A cutting silence filled the dining room as everyone found it difficult to swallow and process the news: ‘Benedict XVI has tendered his resignation!’ This was mentally more difficult to masticate than the tough tenderloin steak I was slicing.
The tension relaxed a bit when someone asked, “Aren’t Popes supposed to die with their boots (Prada) on?” This only managed a half-smile from a few of us. Then others started discussing the whys, whats, and the hows of such a unique event. Some capped it with an apocalyptic tone that signaled the end of days following St. Malachy’s prophecy.
The resignation of a Pope is an allowable option when difficult and reasonable circumstances impede him from carrying out his ministry. It is, however, something very rare and unique in the Church’s history. In the early centuries many Popes died as martyrs and most lived to serve the Church and its faithful until death. Only a few have decided to step down.
Meanwhile, I imagined how the media would (and already is) enjoy twisting Benedict XVI’s decision. They would re-conjure countless conspiracy theories and many more suspicions in an attempt to deface or discredit this 2000-year-old Church and Her ministers. But such a predictable and boring cacophony is not worth our attention. I believe it’s more interesting to learn from this ‘Popeful moment.’
Personally, I see this event pulsating with many human and spiritual lessons. It is like a fresh breeze nourishing and enkindling the fire of our faith and opening for us unsuspecting avenues for personal conversion and optimism.
In the first place, resigning from his post is a humble acceptance of what he can no longer carry out efficiently. But it is also the wisdom to foresee and allow –while one has still a reserve of strength and lucidity– a smooth transition and guarantee continuity in the pastoral care of the Church.
Benedict XVI’s ‘popeful decision’ is also a gift to all of us: something that he had intensely prayed about for some years, and even going to the extent of asking some light from his predecessor –Pope Celestine V– who had likewise opted to resign from the Papal mission in the 13th century.
It is a gift that strengthens our faith in the Church because it reveals how She remains to be the same ‘boat of Christ’ which continues to grow and bear fruit in Her earthly journey towards Heaven. Mysteriously, the Church’s splendor in the midst of the world’s turmoil and trials is a result of the interplay of God’s continuing trust in the correspondence of man (despite his weaknesses and infidelities) to His grace.
Secondly, the Holy Father paves the way for all men to realize that they also have similar ‘popeful moments.’ These moments are not extraordinary ones, but numerous small and insignificant personal decisions. Benedict XVI had made very important decisions, but like us he also makes common daily resolutions. The only difference is that even his smallest decisions may come to the light of the public eye because of his public office.
We can say that a ‘popeful moment’ is distinguished by the following traits: they are personally made in the intimate presence of God, they are not meant to please men but God alone, and one embraces the possibility of not being understood or accepted by others when we take a position to uphold God’s will.
Thus, we also make similar ‘popeful decisions’ when we choose the road which pleases God most and fulfills His will best. Even if these choices often seem very trivial, they are in God’s eyes always a humble and obedient demonstration of our love and trust.
Here are some examples of such resolutions: when we are not ashamed to make the sign of the Cross in public as we say our personal prayers (i.e. the Angelus or the blessing before and after meals), when we struggle to contain the urge to read or send a casual text in the middle of a homily, when we step on our ego in order to forgive or understand another, when we put aside uncharitable or judgmental thoughts about our neighbors, etc.
There are also more serious decisions that may go unseen by men. For example, that of detaching ourselves from occasions of sin that makes us unfaithful to our commitments to marriage or community, the resolve to be more sincere and upright in our professional commitments, to also abandon a lucrative post because it is something that is no longer coherent with our being Christian, etc.
In these examples are imbedded perennial lessons of humility and obedience when we choose to do something that others may not understand. One, however, decides that it would be more important to ‘please God, rather than men.’ Is this not a profound act of faith and abandonment, and also of hope and optimism that God will take care of everything? “Do not be afraid, it is I!”
In these remaining days of February may we closely accompany our beloved Pope Benedict XVI with our constant prayers and sacrifices. Although these may not amount to so much, they are still an expression of our gratitude to him for his fidelity, for being a humble channel of grace as our shepherd; and also for giving us a lesson –both old and new, human and supernatural– that will reverberate into a ‘popeful symphony’ throughout the entire Church and the world.