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.

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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