In 2011 I viewed the Italian film “Habemus Papam” (“We Have A Pope”), starring Michel Piccoli as a cardinal elected pope against his wishes, even as all the other cardinals who voted for him were praying: Oh,God, please, not me. The pope-elect, a former actor (hints of Pope John Paul II), wanders Rome's streets as he tries to sort things out, and even listens to a Vatican-hired psychiatrist who tries to get him to dump his fears and embrace the office. In the end, he refuses, leaving the Catholic Church and the world in shock.
At the time, I thought the film's conclusion was preposterous. I know of no pope who, having assented to his election, changed his mind. Boy, was I wrong!This film, it turns out, is a prophecy come true!
Canon law demands that bishops retire at 75. Cardinals over age 80 cannot vote for a pope. Given such age considerations, Pope Benedict XVI's decision to retire at 85 seems altogether reasonable. But he isn't just any old bishop. And this one decision will forever reshape the Catholic Church. Sadly, Benedict will be remembered for this decision far more than for any of his eloquent, fatherly pastoral teachings such as “Deus Caritas Est” (“God Is Love”) that gave us new hope in a merciful God.
Only rarely in 2,000 years have popes resigned, and usually soely elect a new pope so that Benedict could step aside at that moment?
If you have any respect for the process of electing a pope, you believe that the Holy Spirit moves through the cardinals, all of whom are also bishops, to pick the man He wants. Under those circumstances it's fair to ask: Did the Holy Spirit make a mistake? Or did the cardinals not listen closely enough to the Spirit when they elected Benedict in 2005? Or has Benedict erred? Or is this all part of God's plan to reshape His church?
If you have any respect for the office of pope, you know that the Holy Spirit is the primary voice to whom a pope must be obedient. Popes have proven to be deaf to that voice in some cases, and slow to respond in others. But if a pope won't obey the Holy Spirit when the words concern the man himself (e.g., “It's time to go, Joe.”) then you have to wonder if the man is listening to God's Spirit when he teaches others.
As for listening to God, the timing of this decision is somewhat poetic because the cardinals will pick the next pope during Lent, a time when all Catholics are supposed to turn to God anew.
Benedict's decision to obey the Spirit this time is probably the most agonizing of his life, precisely because it bucks the tradition that popes die in office. He is, after all, the first pope to resign since the Protestant Reformation.
Benedict's critics now have one more excuse to pontificate. Criticism, however, often is voiced by those who fail to acknowledge God's role in running His church, and who often misunderstand the extent of the pope's responsibility and authority. The pope appoints new bishops, reassigns them to new duties or dioceses, and meets with them regularly during their “ad limina” visits to the Vatican. At such times the pope can, and frequently does, ream them out publicly. But, technically, the pope isn't their boss. He cannot micromanage all the world's dioceses; each bishop controls his own diocese.
That's why bishops are actually more responsible than is the pope for the mess the church is in today. They often mock the pope's preeminent teaching authority by ignoring what he says. For example, Canadian bishops thumbed their noses for decades at papal teachings on abortion, thus making Canadian Catholics wonder who was teaching God's truth. The result? Most Canadians today dismiss the church as an anachronism.
The one person who wasn't caught off guard by Benedict's decision is, of course, God. Even if it wasn't God's will that Benedict pack it in, God is more than capable of moving the church forward. And just to see that He now has the chance to do so should give all Catholics hope.