February 15, 2013

Pope’s resignation shows courage and humility

Archbishop Joseph W. TobinThis year, Catholics begin the season of Lent with some surprise and, probably, some anxiety.

On Feb. 11—just two days before Ash Wednesday—our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, announced that he was stepping down from his ministry as the successor of the Apostle Peter. His resignation takes effect on Feb. 28 and, soon afterward, the voting members of the College of Cardinals will assemble to elect a new pope.

The announcement shocked many people since a pope had not resigned in nearly 600 years.

While the Holy Father was not hiding the physical effects of aging, he sounded alert, and his homilies, letters and other writings had lost none of his customary clarity and spiritual depth.

Besides, the image of Blessed John Paul II’s valiant and faith-filled embrace of his suffering and death has left an indelible impression on millions of Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

I have known Pope Benedict XVI for 16 years and worked closely with him for two years prior to coming to the archdiocese. Like most people, I was surprised when the decision was announced, but not shocked.

On several occasions before his election and at least once during his papacy, the Holy Father had proposed that, under certain conditions, a pope could and, perhaps, should step down from his ministry. Pope John Paul II certainly foresaw that possibility.

The present Code of Canon Law, which was approved during the papacy of Pope John Paul II, provides that a pope could resign, provided that the decision was free and properly communicated to the College of Cardinals. (cf. canon 332, §2).

What is more, as early as 1980, Pope John Paul had prepared a letter of resignation to the Dean of the College of Cardinals, which said that he would resign from the papacy in one of two cases—if he had an incurable disease that would prevent him from exercising the apostolic ministry; or in case of a “severe and prolonged impairment” that would have kept him from carrying out the mission that God had entrusted to him.

Both popes knew firsthand the terrific burden of the papacy. Both felt its increasing weight after passing the milestone of their 80th year.

Pope John Paul II carried this responsibility until his death on April 2, 2005, at the age of 84. I know many people who suffer from chronic illness and find strength and consolation in his example.

I believe that the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI is an act of courage and humility as well as the latest expression of his love for the Church. The use of the word “latest” is deliberate since I think that his acceptance of his election in April 2005 displayed his surrender to God’s will, and his readiness to suffer for the sake of the Body of Christ.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had no desire to become pope. Already 78 years old, he had prepared to retire to his native Bavaria and employ his remaining years in the preparation of a legacy of more than 50 years of theological research.

Instead, he accepted his election and, in his homily at the inauguration of his pontificate, Benedict XVI affirmed, “My real program of governance is not to do my own will, not to pursue my own ideas, but to listen, together with the whole Church, to the word and the will of the Lord, to be guided by him, so that he himself will lead the Church at this hour of our history.”

Eight years later, I am convinced that the Holy Father reached his decision to resign only after “listening to the word and the will of the Lord” that guided him to the conviction that “at this hour of our history,” he should step down.

He considered the special demands the successor of Peter must face today and saw that “both strength of mind and body … 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.”

There is profound sadness and heartfelt gratitude as we take leave of Pope Benedict XVI. I feel a personal loss, since he called me to episcopal service and entrusted to me the pastoral care of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. I will always be grateful to him for sending me here.

I thank him for the example of unselfish love for the Church, which is nothing less than the love of the Good Shepherd, who “lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11).

My beloved predecessor, Archbishop Emeritus Daniel M. Buechlein, showed that same love when his health would no longer permit him to shepherd the archdiocese.

We have entered the season of Lent, hearing that these weeks are “an acceptable time … the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2). The courage and humility of Pope Benedict XVI remind us that a crucial part of our vocation is to “listen to the word and the will of the Lord,” and change our lives as he guides us.

May this “acceptable time” of Lent help us to live more humbly and courageously our lives as daughters and sons of God.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Most. Rev. Joseph W. Tobin, C.Ss.R.
Archbishop of Indianapolis


Related: Watch a video of Archbishop Tobin addressing the press regarding the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI | More papal transition resources

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