I just found out this morning that Pope Benedict XVI has announced that he has decided to resign from the papacy for health reasons. Although I am deeply saddened by this announcement, I completely understand the pontiff's reasons for relinquishing the Chair of Saint Peter, and I accept his decision. While he is still in very good health for his age (he will turn 86 in April), the pope's strength has been gradually declining over the eight years of his pontificate, and especially over the past year or so he has been getting noticeably weaker. Unlike most men who reach his age, and unlike Blessed John Paul II before him, Pope Benedict has no serious illness or disease, so despite his growing weakness, he may continue living for years to come. He does not want the Church to suffer as a result of his inability to carry out the functions of his office. Therefore, after several months of thoughtful consideration and prayer, he has decided to give up the papacy for the good of the Church. I think he has made the right decision.
Although initially I was shocked by the news of Pope Benedict's resignation, I am not really too surprised; in fact, I was sort of expecting it, knowing Pope Benedict and having observed his papacy pretty closely. Even the casual observer can tell that this man is not a clone of Pope John Paul II. He has his own personality, his own ideas, his own approach and style, and he is comfortable being himself. He thinks for himself and then he does what he thinks is right, whether it is popular or not, whether it is expected or not, whether it has been done before or not. And he takes full responsibility for his decisions.
It is very rare for a pope to resign. This will be the first time in 598 years and only the fourth time in Church history that a pope has stepped down. The last pope to voluntarily renounce his office was Gregory XII, who resigned in 1415 during the Great Western Schism to allow for the proper election of a successor.
Pope Benedict XVI has set a wonderful example of humility and wisdom for the whole Church. He has fully understood and put into practice the Christian concepts of servant leadership and obedience to God's will. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger never wanted to be pope. Already in his late seventies at the time of John Paul's death, he would have preferred to retire to his native Bavaria and write books in quiet solitude. When elected pope on April 19, 2005, he initially felt that he was not up to the enormous task of governing the universal Church. However, he humbly accepted his election as God's will, setting aside his own preferences, referring to himself as "a humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord," and trusting that God would give him the necessary graces to carry out the papal mission. And God certainly rewarded his trust. Now, as he begins to lack the necessary strength to fulfill his ministry, Pope Benedict XVI has the humility and wisdom to recognize that his time as Supreme Pontiff should come to an end. Both in accepting the papal office and in giving it up, as well as throughout his papacy, he has been a humble servant of God, always putting the good of the Church and of others first.
Our brilliant, scholarly, humble and wise Holy Father has served the Church very well over the past eight years, carrying out his many responsibilities with total dedication and careful attention. His accomplishments are too numerous to list here. He has successfully ushered the Church into the post-John Paul II era. The profound theological riches of his encyclicals, apostolic letters, homilies, addresses, and other writings and speeches will be mined for decades to come.
A very fond farewell to one of the holiest and greatest popes the Church has ever known. May God bless his remaining days on earth. When he passes from this life and stands before God, I'm sure God will say to him, "Well done, my good and faithful servant...Come, share your Master's joy" (Matthew 25:21).
P.S. Of course, Pope Benedict is not really "leaving us," just leaving the papacy. I'm sure he will keep us all in his prayers, and let's do the same for him.