It is nearly impossible to write about the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI without having it sound like a bit an obituary. Such a retrospective ordinarily is undertaken at the end a pope’s reign, which ordinarily coincides with the death of the pope. But not this time: Pope Benedict’s announcement this morning of his impending resignation means he will vacate the papacy while he is still very much alive, leaving us with a situation that is highly unusual although not without precedent (see preceding blog post).
The tributes and reviews of his papacy have already begun and will continue to be generated until the white smoke again billows over St. Peter’s Square. For the moment, let us consider his decision to resign on its own merits.
Pope Benedict was a reluctant pontiff when elected, as most popes are, both out of a sense of unworthiness and an awareness of the immense responsibility the job entails. Years earlier, while still head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope John Paul II, then-Cardinal Ratzinger had wanted to resign his post so that he could devote himself to his theological writing. Yet he accepted his papal election just as he had received his previous appointments as bishop and archbishop — as a sacred duty in the spirit of “St. Corbinian’s bear,” who was pressed into service as a beast of burden by the eighth-century Bavarian bishop after it had attacked and killed the holy man’s horse. As Pope Benedict wrote in his memoirs: “The bear with the pack, which replaced the horse… becoming, against his will, his pack animal: Was that not, and is it not an image of what I should be and of what I am?”
Pope Benedict recognizes the burden of the papacy and the physical vitality required to carry that burden. He has come to the prayerful conclusion that it is in the best interests of the Church that he step aside and allow a younger and stronger man to succeed him sooner rather than later. It is not a choice he has made lightly.
His predecessor had made a different choice. Visibly aging and infirm in the final years of his life, ravaged by the effects of Parkinson’s disease and osteoarthritis, Pope John Paul II retained his office until his death and provided the world with a witness of how we can suffer and die with true dignity.
Popes traditionally have served until death, with few exceptions. That’s not by design: Most of the early popes died as martyrs for their faith, beginning with St. Peter, who was crucified upside-down, according to tradition.
The legend of St. Corbinian’s bear ends when the bishop and beast arrive safely in Rome: With the bear having fulfilled his service, Corbinian sets him free, and the bear returns home to Bavaria. Clearly, Pope Benedict has discerned that he has fulfilled his service to the Church, and Christ is ready to release him to his Bavarian homeland as well.
At this, we offer our prayers of thanksgiving to God for the work of his servant on behalf of all the faithful, and we pray that Pope Benedict may find rest from the burdens he has carried as he prepares for his eventual entrance into eternal glory.
~ Gerald Korson