I was stunned to read this morning that Pope Benedict XVI has resigned due to declining health. Popes don’t resign; they die of old age. This blunt statement of fact should highlight both the rarity and seriousness of the pope’s decision. (Gregory XII was the only other pope to resign, back in 1415, because of a major schism in Catholicism.)
I was a university student in 1978 when the charismatic Karol Wojtyla was elected pope, just a short time after the recently elected and deceased Albino Luciani, Pope John Paul I. (John Paul I died 33 days after he became pope). It was an exciting time to be a Catholic. The reforms of Vatican II were taking hold, liturgies were vibrant, parishes were alive, churches were full. The laity was taking its rightful place in the Church as participants in the liturgy, witnesses to the gospel, and workers for justice.
Today, the Catholic Church, at least here in North America, is in many ways a Church in crisis. For many Catholics, the infusion of excitement and hope of the Second Vatican Council has diminished for many reasons:
- changes in the Sunday liturgy seem to be moving us backwards with an emphasis on form over substance
- the habit of silencing liberal theologians
- the sexual abuse scandals
- the attitude towards women, most visibly represented in the fight for the ordination of women to the priesthood, but also apparent in the harsh treatment of the Leadership Conference of Religious Women in the United States
- Rome’s insistence on blind obedience to the bishops on matters of ethics, morality, and conscience
It cannot be easy to be Pope. As discussion boards both praise and criticize Benedict XVI’s legacy, let us be hopeful that the Cardinals who select the next pope will be truly open to the voice of the Holy Spirit, and that Benedict’s successor will be a man who can reconcile the disparate and the dissatisfied, and be a compelling symbol of the New Evangelization.