The Resignation of Benedict XVI: “un fulmine a ciel sereno”

The news arrived to me, exactly one year ago today (11 Februrary 2013), through a simple text message: “The Pope is resigning”. I thought it a joke, even if the message came from a priest. I simply replied, “what?”– brief and emotionless, showing my unwillingness to play games on this matter. The response was quick and terse. “Effective 28FEB at 2000.” At that point I knew it had to be true. I opened my phone’s browser to confirm the news, and sure enough, there it was: Annuncio shock: Ratzinger lascia il pontificato.

As soon as I returned home, I scoured the Vatican website for footage of this historic decision, and I quickly found it, without subtitles or overdubbing. In my head I uttered profanity after profanity, directed toward my slow German internet which labored to buffer the video; a special set of colorful terms were reserved for that terrible day itself, in which I could not repeat the words of Psalm 118, “this day was made by the Lord”. The De profundis would have been far more appropriate, but in the paradigm-altering confusion and trepidation generated by the Pope’s announcement, a litany of offenses against the Second Commandment– inexcusable though they are– flowed with terrifying ease from my shuddering, pouting lips.

With great sadness, I listened to the Pope’s discourse. Seated upon his ornate cathedra, adorned with the winter mozzetta and florid Papal stole, and speaking in Latin, the scene was a true vision of the Roman Pontiff acting with all the power of his Apostolic office, pronouncing with irrevocable authority the grave decision which he had already made in his heart. After admitting with characteristic Ratzingerian self-deprecation his increasing frailty and consequent unfittingness to carry the Petrine ministry’s monumental burden, he uttered the operative part of his statement in formal legal rhetoric, unequivocally declaring his resignation.

Quapropter bene conscius ponderis huius actus plena libertate declaro me ministerio Episcopi Romae, Successoris Sancti Petri, mihi per manus Cardinalium die 19 aprilis MMV commissum renuntiare ita ut a die 28 februarii MMXIII, hora 20, sedes Romae, sedes Sancti Petri vacet et Conclave ad eligendum novum Summum Pontificem ab his quibus competit convocandum esse.

Therefore, knowing well the gravity of this act, with full freedom I declare to renounce myself from the ministry of the Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, granted to me by hand of the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, such that from 28 February 2013, 8 PM, the See of Rome, the See of St. Peter be vacant, and a conclave for the election of a new Supreme Pontiff shall be convoked by those whose competence it is. (my translation and emphasis)

Benedict, in his usual gracious style, wholeheartedly thanked the Cardinals for all their work and their love for the Church, and then begged their pardon for all his faults. At those words– et veniam peto pro omnibus defectibus meis— my vision blurred as my eyes welled suddenly, for that moment, reality struck me hard. While I was overcome with emotion watching recycled footage of an event that I knew had already occurred, I wondered how much more shocking it was for the prelates in the Pope’s presence who heard the announcement. After all, the purpose of that day’s consistory was not to announce a resignation; rather, the Cardinals were convoked to vote on the causes of sainthood for various beati. In the video footage (click here), one can see the poor, bewildered face of Guido Pozzo (erstwhile elemosiniere, to the left of Msgr. Marini and the Pope), as Benedict spoke the fateful words.

Let’s leave my personal reflection aside for a moment, and listen to a Cardinal who was present at the historic announcement. Francis Arinze gave his thoughts in an English-language interview the day after the consistory, seen in the video below. In words that today may seem prophetic, given the apparent tendency to oppose Pope Francis to Pope Benedict, the Cardinal reminds the viewers that the Church is Christ’s, not the Pope’s; and although there is certainly a measure of sadness associated with the resignation, one must remember not to focus on the personality or style of an individual Pope, but to keep one’s eyes fixed on Christ. I encourage the reader to watch the entire video, seen below! Cardinal Arinze is, to my mind, one of the most entertaining and lively of Cardinals, and it’s always a joy to hear his direct and often humorous answers to direct questions.

As Cardinal Arinze mentioned, the Dean of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano, delivered remarks in Italian on behalf of the Cardinals present. Fighting back tears, his speech was peppered with pauses– profound moments of silence perhaps more eloquent than the brief yet beautiful words he had scribbled mere moments before. Papa Ratzinger was certainly not on the chummiest of terms with Sodano since Tarcisio Bertone, a man with no diplomatic experience, became Secretary of State, but the magnitude of the situation had clearly shaken the old curial veteran to the core, as it did everybody else. The Cardinal Dean called the Pope’s announcement un fulmine a ciel sereno— a lightning bolt out of clear skies– and the metaphor could not have been more apt. (Of course, press coverage from that day made much of the lightning bolt which struck the cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica later that evening.) After Sodano’s speech, the Pope imparted the Apostolic Blessing, followed by the chanting of Sub tuum praesidium, after which consistory concluded. In the video footage, one can see Cardinal Arinze leaving his seat after the blessing, hurrying in vain to catch the Pope before he got away, stirred to personally render his homage for such a corageous act; meanwhile, the still-stunned Cardinals stood as still as statues. Alas, Benedict had already retreated too far, though as Sodano mentioned in his speech, there would be many more opportunities for the world to express its gratitude– a gratitude for now stifled by shock– before the resignation took effect.

In his declaration, the Pope mentioned not only the state of his health, but the state of the world which influenced his decision to vacate the Cathedra of Peter: he noted that the world of our time had become “subject to rapid changes and shaken by matters of great importance for the life of faith” (rapidis mutationibus subiecto et quaestionibus magni ponderis pro vita fidei perturbato); thus the Church needed a more vigorous– perhaps much younger– Pontiff to take the helm of Christ’s flock. Many saw the renunciation as a true fuga, a flight from scandal, a manifestation of impotence, an admission of failure. Was it a bitter irony that the Pope who at his inaugural Mass famously told the crowd, “Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves” had now abandoned his crozier, the shepherd’s staff that smites the predatory beasts?

After a year of reflection, our answer must be a most certain “no”. While today, nearly everybody delights in the freshness of Pope Francis’ public persona and style, we must remember that the true novelty, the true freshness, comes from Papa Ratzinger’s most humble and courageous decision to cede the Petrine office to the will of the Holy Spirit, in the hope that a pastor without his own failing health would come to lead the Church in his place. Today, Papa Bergoglio carries forward with great earnest the reform of the Curia and of the Vatican City State, projects begun by Ratzinger that, due to his diminishing strength, he could no longer effectively oversee. The popularity of the Papacy has spiked, and millions are returning to the sacraments, thanks to the pastoral warmth exuded by the Pope dalla fine del mondo.

Yet with all this, Benedict’s legacy is far from dead. In his eight-year pontificate, he spearheaded a recovery of true sacred liturgy secundum mentem Concilii Patrum, and thanks to his efforts, the tide against the desacralizing and destructive tendencies of the 70’s and 80’s continues to roll forward. He has rehabilitated ancient Roman Rite and opened an entire generation of young Catholics to the Church’s venerable spiritual and artistic patrimony. He officially bestowed on the Church the definitive interpretation of the Second Vatican Council, that is, the hermeneutic of continuity and not of rupture, in harmony with the Tridentine and First Vatican Councils– the same hermeneutic which Pope Francis has vigorously endorsed. He has bequeathed to the world the Jesus of Nazareth book series, a treasure of inestimable value from one of the greatest theologians and spiritual writers of our time.

We must never forget that Benedict’s resignation made possible the ascent of Francis. What in the heat of the moment seemed like a flight from the wolves, now appears a gesture of pure faith and love for Christ and the Church. At the distance of one year, we can witness the full splendor of Benedict’s decision; for this and for his eight years on the throne of Peter, we give thanks. We thank this saintly Bavarian for accepting the Supreme Pontificate when he only desired a life of solitude; we thank John Paul II for thrice refusing his request to retire, keeping him in the service of the Church; lastly, we thank Almighty God for the ministry of Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict XVI, who from his reluctant election to his courageous resignation, always remained un semplice e umile lavoratore nella vigna del Signore— a simple and humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord. For him and for his successor, let us pray.

V.  Oremus pro Pontifice emerito nostro Benedicto.
R.  Dominus conservet eum, et vivificet eum, et beatum faciat eum in terra, et non tradat eum in animam inimicorum eius.

V.  Oremus. Deus, omnium fidelium pastor et rector,
famulum tuum Benedictum, quem pastorem Ecclesiae tuae praeesse voluisti,
propitius respice: da ei, quaesumus, verbo et exemplo, quibus praefuit, proficere,
ut ad vitam sibi credito, perveniat sempiternam.
Per Christum Dominum nostrum.

R.  Amen.

V.  Oremus pro Pontifice nostro Francisco.
R.  Dominus conservet eum, et vivificet eum, et beatum faciat eum in terra, et non tradat eum in animam inimicorum eius.

V.  Oremus. Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, dignitas sacerdotii et auctor regni,
da gratiam famulo tuo Francisco Pontifici nostro,
Ecclesiam tuam fructuose regenti,
ut qui tua clementia pater regum et rector omnium fidelium constituitur et coronatur,
salubri tua dispositione cuncta bene gubernentur.
Per Christum Dominum nostrum. 

R.  Amen.

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