The word itself is telling: Resignation.
The etymology of is based in the word “resign”, which has an original meaning in the reconciliation of accounts but from which eventually came the sense of giving one’s self up to a particular emotion or a situation. An elderly man steps down from his powerful job and we say he resigns. And then we ask why because we’re not used to the powerful willingly letting go of the reins.
But it isn’t just that Pope Benedict XVI is resigning from his job. He’s giving himself up to his situation – he’s resigned to what he knows of himself before his God: He’s old. He’s tired. His health is waning, if not failing. He’d probably like a few naps, for God’s sake. Instead of pretending (as many of us do in this culture of youth) that he can keep going on with the energy he once had, he is resigned to his situation.
If this were not the Pope stepping down from a job, no one would notice. Thousands, if not millions, of elderly stop out every day, and we all consider it quite normal. What 85-year-old in your life still works? They are tired and aching and, in many cases, quite aware they are slowing dying. Most elderly people accept this fact of life. They are “resigned” to the vagaries of old age. And we let them be.
But when someone of great leadership and power resigns – especially by admitting in humility that they have become old and are no longer able to carry on – people are surprised. They question, they challenge. One of the first messages I saw on my Facebook news feed today asked: What? The pope resigned? Can he do that?
Yes, actually, he can. While there’s no app for that, there is a rule for it in Canon Law (Canon 322 special squiggle typeface character 2, specifically). No, it hasn’t happened in lo many hundreds of years, and so it is unexpected and pretty big news. For church geeks, it’s a heyday of speculation and prognostication: Benedict waited until some of the old guard had died out, so some wonder if he held back from resigning sooner so he could stack the deck for those who would elect his successor before he resigned? Oh, fiddlesticks, others will say. He appointed more than 60 of the current 118 cardinals eligible to vote, so the deck – if it can be stacked – already is. And besides, people were surprised when John Paul II was elected and even more shocked when Benedict was. The Holy Spirit moves in mysterious ways.
That said, some of the names being bandied about as potential popes can be found here and here. Lots of people want an American pope, but it makes more sense to have one from Africa, where the Church is growing exponentially. Then again, my heart lies with religious orders, so I think we might do worse than Christoph Schoenborn, O.P. But if Cardinal Dolan was elected, would that mean Stephen Colbert would shoot at least one Colbert Report from the Vatican, and if so, how cool would that be? (If you don’t get that reference, see here.)
It will be an interesting couple of weeks for Catholics, and even more so for Pope Benedict. He deserves a rest and, while I cannot say I’ve been thrilled with much of his direction, I respect his intellect and I admire his courage and humility in stepping down. And, heck, I admire his energy thus far. I’m tired all the time; I can’t imagine how I’ll feel at 85.
Pope Benedict is letting go of power – something many leaders have a hard time doing – because he knows the Church needs something he cannot give at this time. We could all probably learn a lesson in that.
(If you are curious to know how a papal transition takes place, one of the best descriptions can be found here, written by Thomas Reese, S.J. )