Yesterday, the Holy Father, Benedict XVI announced he would renounce his claim to the See of Peter and retire for reasons of personal health. This monumental action startled not only the Catholic world, but also indeed the global community. It is the first time in almost six hundred years that a Bishop of Rome relinquished their Papal See and retired. Pope Benedict’s decision to acknowledge the personal limitations of his health and as an octogenarian should be acclaimed as a monumental and most pragmatic event for the life and vitality of the Catholic Church. The strain and activities of the papacy are most certainly laborious for any one individual, especially a seasoned theologian that has well passed the retirement age required for bishops, under the current Code of Canon Law, promulgated by Pope John-Paul II.
Currently, the Code of Canon Law prescribes that prior to a bishop’s 75th birthday; they should submit a letter of resignation for consideration of the Holy Father. While the Code requires the submission of a bishop’s letter of intent and a declaration of their 75th anniversary, the Holy See has no implicit or explicit responsibility to immediately accept or reject the request. Pope Paul VI precipitated this practice of initiating the retirement of bishops at 75 and members of the College of Cardinals at 80 in the waning years of his lengthy pontificate.
The moto proprio of Paul VI, and the codification of these requirements in the revised Code of Canon Law are prophetic and insightful contingencies, built into the government of the Catholic Church intended not to discriminate against elderly bishops and cardinals of the Church. Quite the contrary, the inclusion of these directives into the revised Code Law is not intended to discriminate against the elderly members of the Colleges of Bishops and Cardinals, but rather intends to protect their personal vitality and ensure the effective continuity of the Church’s government with as little interruption as possible. Prior to these directives, Bishops and Cardinals served in their official capacities until they either died or were incapacitated by issues of health that prohibited their active ministries. The provision to retire for bishops and cardinals is a modern innovation since 1974, and it has worked well and created a new category of bishops, Bishops Emeriti, namely retired bishops and cardinals that continue in their capacity to administer Sacraments, but are without administrative duties. They retain their titles and all of the honorifics accorded to their ecclesial rank, and provide great counsel and assistance to their successors.
Perhaps now it is most appropriate to bestow the title of Pope Emeritus on Benedict XVI, retain the formal address of Your Holiness and permit him to continue to wear the traditional white cassock of a Pope. Typically, this protocol is established with former United States Presidents, they are still addressed as Mr. President and are provided with official staff and administrative support. In our American Republic, no one mistakes them for the duly elected current President of the United States, they are indeed a vast resource of knowledge, experience, and perceptive that is invaluable to the new President if their counsel is requested.
In the case of Benedict XVI, no one would even consider his continued use of the title, Your Holiness would diminish any authority from his elected successor, and it would lend a modern appreciation to the manner in which papal transitions are made. In some manner, it is comforting to have a Pope Emeritus, not as someone standing in the wings to usurp papal power, rather as a paternal and guiding influence for the counsel of the newly elected Pope. Historically, elected popes have no one to offer counsel and confide in another individual that has previously held the esteemed office of Bishop of Rome. Benedict’s retirement should be viewed as not only a historic event, but also a great opportunity to evolve the perceptions of the Papacy as not just an office headed by a terminal Pope, but a viable living office and role that requires the vitality and physical abilities of a man with a global message and mission. Remarkably, this resignation announced by Benedict XVI provides a transformational perspective on the great role and responsibility of the Pope in the modern world. Most significantly, it accentuates the teachings of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council that accentuate embracing the modern world and all of its innovations to spread the Gospel message. Joseph Ratzinger, an architect of the Second Vatican Council regardless of his health issues, may well indeed illustrate an sublime architectural component of his vision for the changes of the Second Vatican Council, as Father Ratzinger that he is only now revealing and disclosing through his papacy and pending retirement.
My suggestion is not that the Holy Father is implementing a preconceived idea from fifty years ago. However, the possibility remains that the work of the Holy Spirit is still in progress, because of the great Ecumenical Council, which celebrates its 50th anniversary of the Council’s start in 1962. The evolution of the papacy since John XXIII indeed has grown to a responsibility of global significance and great political and social influence. The New Evangelization called for by Pope Benedict XVI could quite possibly include an evolution of the role of the papacy into an international diplomat of global proportions that leads the world’s moral and ethical view through positive integration of the Church as a major influence on the geopolitical stage of a world that is no longer isolated but integrated through technological innovations of communications and science.
The New Evangelization of Benedict XVI is in reality a call for the Catholic Church’s transformation into a universal voice for all peoples that seeks global harmony through the message of tolerance, peace, and diversity of all peoples and cultures. Pope Benedict XVI, through his retirement is embracing the need for the Church to saturate itself in the modern world as defined in Gaudium et Spes, which realizes the Catholic Church as an emerging global influence on human moral and ethical developments radically changed through the development and introduction of the advances of the sciences and multiple technologies. Pope Benedict XVI a few weeks ago became to first pontiff in history to use Twitter as a pastoral resource. Perhaps, that “tweet” was the electronic flame of the new evangelization initiated by Pope Benedict to restore the global society with a component of morality and ethics and the acceptance of Divine Providence as part of our human and eschatological existence.
Benedict XVI’s retirement and transition to Papa Emeritus should be considered as a monumental development in the role of the papacy and the Church in the activities of the post-modern world and is indicative of the dramatic call for aggiornamento proclaimed 50 years ago by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, and Joseph Ratzinger as one of its principle architects.
His retirement is well deserved and earned after decades of faithful service to the message of the Gospel. It should also be considered as an opportunity to revitalize all peoples from secular humanism and the limitations of materialism to a new exploration of faith through whatever manner the Almighty manifests Himself to the peoples of the world.
Χαίρετε ἐν κυρίῳ πάντοτε!
Gaudete in Domino semper!