February 11, 2013, Monday -- Reflections on Pope Benedict's Decision to Resign at the End of February
This evening I drove through a nearly empty Vatican city. A cold February rain fell as I went from the Domus Santa Marta, where the cardinals will stay during the upcoming conclave, around the back of the basilica, through the archway just below the Sistine Chapel, where the cardinals will vote in the first days of March, down the narrow brick ramp then out across the Piazza del Belvedere, where the Vatican Library is located, and through the arch toward the Porta Sant'Anna, where two Swiss Guards stood shivering in the drizzle.
At about 6 p.m., a thunderstorm broke over the city, and lightning bolts seemed to strike down against St. Peter's dome. A bitter cold rain fell in sheets.
It was an odd day, a surreal day, this day of the announcement that Pope Benedict will resign his office... I am still finding it difficult to believe that in 20 days we will no longer have his magisterial teaching, and I am still wondering if we know the full background, all the reasons, for this unexpected decision.
But even as I write these words, I realize that they are not quite accurate.
First, Pope Benedict has not decided to "resign" his office, but to renounce it. The distinction is important. He will not be a "retired Pope," but he will be, according to Vatican officials I spoke with today, simply "Cardinal Ratzinger" once again. There will be no danger of "two Popes" -- this present Pope will no longer be a Pope, not even a retired one. (But even to write that causes me to shake my head a bit at the strangeness of the words.)
Second, the decision was not really "unexpected." In fact, almost three years ago, in mid-2010, in an article entitled "The Celestine Sign," I argued that the Pope was giving us a hint that he was considering abdicating his papacy. (Here is a link the the complete article: http://moynihanreport.itvworking.com/from-the-desk-of/the-celestine-sign )
The hint was Benedict's devotion to Pope Celestine V, who resigned the papacy in 1294.
So we knew already knew three years ago that the Pope might do what he announced this morning, when he announced, in Latin, that he will leave his office on February 28, precisely at 8 pm in the evening.
We knew that he might do it, but no one knew he would do it now, while the Year of Faith is underway, while his promised encyclical on faith is not yet published, and while his campaign for a purification of the Church has not reached a final conclusion. "I thought he might resign, but only at age 90," a Vatican monisgnor told me this afternoon. (Note: Edward Pentin has reported that the text of the expected encyclical is a "beautiful" text and that Benedict planned to use the encyclical to share his reflections on what it means to be a Christian today, the role of faith in the life of man and society and the value of Christian truths. These will be linked to the “mystery” of Easter, at a time when, in many respects, the world is in crisis. Vatican Insider claims the new encyclical has been getting “rave reviews” from those who have already seen drafts. “The text of the Pope is beautiful,” a senior prelate in the Curia is reported as saying. “With his simple language, Benedict XVI expresses even the most complex and profound truths which are able to reach a diffusion that goes beyond imagination.” But will this encyclical come out before February 28?)