by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Pope Benedict XVI had been widely seen as a caretaker pope — just like Pope John XXIII, who launched the Second Vatican Council.
On Feb. 11, the Vaticanologists relearned a lesson: The most surprising things can come from so-called “caretakers.”
The announcement by Pope Benedict XVI that he would resign by the end of the month caught most by surprise. The last pontiff to do so was Gregory XII, in 1415.
“I think when something hasn’t happened in 600 years, it’s a surprise,” said Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann. “Were there hints? Sure, there were hints. Were there rumors? Yes, there were rumors. But there were similar rumors during Pope John Paul II’s papacy as well.”
Perhaps one hint came on April 29, 2009, when Pope Benedict XVI visited the tomb of St. Celestine V, located in a church that had been damaged by an earthquake. Without explanation, he left his pallium (a woolen stole symbolizing his authority) on the late pope’s tomb. The next year, Pope Benedict prayed before the relics of St. Celestine, who abdicated the papal throne in 1294.
In 2010, Pope Benedict talked with a German journalist about the duty and obligation of a pope to resign when he could no longer fulfill the obligations and duties of that ministry.
The last time, Archbishop Naumann saw the pope was last March during an “ad limina” visit to Rome.
“At that time he looked tired,” said Archbishop Naumann. “He was keeping an incredible schedule with the ‘ad limina’ visits and was preparing to go to Cuba. But, having said that, he was still very engaged. In the conversation I and other bishops had with him, you could see that carrying [the papal] responsibilities were taking a toll on his strength, but still he was very much on top of what was happening with the church in the United States and the rest of the world.”
Up until the announcement, said Archbishop Naumann, “He continued to keep a very full schedule and has, to my mind, continued to be an incredibly effective and wise teacher for the universal church.”
Although speculation has run rampant in the secular press, the obvious reason for why this and why now is simple: It was the right thing at the right time.
“Pope Benedict has always evaluated issues in terms of what’s best for the church,” said Archbishop Naumann. “It’s clear from his statement that, after prayer and reflection, he has come to the conclusion that it’s best for the church for him to step aside and allow for the Holy Spirit to raise up a new successor for Peter.”
The papal resignation naturally brings to mind comparisons between Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict. They were, however, different men facing different circumstances, said the archbishop. The Holy Spirit guided both to do the right thing. While Pope John Paul II taught us something about living and dying, Pope Benedict has taught us about humility.
“I think this reflects his humility,” said Archbishop Naumann. “He appreciates that many of us who have authority or responsibility in the church only have that for a season.”
“The universal church has gone on for 2,000 years, and the church in the archdiocese has gone on for 150 years, so no one individual is essential,” the archbishop continued. “It’s part of the lesson we can see here — that as fruitful and important as his ministry has been, he’s judged it to be the time to let someone else carry those responsibilities.”
Although he served a far shorter time than Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict left a tremendous legacy during his eight-year papacy.
“I think the church will be digesting [the question of his legacy] for a while,” said Archbishop Naumann.
One thing for sure: Pope Benedict was a worthy successor.
“We didn’t lose any IQ points between Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict,” he said.
A few things that come to the archbishop’s mind in regard to the papal legacy include liturgical reform, a spirituality that focuses on an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ, and the pope’s three-volume reflection on the Gospels and the life of Jesus.
“He will influence Catholic biblical scholarship for years to come,” said Archbishop Naumann. “He not only gave us insights into Jesus, but also what authentic biblical scholarship should provide for the church.”