ive years ago, Benedict XVI resigned as head of the Catholic Church. By doing so, he launched a new era for the Vatican. And he taught us how to face old age with dignity, DW’s Christoph Strack writes.
“Sensation” was not strong enough to convey the import of Pope Benedict XVI ‘s announcement on Rose Monday five years ago that he would resign. It was a deep shock — a break with the past. German media assured their audiences that the 85-year-old pope’s retirement was not a Carnival joke.
By resigning, Benedict, who was born Joseph Ratzinger in Bavaria, restored the papacy’s humanity. His predecessor, John Paul II, who died in office, had declared that a pope did not resign, whispering just weeks before his death to his long-serving secretary, Stanislaw Dziwisz — whom Benedict would elevate to cardinal — that “one does not descend from the cross.”
Of course, for faithful Christians, it is not the pope, but a far more important figure who hangs from the cross. Benedict made a different decision than his predecessor had and in doing so brought the papacy back down to earth.
“If a pope comes to the clear realization that he can no longer physically, mentally and spiritually accomplish the mission of his ministry, then he has a right — and possibly also a duty — to resign,” Benedict had said in an interview in 2010. Only a theologian of Benedict’s stature could have resigned with such confidence.
‘The homeward pilgrimage’
Five years later, church lawyers still have many unanswered questions about Benedict’s resignation. How do you address a resigned pope? (The term “emeritus pope” — papa emerito — is not widely accepted.) What should he wear in public? Should he wear papal white? Or the red worn by cardinals? And what about his place of residence? In Benedict’s case, with his monastic life in the Vatican gardens, this question has been resolved, although not formalized. No ecclesiastical law would prohibit a secluded old age, wherever it may be. And some people have been irritated by the fact that a “life of prayer,” as a service to the “holy church of God,” which Benedict spoke of when he announced his resignation, has since been accompanied by a number of very ecclesiopolitical statements.
By resigning, Benedict made it possible for the College of Cardinals to elect a reformer — albeit a thoroughly conservative one. Benedict became a pope of transition, but will be remembered in church history as much more than that. No other step, not even the establishment of the question of papal infallibility, has changed the papal ministry so fundamentally in past centuries. In this way, Benedict changed the Catholic Church. Although it is not yet possible to say to what extent.
Benedict’s decision to spend his life in seclusion after his retirement went into effect on the evening of February 28, 2013, had nothing to do with the church and power, but rather was about the existential questions of the dignity and burden of old age. A few days ago, Benedict wrote to an Italian newspaper, moved by the fact that so many of its readers wanted to know “how I spend this last phase of my life.”
“All I can say is that while my physical strength is slowly dwindling, I have inwardly embarked on the homeward pilgrimage,” Benedict wrote. “It is a great blessing for me, and one I could not have imagined, to be surrounded by such love and kindness on this last part of my, at times laborious, journey.” Anyone who has ever accompanied an old person at the end of his or her life will understand what that means.
Benedict XVI remains a great theologian. He is a deeply religious man in his advanced age.
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