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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

What we learn from the Pope's renunciation of his ministry

Like many of you, I suppose, I awakened to the news that Pope Benedict renounced his ministry. Renounce was his word, or at least the translator's word from a Latin equivalent (okay you Latin scholars out there...), and it is a strong word, up there with abdicate and forsake. My first thought was, can he do that? I guess he can, though it hasn't been done in 600 years.

Popes don't resign, retire, renounce, abdicate, forsake, or in any way leave their ministries. As the pope's own statement suggests (see below), the suffering, pain, dementia, and other limitations that come with age, are part of the job because they are part of the human experience. Thus it has always been for popes, until now.

"In today's world (you can see the extended quote below), subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith...both strength of mind and body are necessary." 

In other words, today is different. The rules of these many centuries no longer apply. More vigorous leadership is needed. The pope notes two reasons for this. One is rapid changes. The world is changing so fast, and in so many ways, the maintenance mode of the previous centuries won't cut it any more. The church can't afford to coast for a few years waiting for a pope to die. It needs a fully engaged leader.

The world is also shaken, the pope says by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith. I am not sure quite what he means by this, and we might read into it many things. Whatever he means in particular, in the end it is clear that much is up for grabs. Questions that were settled in communities for centuries are no longer settled. We debate issues of identity and purpose as Christians as never before.

These challenges aren't just for Roman Catholics, but for all Christian bodies. The Pope is right. These times are different than other times, and courageous action is needed in the face of unprecedented challenge. For the Pope the courageous action was to renounce his ministry.

"After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today's world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me."


Beth Bontrager said...

The Pope renounces his ministry with beautiful words. I would like to have some Cardinal or "high-up" person affirm him, though, that his ministry will not end when he takes off the stole and cap; indeed, he can still serve the church and the world through prayer, individual conversation, writing, etc. To age does not mean to become worthless or no longer a valid servant of God. This is not a light decision. The Roman Catholic Church and the whole world should support the Pope in this decision and choose a successor in accordance to the needs he outlines above.

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