Amid the assessments and accolades swirling around the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, I note one small but significant fact. Some people loved Benedict and agreed with him. Some liked him and did not agree with him. Some agreed with him but may not have liked him. Some neither agreed nor liked. But I note this fact:
Everyone – and I mean everyone, for I have not heard a contrary word from any street or commentator – admires and honors his act of resigning when he felt that his health no longer permitted him to fulfill the office of Pope as he would like, or as he felt God and the church needed.
Moreover, there was not a hint of the resignation announcement before it occurred. No rumors in Rome. No attention-attracting gossip in the household. No knowledgeable Vatican watchers, not even friends of the Pope, had any notion that this was in the offing. It seems that the Pope discussed it only with his older brother, who obviously justified his trust.
So when Benedict spoke of repeatedly examining his conscience before God we believe him. His resignation decision is clearly an act of honesty, faithfulness and integrity. Both the resignation itself and the private manner with which it was undertaken express exemplary humility.
Given almost two millennia of lifetime tenure in the ministry of Pope – with no resignations undertaken previously as an individual decision for reasons of health – the resignation is a major departure. The fact that it was undertaken purely in personal prayer, with no preceding scuttlebutt or public debate about it, seals it in authenticity. It also makes it more likely to set a precedent for future Popes.
We have to go back a ways to locate an act by a public figure that has been so universally admired and honored. Two come to mind: the work of Desmond Tutu in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and, before that, the work of Nelson Mandela in undertaking the presidency of South Africa in a genuine spirit of reconciliation. Even those two works, however, had their critics who felt that perpetrators of violence during apartheid got off too lightly, whether from the ANC government or from the TRC.
Too often in recent history we have been disappointed by the final acts of public figures, or acts a ways back that then come to light in ways that tarnish or shame the burnished reputation.
Benedict XVI’s resignation has no critics, only admirers. It will rank among the significant acts of his pontificate. It is good that it comes from the leader of the world’s largest group of Christians.