Benedict XVI’s resignation might be the most unexpected papal decision since the convening of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s — which came about, Pope John XXIII said, not after long deliberation, but “like the flower of an unexpected spring.”
Rare is the person who will voluntarily relinquish immense power. There had been fevered speculation in the waning years of John Paul II’s papacy that his Parkinson’s disease would prompt his retirement, but he opted to stay. In contrast, Pope Benedict said that “my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise” of his ministry.
His resignation reminds us that, faced with a dilemma, two devout Catholics may come to divergent decisions. Spiritual discernment is always personal. God speaks to us in ways that are tailored to our circumstances, personalities and backgrounds. God meets us where we are.
If John Paul was a rock star, Benedict was an erudite professor. He will be remembered for the strengthening of church orthodoxy, encyclicals notable for their theological depth, a recently revised English translation of the Mass, and — despite his long experience in the Curia — a series of internal troubles in the Vatican.
Critics may focus on Benedict’s tightened oversight of American women’s religious orders and his controversial comments about Islam. Admirers may point to his meetings with victims of sexual abuse and his strong disciplinary action against the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, a powerful Mexican priest who abused boys and fathered children.
His greatest legacy, though, might prove to be a three-volume book, “Jesus of Nazareth,” in which he brought to bear decades of scholarship and prayer to the most important question a Christian can ask: Who is Jesus? He reminded readers that he was writing only in his capacity as a theologian and, more simply, a believer.
Lesser known outside of Catholic circles, but also significant, were the pope’s “Angelus” messages, a kind of meditation he delivered in St. Peter’s Square, often focusing on the lives of the saints.
Paradoxically, Benedict might also be best remembered for how he left the papacy. In becoming the first pope to resign since 1415, he demonstrated immense spiritual freedom, putting the good of the institution, and of a billion Catholics, before power or status. This most traditional of popes — who in his role as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had often been criticized for exercising too much power — has done one of the most nontraditional things imaginable.
As the Gospel says, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.” Perhaps the most difficult part of service is setting aside one’s own plans and goals; surely Benedict feels he has some unfinished business left. As an elderly Jesuit I know likes to say, “There is a Messiah, and it’s not you.” Leaders can learn a lot from a man who knows that he is not indispensable, that he is not Christ. He was only his vicar, and only for a time.
The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, is editor at large at the Catholic magazine America.