While visiting the hair salon last week, my stylist asked me what I thought about the pope’s resignation, which took effect February 28. This resignation has been fodder for the rumor mill, and, as you might imagine, we had a lively discussion.
Speculation and innuendo have been companions to the resignation of Benedict XVI. While Benedict said he was resigning due to a loss of “strength in mind and body”, many believe that the continuing cascade of scandal during his pontificate influenced his decision. Others think the Curia (the cardinals who help govern the Church) forced Benedict out. Some queried the pontiff’s motives, arguing that with his resignation Benedict would be positioned to influence the selection of his successor. As other commentators have noted, this is material for a Dan Brown novel, with innuendo and twists of plot drawing us into a world of intrigue that blurs the distinctions between fact and fiction.
Beyond innuendo to an essential truth
Benedict’s resignation draws me in for reasons other than the intrigue filtering down from the Vatican through the media. The text of his announcement takes us beyond innuendo to an essential truth of human experience – our mortality. At some point, the aging process summons us to accept our diminishments, and begin the process of detachment.
In the announcement of his resignation, Benedict publicly stated that due to his age, “both strength of mind and body” have “deteriorated in me to the extend that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.” There is a compelling wisdom in this honest admission of decline; beyond the admission, there is the example of resigning one’s self to the realities of aging. While Benedict’s resignation may set a precedent for future aging and ailing pontiffs who (with the exception of a couple of historical examples) hang on until death, it has meaning for us as well.
We avoid admitting our decline
In a culture that worships at the altars of youthfulness and physical vitality, it is no small matter to recognize and accept one’s own decline. We take measures, like coloring our graying hair, to conceal the visible signs of aging. We avoid admitting the diminishment of our physical abilities, balking at using a cane or wearing hearing aids. We express our fear of cognitive impairment, laughing at lame jokes about “senior’s moments”. We hang onto our driver’s license long past the point of prudence. We do not want to admit, let alone accept, our diminishments.
and detaching ourselves from worldly things
This resignation also points to a process of detaching one’s self from worldly things. At the pinnacle of clerical success, with the privileges of a head of state, and the status of a celebrity, Benedict relinquishes some of the most sought after signs of success in the world - power, authority, privilege and fame. This pope, who was severely criticized in the early days of his papacy for wearing red Prada slippers, and who likes to appear in the princely regalia of a bygone era, will also have to detach himself from this fondness for the Church’s past with its beautiful trappings of office. In our consumer society, where the accumulation of material possessions, wealth, and the good opinion of others has become a virtue, this resignation reminds us that we go out of the world the same way we came into it – with nothing.
From action to passion
In stating his wish to serve the Church “through a life dedicated to prayer”, Benedict moves from an active lifestyle to a more passive, yet no less vital, way of being. While the movement from action to passion accompanies profound change at any stage in life, here it underscores loss of youth, of wholeness of body and mind, and of the tasks that once defined a person. When we reach an advanced age, this movement may help us to reflect on our mortality, and aid us in our preparation for dying.
My intention in this column has not been to venerate or defend Benedict XVI. While I have not been a fan of the conservative direction of the Church under his guidance, and the scandals of the old boys club of which he has been the head grieve me, Benedict’s resignation resonates with truth and deserves my respect. Whether or not the innuendo and rumor have any basis, the truth, symbolized in this resignation, is that eventually we have to accept our graying hair.