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March 3 - March 16, 2013

Celebrating Benedict, hoping for the future

Fr. David Simonetti was the main celebrant during a special Solemn Mass and Benediction for Pope Benedict XVI to celebrate his papacy at St. James the Greater in Sauk Village on Feb.25. As a tribute to the exiting pope for his service, the celebration continued afterwords with a cake made by one of the parishioners with his the pontiffs photo on it. Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

Altar servers place candlesticks near a zucchetto once owned by Pope John Paul II and picture of Pope Benedict. Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

Fr. David Simonetti blesses a cake made by a parishioner with an image of Pope Benedict XVI on it following a Mass. Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

Haley and Tammy Turek read a prayer for Pope Benedict during Benediction. Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

By Michelle Martin


The story, reduced to its elements, seems simple. Pope Benedict XVI, 85, decided that he no longer had the strength of mind and body to carry out the duties of the successor of Peter, and he exercised an option under existing canon law to resign the papacy and allow the College of Cardinals to appoint someone new.

But within hours, if not minutes, of his announcement — made, in Latin, to a meeting of cardinals on Feb. 11 — the news of Benedict’s resignation inspired more spilled ink and on-air analysis than just about anything else he had done since being elected pope in 2005.

“I found out when I woke up at 6 o’- clock in the morning and my iPhone was lit up like a Christmas tree with text messages from the Today show, asking me to call about the pope,” said Father Robert Barron, rector of Mundelein Seminary, a Catholic New World columnist and frequent speaker and commenter on church matters. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, the pope must have died.’ In a way, it was even more shocking.”

The first day brought stories about previous papal resignations: Gregory XII left office in 1415 to end the Great Western Schism, and before him, Pope St. Celestine stepped down after about five months in 1294 because, being a hermit who preferred a quiet life of prayer, he found himself inadequate to cope with the intrigues of a medieval court.

Then came speculations about the real reasons for the resignation, as though the infirmities of old age were not enough, and stories about where the soon-to-be former Pope Benedict would live (in a renovated convent in the Vatican) and whether that would cause political problems for his successor.

His spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, began offering lists of untrue statements the Vatican had heard about the pope and his decision to resign at daily press briefings.

Reached by telephone on Feb. 19, Michael Budde, chairman of the Catholic studies department at DePaul University, said, “I’m not sure what there is left to say.”

“It’s a testimony both to the enduring importance of the church and the popular fascination with the papacy,” Budde said. “There’s the idea that there’s some sort of function of unity that at least hopes to speak for a broad swathe of the Christian world. It provides a point of reference even for people who think they make up their own minds about things.”

While some of the commentary has been insightful or raised important issues of ecclesiology, much has been more on the level of celebrity gossip, he said.

“I think a lot of it is a kind of low-grade celebrity quality that the papacy has gained. You would think that the church is the pope and nothing else, when for most Catholics, the Vatican is a step or two removed from their everyday life of faith.”

At the same time, he said, the pope’s resignation made him — and perhaps future popes — seem more human, Budde said.

Barron said he was puzzled by the resignation’s timing, especially when the pope gave a long talk about his involvement in Vatican II to the priests of Rome a few days later. “He was going on and on, without notes. And I thought, ‘Why is this man retiring?’ It seems to be happening when he’s at the top of his game,” Barron said.

The surprising move came at a time when some commentators have talked about the church being in crisis, but Barron said whether the church is in crisis depends on where you are standing.

“The church is in crisis in Western Europe — in Germany, France, Italy, the Low Countries, the U.K., even Ireland, I think you’ve got full-blown crisis, no doubt about it,” Barron said. “When it comes to the church in America, the sex abuse crisis is the biggest crisis the church has faced. But the church in terms of numbers is doing pretty well.”

There are about 70 million Catholics in the United States, and in much of Latin America, Asia and Africa, the numbers are growing.

“I’m with Cardinal George, in that I agree we need to remind people that we are 5 percent of the Catholic world. It’s not all about us. So is the church in crisis? Yes and no.”

Barron said that he has no concern that Benedict will interfere in Vatican affairs, but he does wonder how the precedent he set will be used.

“I would have a bit of that fear that it will change the papacy in the future,” he said. “There will come a time when the pope is a little sick, the pope is not doing so well, and people will say, ‘It’s time for the pope to resign.’”

Peter Casarella, professor of Catholic studies at DePaul University and director of the university’s Center for World Catholicism, said he doesn’t think Pope Benedict’s decision to resign will affect the papacy too much as it goes forward.

“I don’t think people see this as him saying ‘I need a break,’” Casarella said. “He’s exercising a canon that exists, and he’s fulfilling what he said he would do in an interview (“Light of the World,” with journalist Peter Seewald). He’s simply doing what he should do, which is to place his conscience before God. That’s not saying ‘I need a vacation.’”

Part of the surprise comes from the contrast with Pope John Paul II, who was quite ill for the last several years of his papacy but always said he would not resign.

“John Paul II was a heroic, active pope who survived an assassin’s bullet,” Casarella said. “He always placed himself in solidarity with those who are most vulnerable, those who were sick or disabled.”

Pope Benedict is a different person, and God is calling him to take a different path, Casarella said.

“It’s not a message that this is just a job,” he said. “This demonstrates the freedom of Christian conscience, to let go of the reins. They’re both important lessons. … No one would think of Pope Benedict as being a radical, left-wing theologian. He’s exercising a canonical right, but one that hasn’t been used very frequently. He can be simultaneously deeply traditional and yet set a precedent.”