I must say I am still stunned at the news we have all had today. It is early evening here in Ireland and news of Pope Benedict's intention to abdicate in two weeks time was a shock. A friend of mine rang me this morning to tell me: now this friend is a constant joker so when he came out with the news I did not believe him - I took some convincing. What can I say?
Well, according to Canon Law Popes can abdicate (not "resign" as the media has been reporting), though we have rarely seen it. Only four Popes have abdicated: Pope Benedict IX in 1045; Pope Gregory VI in 1046; St Peter Celestine, the most famous, in 1294: he could not cope with the Papal office. Finally, Pope Gregory XII who abdicated in 1415 order to resolve a crisis, namely the schisms when anti-popes were being elected all over the place: the legitimate Pope Gregory abdicated to allow a fresh start.
There were also two threatened abdications: Pope Pius VII who, as he left Rome to crown Napoleon Emperor of France, left a letter indicating an automatic abdication should he be imprisoned by the emperor. Napoleon had Pope Pius's predecessor imprisoned and held as a hostage - Pope Pius wanted to avoid that. Also Pope Pius XII did likewise in the face of being kidnapped by the Nazis, ordering the Cardinals to go to Portugal and there elect a successor as soon as possible. He said that they might kidnap a Pope, but they would end up with a mere Cardinal.
Pope Benedict has explained that he is abdicating because of his failing health. And to be honest he has failed in the last few months. Indeed watching the video of his meeting with the Cardinals this morning I got a shock to see him so worn, tired and frail. So I can understand why he has taken this step - he does not want the Church to live through another Papal decline given the difficulties she is facing in these times - a younger, stronger Pontiff is needed.
That said, it will be difficult to let go of this Pope - at the end of the day we Catholics are united emotionally to the Pope as our Holy Father - he is not an administrator, nor even a mere bishop - we look on him as our Father, so this development is hard to take in. Talking with people today one said that it was like a bereavement but without the funeral. There is something to be said for a Pope dying in office, though heartbreaking, a papal death creates room for the next Pope in our hearts. Of course we will love the new Pope - he will be our Holy Father, but in the back of many minds Pope Benedict will still be around, though he will no longer be Benedict, but Joseph. People are very confused, and for that reason Papal abdications may not be a good idea in "peacetime", I personally believe they should be rare.
But I would not like that to be a criticism of Pope Benedict - he is a faithful servant of God who put himself and his own desires to one side in order to be of service to the Church, and he is doing this once again. For the sake of the Church he is stepping down, and this reveals the humility and holiness of the man. I always saw Pope Benedict as a saintly man, one who would one day be raised to the altars, and this abdication will be strong proof of his selflessness and lifelong desire to decrease so Christ can increase. We must keep him in our prayers every day until the day God calls him home. The bond that unites us with this holy man, forged most strongly on the 19th April 2005, should not be broken: he will always be Benedict for us.
The tributes are coming in, and coverage is widespread, although RTE's coverage is disgraceful - they have wheeled out the usual suspects who are picking over his pontificate and calling for the abandonment of the Catholic faith and the imposition of the beliefs and practices which are part of the canon of dissent. As someone on Twitter said earlier: for people in Ireland, better to follow coverage in the international media rather than the Irish - good advice.
Now we must begin to pray for the Pope's successor. We must pray for our Cardinals as they pray and discern. This time we have no idea who will walk out on that balcony - I do not think any one Cardinal stands out. God knows who will be the next Pope, so we must pray that the Lord will strengthen him for his office. He will have a difficult task ahead of him.