My sainted mother always advised that the two topics that should never be discussed publicly are politics and religion. Since I disregarded my ma’s advice by previously writing about politics, I decided to finish the job by tackling the hottest religious topic of the day, the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.
When I heard the news of the pope’s retirement, I was more than surprised. Some of my strongest memories in growing up Catholic relate to the mystery and intrigue of a white puff of smoke announcing a new papal leader. There was something so compelling about a cavernous room of men writing secretive ballots which, when burned, would flame a message to the anxiously-waiting world.
However when Pope Benedict’s retirement was announced, I realized that some of my attachment to the papal-selection tradition was connected to the solemnity of a pope’s passing and burial rites. That’s when I started to think. A pope is not supposed to retire. When he takes the papal oath, it’s like marriage---‘til death do him part. So how is it that Pope Benedict is taking an early exit?
Media reports explain that in rare instances, popes have resigned from their duties before. In doing my own research, I have further discovered that most of those were men banished to work camps or mired in scandal, leaving few options other than resignation. Pope Benedict’s declared reason for his early departure is failing health. To my ears, that just doesn’t ring true.
People worldwide agonized alongside Pope John Paul II as he struggled through the challenging health issues leading to his death. Additionally, popes before John Paul all stayed until the bitter end ---each and every of them one for the last six hundred years. Yet Pope Benedict’s break in tradition is being respectfully revered around the world.
Over a quarter of a million people gathered in St. Peter’s Square for Pope Benedict’s final blessing. International media outlets covered every move of his final days as if the man were sainted. The glowing descriptions of his papacy by American news reporters were amazingly subjective and supportive of this break in religious tradition, long held sacred. Still with each new report, I kept waiting for something more, something to allow me to fully accept this man’s highly unusual choice.
To review, Pope Benedict has been the leader of the Catholic Church during a time of great controversy, particularly concerning the endless reports of sexual misconduct and resultant cover ups. Then there is the ongoing issue of Catholics leaving the church in droves across North America and Europe. Add to that the sharp-edged division between the conservative and liberal sectors of the church and one begins to understand the enormity of the task assigned to he who leads.
No doubt, the stress of the papacy impacts one’s health and could understandably encourage thoughts of closing up shop. But this is not your corner grocer or local public servant we’re talking about here. This is the leader of the Catholic Church, revered around the world as a respected voice on all matters. His unexpected retirement before the end of his papacy is akin to the president of any country getting up one day and announcing that he’s going home because this case, a job that for more than 600 years has only been terminated by death.
My point is that I don’t understand why there is so much honoring and not more questioning going on over this whole papal retirement. I understand that the circumstance of religion mixed with the political power of the papacy demands a certain reverence be accorded. None the less, it’s still a story of a highly unusual, changing of the guard within an internationally influential community. For my nickel that is worth more than platitudes and worship. It’s deserving of questioning and open discussion that might help set the church on a better path of ministering to its faithful, as well as those who are losing, or have lost, their faith.
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