This morning, Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, effective the evening of February 28th. When I first woke up and saw Facebook riddled with status updates about the Pope, at first I thought he had passed away. Imagine my own response to find that his Holiness was stepping down, an action that has not happened in nearly 600 years—certainly not in modern history. Since getting to the office, I've found myself questioning his motives as well as the future of the Catholic church. And a particular question came to mind...
What if Benedict's resignation sets a new precedent for the expectations and future of the Papacy?
Honestly, I think it should. As loved as he was, the lattermost part of Pope John Paul II's life was sad to watch as he often found it hard to speak, as he clearly struggled with his health while trying to live into the role into which he was elected. Furthermore, to expect the Pope to remain in office and fulfill the duties required of him at an age when most of his peers are allowed and offered respite from duty and travel seems harsh and lacking compassion. After all, isn't he human just like the rest of us?
Personally, I am not Catholic and have very little experience with the Catholic church. But as a seminarian and person trying to live into my own ministerial call, regardless of age, faith tradition, or life experience, I trust that Pope Benedict's decision to step down came with the utmost care, attention, and attitude of prayer. I want him to be well, as I do with all clergy, and I think that this was a wise and positive decision. Not only for his own well-being, but also for that of his successors.
Certainly, Benedict's decision has implications for the denomination's future in terms of its policies and procedures, its members, its clergy, and its theology. Will future popes be allowed or even encouraged to follow his lead? Will they be looked down upon for doing so? Will a retired pope's papal status be maintained, or will he revert to his former name and clerical role? How will the doctrine of papal infallibility change (can more than one elected pope speak for God, or does the retired pope lose this ability)? What about sede vacante — will there be a period between a pope's retirement and the start of conclave where the papal see remains deliberately vacant? How will the death of a retired pope be acknowledged and mourned? These are all questions spawned by Pope Benedict's announcements, and surely there will be more to come.
My hope is that Benedict's decision becomes a precedent for future popes — that they allow themselves to surrender the papacy to someone else in cases where they may no longer be able to live into the role and its responsibilities. My hope is they take care of themselves rather than trying to be someone they can no longer be, fill a role they can no longer fill. My hope is that Benedict's decision causes a shift in how we perceive and treat clergy. I hope we place stronger emphasis on self-care and wellness, that the health and well-being of any clergy person is given proper attention and valued over bureaucracy, politics, and most importantly, tradition. Times change. Life changes. It's natural.