Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting into the Deep
February 28, 2014
One year ago today Pope Benedict renounced the papacy at 8 pm Rome time.
After a year, I still haven’t found the appropriate adjectives to describe what I was feeling that day, an unnamed cocktail of emotions that are all coming back as I begin to write this article. If you could take sadness, confusion, mourning, filial affection, anger, anxiety for the Church and a sense of being orphaned and put them into a high-speed blender, that’s the type of vortex I was experiencing. I was still too stunned to cry, but it felt like my innards were bleeding.
I’ve celebrated nearly 7,677 Masses in my 15 years as a priest — including funerals for beloved parishioners, family members and friends, children and victims of homicide and suicide — but I think the 8 am daily Mass that morning was the most challenging Mass I’ve ever had to soldier through. I offered a votive Mass for the Pope conscious that in six hours he would no longer be Pope. In the Eucharistic Prayer, I slowed down to pronounce the words, “For Benedict our Pope,” aware that I was saying them for the 2,874th and last time.
A few hours later, the world watched as he left the Apostolic Palace, his secretary, Archbishop Georg Ganswein full of tears at his side, and proceeded to the Vatican heliport for the most memorable helicopter ride in world history. After he arrived at Castel Gandolfo, he came out on the loggia to greet those packed into the tiny plaza before the entrance to the papal summer palace:
“You know this day is different for me than the preceding ones,” he said. “I am no longer Pope of the Catholic Church. … I am simply a pilgrim beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on earth. I would still with my heart, with my love, with my prayers, with my reflection and with all my inner strength, like to work for the common good and the good of the Church and of humanity.”
He finished by giving us his last blessing as Pope, saying “Good Night” — which I thought was appropriate on multiple levels — and thanking us all.
Then the interregnum began, for the first time in 598 years without a funeral.
A few days later I was in Rome preparing to help out with television commentary during the conclave and I discovered that I was far from the only one in a haze. Cab drivers, shop keepers, fellow talking heads from various countries, priests in the Curia, and even some Cardinal electors all told me that they were struggling to get their proper bearings.
A papal funeral normally has the effect of unifying everyone in nine days of prayer. This time there was no requiem and therefore no real permission for anyone publicly to go through the various stages of grief. In Rome one nevertheless saw all of the first four of Kubler-Ross’ famous stages at play — denial, anger, negotiating toward unrealistic solutions, and depression — as people tried to come to grips with the wisdom of Pope Benedict’s decision. It added to the tension.
The fifth stage, acceptance, only appeared in the first days of Pope Francis’ papacy, when everyone began to see that the Cardinal from Argentina would be a sturdy captain of Peter’s Barque.
It also helped that, ten days after his election when Pope Francis visited his predecessor at Castel Gandolfo, everyone was able to see in the video coverage just how quickly the Pope-emeritus’ physical condition had deteriorated. This convinced those who questioned whether Benedict’s lack of strength was more psychological than physical — and whether his renunciation was more cowardly than courageous — that he was much frailer than anyone had thought. The grounds for his decision were now obvious to all.
As we look back a year later, what are some of the larger ramifications of Pope Benedict’s decision?
First, it’s changed the way Catholics and others will approach the papacy.
Prior to last February, a papal resignation was only a theoretical possibility. The reigning attitude was stated by Blessed John Paul II: just as Christ never came down from the Cross, he would never come down off of his. Now a papal resignation has become a real possibility. The fact that Pope Francis has had such an incredible first year may lead people naively to think that after every papal Drew Bledsoe there will be a pontifical Tom Brady.
At a deeper level, now that it’s possible for a pope to resign, there will likely be pressure for him to do so if he becomes infirm, or there are scandals within his curia, or his teaching is unpopular with the secular media and semi-professional protest movements.
Second, his resignation has changed the dynamics of papal elections.
Now it’s possible to elect a very old candidate, knowing that if he becomes infirm, he can resign. Likewise it’s possible to elect a very young candidate, because if it turns out he’s not totally up for the task or if he simply becomes exhausted after some time in the papacy, he can renounce the papacy and let someone else take over.
But I hope that the largest and longest-lasting significance will be what Pope-emeritus Benedict has taught us all about the importance of prayer.
Throughout his pontificate, Benedict stressed that prayer is the most important thing anyone does. He told priests in 2008 that time spent in prayer “is the most important time in a priest’s life, in which divine grace acts with greater effectiveness, making his ministry fruitful. The first service to render to the community is prayer. And therefore, time for prayer must be given a true priority in our life.”
By resigning the papacy in order to continue to serve the Church through a life dedicated to prayer, Benedict showed that he believes that prayer is basically even more important than the day-to-day work of the papacy. And if that’s true, then it’s hard to argue that any other ministry in the Church — or any other human work — is more important than prayer either.
Like Moses on the mountain as Joshua was leading the Israelites against the Amalekites, Pope-emeritus Benedict is now praying as Pope Francis leads the Church in the midst of the battlefield to care for the world’s wounded in the field hospital of the Church.
That’s the last leg of Benedict’s pilgrimage on earth, something that he is doing with all his heart, love, and inner strength.