As the news of this this historic and stunning (I have yet to come up with an adjective that captures the moment for me) reality, I have a few thoughts.
The first is that while this shocks the world, I'm wondering how long the Holy Father has been contemplating this. I do remember at the time of his election hearing the speculation that he did not seek or want to be elected. Of course, in humility, I think every candidate for an office so high says that, but maybe there was more to it. After all, in 1997, when he turned 70, Cardinal Ratzinger asked his then-boss, Blessed Pope John Paul II to resign as Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. So the thought of resignation to a life of prayer and reflection and academic pursuit is not a new desire for him.
Of course, in the last few weeks, we have all become “expert” Church historians and we all now know that in 1415 Pope Gregory XII resigned to help end the Great Schism in the Church during a time when there were three Popes. And we have also learned that the last Pope to resign of his own free will was Pope St. Celestine V who resigned in 1294 after serving for just five months in office.
You may have also read that Pope Benedict seems to have had a very personal connection to Pope St. Celestine. In 2009 and again in 2010 he made visits to the tomb of Celestine and venerated his relics and perhaps in the most stunning of gestures, he laid his own pallium on the tomb of Celestine. The pallium is the very symbol of his authority as a bishop. Perhaps a seed was planted? One can only speculate.
Jesuit Fr. Jim Martin in an op-ed in the New York Times the week of the Holy Father’s announcement wrote, "Rare is the person who will voluntarily relinquish immense power." Of course, as a Franciscan, we have a particular take on something like relinquishing power. Which brings me to the main point of this reflection. As we look at Pope Gregory and St. Celestine, perhaps we should also be looking at the humble Saint of Assisi and founder of the Franciscan Order. After all, it isn’t only Popes who resign. St. Francis resigned too! And, when St. Francis resigned as leader of the Franciscan Order, it was a lesson in understanding a holy relationship to power and authority and how humility best informs that relationship – I think these are things that Pope Benedict is teaching us well and will, in the end, be his most lasting legacy.
Let me sketch an extremely brief version of the life of St. Francis. He was a member of the emerging Middle Class in early 13th Century Assisi. His father was a wealthy cloth merchant with dreams that his son would attain glory on the battle field and perhaps enter the ranks of the nobility as a “Knight in shining armor” as it were, thus elevating the family Bernadone to a higher level. But, then occurred a series of encounters with God that changed everything. The Voice spoke to Francis, "Who is it better to serve, the master or the servant?" Finally, Christ from the cross in the Chapel of San Damiano on Assisi's outskirts spoke, saying, "Francis, rebuild my church."
The young troubadour would leave behind his quest for earthly glory and embark on a quest for God. Others began to follow. In 1209, the then 12 "lesser brothers" sought and received the approval of Pope Innocent III to begin more formally this new way of Gospel living. By 1220 there were more than 5,000 friars living this Franciscan way of life with St. Francis as the General Minister or head of this new and expanding Order. And precisely at this great moment of success for this new venture, the Holy Man of Assisi, did something radical in the eyes of the world - he resigned as head of the Order and let someone else lead. In perhaps the ultimate embrace of the poverty he so highly valued, he did not allow himself to own or possess even this movement that he himself had created, but in humility let it be handed off into the loving hands of other brothers. Even the Order was not his. He was merely, for a time, its steward.
I think Pope Benedict has a very Franciscan heart and understands this reality well. When meeting with the priests of Rome recently, the Pope said, "I am strengthened and reassured by the certainty that the Church is Christ's." The Holy Father knows that the Church never belonged to Benedict. Like, St. Francis, Benedict was merely its steward for a time. This seems like a profoundly Franciscan approach to me. I think St. Francis realized something similar in his own day. He realized after all that he never intended to create such a thing as a Religious Order, but simply wanted to live the life of the Gospel and if others wanted to join him in doing that; what a wonderful thing. Perhaps St. Francis stepped aside with a similar paraphrase of knowing that "the Gospel is Christ's."
I think that as the world and as the media in particular want to speculate about why anyone would commit this unthinkable secular crime of giving up power (can you imagine!), we need to instead imagine the possibility of the incredible lesson in humility and poverty that the Holy Father leaves us with. He teaches us that no matter what we have in terms of time, treasure and talent - whether it be great or more meager - we are mere stewards of the gifts that come from God. They were never ours to begin with. They are the talents given by the Master who will one day ask what we have done with them. We are called to be humble stewards and not mighty lords.
Each of the last two Popes now have taught us something so powerful in the way the ended their Papacy. Blessed Pope John Paul the Great gave us such an incredible witness to the dignity of human life, suffering so publicly in his final days, reminding us that even a life of pain and illness is one that is full of dignity and grace in the eyes of God. And now Benedict shows us that even when the world heaps upon us the greatest of honors and power, we can still assume them in poverty and in humility and put them aside when our work is done.
Also for a Pope who has so often been accused of being caught in the past and not in touch with the modern world, this might also just be the most modernizing thing he could ever have done for the Papacy and the Church. He may have just taught us all the most profound lesson about true poverty; true humility. At the end of his life, St. Francis wrote in his Testament, “I have done what was mine to do. May Christ teach you what is yours.” These could be the words of Benedict today. We could all do well to make them our own.
St. Francis wrote in his Admonitions, "I did 'not come to be ministered to, but to minister,' says the Lord. Let those who are set above others glory in this superiority only as much as if they had been asked to wash the feet of the brothers; and if they are more upset by the loss of their superiority than they would be by losing the office of washing feet, so much the more do they lay up treasures to the peril of their own soul."
It makes you wonder if Pope Benedict might have reflected on the example of Il Poverello as well while he discerned his humble and holy decision?
St. Francis of Assisi, pray for the Church; pray for Pope Benedict and pray for our next Holy Father.