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A year ago today

 A year ago today, I came out into our living room where my brother had the morning news on. “The Pope has just resigned,” he told me. I was as disbelieving as everyone else was, I suspect, on hearing the news. I guess we all had a right to be, given that it was the first time in six or seven hundred years.

It’s worth taking note of the anniversary, particularly if we wish to celebrate the changes that Pope Francis has brought to the Church and those that one can hope are still to come. It was Pope Benedict and this self-denying act of his that made Pope Francis possible. How rare it is that a person, in any organization, with such power in his hands should lay it down voluntarily and with no strings attached, with no attempt made to choose or to determine his successor, with no effort, it seems, to influence that successor’s policies and decisions.

A high school teacher once told us, “There’s nothing deader than a dead pope,” and I can remember how our Scripture professor Fr. Myles Bourke's being annoyed that many people thought it necessary, in order to welcome John XXIII, to denigrate Pius XII, author of Divino afflante Spiritu, the liberating encyclical on the study of the Bible. Perhaps we need to remember St. Paul’s celebration of charisms in the Church and to apply it also to the papacy: There are varieties of gifts in the Church, and among popes. No pope receives all of them, and we can be grateful for the gifts any pope receives, whether a Benedict or a Francis. Grateful for the latter, we must be grateful for the former.


Commenting Guidelines

Jim Pauwels--

I read the Dougherty article, and though he may have a valid point about too much snark (in Francis' case I don't much mind because it seems little more than whimsical attempts to deflate some rather large egos), he does so by a false contrast.  Benedict could insult with the best of them, only with much more edge and effect.  The cruelest may have been those against gay priests, especially the very ones who struggle to remain celibate and uphold their vows and ministries.  They are "one of the miseries of the church" to Benedict and should never have been ordained in the first place since their orientation makes them necessarily unfit priests: the priesthood and homosexuality are necessarily incompatible. And he's talking about those homosexuals living exactly as he says they should live--celibate, embracing their "cross," trying to serve God to the best of their ability!  I personally know celibate gay priests who wept at these words and took it--as they should--as a personal attack on their vocations and deep commitments to the church for which they've given their lives. So perhaps there is too much ease with name calling all around, but it's hardly an "insult comic" Francis versus a gentle, kind hearted, wouldn't-harm-a-fly Benedict.

Andy - it's a point well taken

The characterization of Francis as an insulter (maybe lampooner?) is one I'd not have thought of; I provided the link because I thought it was kind of a fresh insight.  I agree with you that for the most part he is spearing some deserving targets.  There is something  contemporary in the way that he calls out groups and their foibles.  I think this may be of the reasons he comes across as fresh and relevant.  It's similar in some ways to Internet community rhetoric - it's how a lot of people actually communicate these days.

Alan Mitchell made some pretty outrageous claims about Pope Benedict's orchestration of his election that seemed to go unchallenged.  Does anyone know if there are reliable sources for this or is it just someone spewing venom?

David Pasinski wrote:

I only wish others bishops and clerics could retire at more or less the expected age in our society (65-70) . . . . For many  -- the majority? --  "75" is a bit far to stay sharp and open and capable of office in this era.

Part of me sympathizes with this, but another part says, “Wait a second.  This is complicated.  If this rule were enforced strictly, we wouldn’t have the current pope; he was 76 when he took office.”

I agree with most of the comments that Benedict XVI was not a good pope. It is easy to list the many problems he did not resolve, and some problems he may have caused. He was very much in agreement with JP II's philosophy and governing style. Under both popes, far too many Catholics, in particular young Catholics, moved away from the Church, not toward it. The sexual abuse crisis and all the other problems that were surfacing put enormous pressure on the papacy and hierarchy. 

Nevertheless, we need to recognize that the Holy Spirit moves through the Church and in all of us in mysterious ways. This is most important when it comes to a pope and his prayrful reflection. This does not mean that every pope makes the right decisions. Clearly, history has taught us this is not the case. Therefore, I would rather believe that God helped Benedict XVI to resign. Thanks be to God and Benedict XVI.



Richard Smith,

Sorry to have set you off, but this was well known in Rome at the time of the election and was later documented by John Thavis.  It makes perfect sense, as well. He was leaving nothing to chance. Check with your Rome connections and they will verify it.

Here is Tom Reese's description of what Thavis wrote about Pope Benedict's first homily. It's from Reese's review of the book a year ago, in Commonweal

In another behind-the-scenes account, Thavis reminds readers of Benedict’s first homily after being elected pope. The sermon surprised journalists, not because it was in Latin, but because it stressed the importance of Vatican II as a “compass” for his papacy. He expressed the desire for “open and sincere dialogue” with everyone. He talked of ecumenism and the church’s efforts to promote justice and peace. That was not a typical Ratzinger talk, and it was seen as an indication that he saw the job of pope as quite different from that of being prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The media announced that the inquisitor had become a pastor.

Some time later, Thavis asked the Vatican Latinist Reginald Foster about the sermon. Foster guffawed. “Are you kidding? That was just a canned thing. We wrote it a week before the conclave!” Foster continued: “They needed something to hand the new pope, something all-purpose, got it? We had him say something about everything. It was generic: Vatican II was great, a bit about war and peace, something nice about young people, ecumenism, the whole bag.” Thavis reread the homily in this light and concluded “it was Vatican boilerplate—surprisingly well-assembled boilerplate, though.”

Doesn't sound very nefarious to me.

Fr, K.,

Knowing the Rome scene as you do, do you really think that Fr. Foster whould have admitted to anything other than what he said?  Come on.  And besides it was not a matter of handing the Pope a generic homily, It was a homily that Benedict had written before the final vote. 

Oh, the "Rome scene."

I thought as much -- just venom.


Why did Cdl Ratzinger want to become pope? Maybe to bring the SSPX back into the fold. And was his liturgical influence on the English-speaking world important enough to deserve a few words? Then this might summarize the things that stand out in his papacy:

"Pope Benedict (2005-2013): Failed to end the SSPX schism. Latinized the English text of the Mass. Resigned."


Prof. Mitchell:  I know "the Roman scene" well enough to know how rumors circulate. From all I have heard about Reginald Foster I would be surprised if he would dissemble in the way you suggest.  If Tom Reese accurately summarized what Thavis wrote about Foster and Pope Benedict's first homily, then it admits of other interpretations than the one you offer.  But, as you say, we really should wait for the historians to have their say.  Meanwhile, I'll remain agnostic.

Fr. Komonchak,

I agree with your assessment of the reporting on Fr. Foster's remarks and would welcome the removal of my comments on your post.  They have become a distraction moving the discussion in a direction that I suspect you never intended.

"Pope Benedict (2005-2013): Failed to end the SSPX schism. Latinized the English text of the Mass. Resigned."

Regarding SSPX - is that really a failure?  Had he made SSPX an offer that satisfied its unsatisfiable leadership - that might have succeeded in bringing about reunification but paradoxically  would have been a monumental failure of papal stewardship.  Reaching out to those separated from us, in my view anyway, is a success.  Not giving away the store for the sake of unity is more success.  Benedict doesn't have unity to show for his efforts, but both the reaching out and the holding the line on doctrinal and liturgical matters were to his credit.

I'm not sure that, in 50 or 100 years, Latinizing the English text of the mass will be epitaph-worthy.  For one thing, from a pastoral point of view it has been more of a non-event than critics and skeptics had predicted.   For another, that translation's shelf life might turn out to be shorter than its predecessor's. 

What about Benedict's writings?  Are they significant and substantial enough to figure in his legacy?  He left us three-and-a-half encyclicals.  It's not for me to pronounce on their importance, but I've found a lot of reflection-worthy content in them, some of which has found its way into my preaching.  

Like his predecessor and his successor so far, he didn't implement the change in church governance that I think regulars at dotCom would most like to see: systematically holding bishops accountable for enabling sex abuse.    But he does deserve some entries in the credit column in dealing with the crisis.  What sticks most in my mind was his meeting with victims in his visit to the US.  It was a simple act that resonated.  It was Francis-like.


Regarding SSPX - is that really a failure?

Definitely. He wanted to bring them back into the fold, made a lot of concessions, gave priority to that goal, and expanded a lot of time and energy trying to lure them in, without suceeding in the end. He could instead have focused on more important issues. He wasted his time (and many other people's as well) chasing a secondary and unrealistic goal.

Prof. Mitchell:   I don't know that I can remove one post without having to remove several others.  I didn't regard your comments as a distraction. Several others also made negative assessments of Pope Benedict's papacy, so you weren't alone.

I had never heard the story of the Latin homily prepared before the election. I am glad to know it.

Although it may not go to show that Benedict anticipated being elected (which was the point of bringing it up), it's eye-opening concerning some things that go on behind the scenes.

It's also very funny. Everyone awed, thinking that the new Pope Benedict had given them a brand new window onto his mind -- and it was boilerplate, written by somebody else! Everyone thinking "It's in Latin -- surely a sign of the new pope's preference for the 'old ways'" -- and it was a resource prepared without his request! 

I suppose the fact that he used it did signal that he likes Latin. 

Has Pope Francis given any homilies that were suspected of being boilerplate? Anybody know? Has he preached in Latin? It wouldn't necessarily be fraught with weighty implications for the world if he preached in Latin, but I can't think of an instance yet where he has done so. A good portion of the liturgical texts that had been prepared for World Youth Day in Rio were in Latin, and he had them changed to the vernacular. The twitter account is in Latin, as well as other languages, which is fine.

I see one possible problem with the language of pope Francis. It's not just that one can compile an impressive list of imaginative insults. He likes to use vivid images. He's a great communicator in that way. We see that, whatever he's talking about, he has a very strong sense of what it's like. He makes it very real, very concrete. But at the same time, that concreteness makes it specific, and he risks losing some of the generality. He's talking about some specific instances, the ones to which his images apply.  His words have more strength but less breadth than a more careful composition of ideas.

For example, he was just talking about spouses and encouraging them to dialogue even under difficult circumstances, saying, "if plates fly, so bet it!", and it immediately brought to mind a friend who very recently, after an "argument" with her husband, found herself in the emergency room with a broken finger. 

Something similar happens in math when you do a proof. Examples and figures help convey intuition and are indispensable for most people to understand what it going on, but they can also lead you astray because by making things concrete they lose generality and there is a risk of oversight of some other cases that you didn't think about. If you want to do an "authoritative" proof, you cannot make it rely on figures. 

Or you can use several figures or examples, with an undercurrent of case analysis and making sure to cover all cases between the figures. Maybe pope Francis can achieve that if he uses several widely different images for the same subject, so that each is incomplete but between them they cover all aspects of his topic.


Fr. K, I apologize for commenting after reading the entire thread only lightly.  I focused on a few sentences here and there in quickly reading.

 What I read in my admittedly hasty skimming implied (to me) that there is no question that Francis' resignation was an act of self-denial and humility, but some of us do question his motives. Perhaps it was a pure act of self-denial and humility, but maybe it wasn't.   I doubt that we ordinary people will ever know what pushed him to resign, but I am not personally convinced that self-denial and humility were the most important of the reasons for the resignation.  You also said that all should be grateful for the "gifts" of  Benedict's papacy.  Some are grateful for Benedict's "gifts"; others are grateful that he is no longer pope and include many who were not at all "grateful" for his papacy no matter what his personal academic gifts.  I am glad to know that those of us who do not feel that he was a good pope, and do not feel any sense of "gratefulness" for his papacy are free to voice contrarian opinions, and, in catching up with this thread, I see that many others have done so.

 I may speak only for myself, but I also question your apparent certitude that Benedict resigned without trying to attach a few strings and with no intention to try to influence Francis. Francis seems to be a very self-confident individual able to stand up to pressure, but it is also possible that he may feel some attempts to influence him, at least indirectly, even if he resists them.  Benedict made a highly questionable decision in choosing  to remain in the Vatican rather than retire in his own country or elsewhere in Italy, which would have provided a symbolic gesture that he honestly means to  give Francis the freedom he deserves without Benedict looking over his shoulder.  The decision (whose? I don't know) to have Ganswein serve both popes also seems risky in terms of Benedict truly being able to truly resist the temptation to influence his successor.   Ganswein is very loyal to Benedict, from what I have read, and he seems at times to be affronted by those who are more attracted to Francis than to Benedict. Did Francis agree to accept Ganswein as a gesture to Benedict, while at the same time making the choice to retain some degree of independence from the gatekeepers (of whom Ganswein is among the most important) who might have more influence  if he remained living in the papal apartments?  I am sure you know far more about Vatican politics than do I.  I have no idea.

On the subject of Benedict's desire to be pope - I too read several accounts after the conclave in 2005 that reported on the extensive lobbying Ratzinger undertook during the conclave in his efforts to win the papacy. Unfortunately, it is too many years ago for me to easily unearth those articles, but they were from reasonably reliable sources (mainstream reporters likeJohn Allen?). It seems possible that he actively sought the papacy for specific reasons. And it's also possible that his physical and emotional fatigue came because he realized that he would not accomplish what he had hoped to accomplish by becoming pope.  I am not sure it was all self-denial and humility, except perhaps enough self-honesty (which can be a form of humility) to realize that he would not achieve what he wanted to achieve and he no longer had the energy to continue to try.

Ms. Chapman: 

This is Pope Benedict’s formal announcement of his intention to resign the papal office:

Dear Brothers, I have convoked you to this Consistory, not only for the three canonizations, but also to communicate to you a decision of great importance for the life of the Church. After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.

I agree that we may never know what led Pope Benedict to resign. You are not personally convinced that self-denial and humility were the principal motivations. Personally, I do not know of any other reasons than those stated above, but would not be surprised if some day they will be filled out by reference to particularly urgent challenges to meet which he felt he did not have the energy. Meanwhile, I prefer to withhold judgment until there’s some other evidence.

I also do not know of any strings that Benedict attached to his resignation. It is, of course, possible that Benedict may try to exert some influence on Pope Francis, but I await some evidence of it. I know nothing about whatever “Vatican politics” may be pertinent. I would add that Pope Francis does not give the appearance of being a puppet.

As for whether Ratzinger “lobbied” to become pope, whether “he actively sought the papacy for specific reasons,” I’d like to see some evidence. That presented on this thread don’t convince me. It is possible that he decided to resign because “he would not achieve what he wanted to achieve and he no longer had the energy to continue to try.” I would myself regard this as likely–in his announcement he himself referred to his declining strength. I, too, think this is “self-honesty.” Not all popes have shown this and in those who might have shown it, it has not for six hundred years led any of them to resign the papal office.

Watching the video of Pope Benedict's resignation speech, I was struck by the brief silence he inserted before he said "Renuntio" - I renounce the papacy. He was very serious, very aware of the meaning of what he was saying. It was as though he was considering one last time what he was about to say, like a skydiver about to take the plunge. And then it was over.