve for his entire life.

If the Holy Father is liberated by Monday's announcement, a crushing burden came crashing down upon Cardinal Marc Ouellet, former archbishop of Quebec City, now head of the Vatican congregation for bishops.

Conclaves do produce surprises, but he is the most likely successor to Benedict.  The weeks between now and the conclave will be his penance for Lent, which begins Wednesday.  It is more than plausible he will be pope before Easter, the first Canadian to be called to the See of Peter.

There will be time enough for the succession.  Here in the ancient and holy city, it was a day full of the weight of sacred history, which is never only about history, but about God's purposes today.

The servant of the servants of God has taken his leave.  It was his judgment on how to best serve God.  The other servants will now have to do the same.



Father Raymond J. de Souza, "'His last Great Act'." National Post, (Canada) February 12, 2013.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.

The Author

desouza Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Convivium and a Cardus senior fellow, in addition to writing for the National Post and The Catholic Register. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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