b16Late last night, as for most major breaking stories in these days of the prevalence of social media, I saw through Facebook and Twitter notifications on my mobile phone that the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, had announced his resignation, to be effective at 8pm (Rome time) on 28 February 2013. Since the first source that I saw quoted was from CNN, I went hunting for a more solid source, and went with the BBC, which confirmed the story. Within minutes, there were dozens of stories jostling for space on the Facebook news feed and just as many tweets. Perhaps the latest tweet from Benedict XVI on the previous day could have alerted us?

We must trust in the mighty power of God’s mercy.
We are all sinners, but His grace transforms us and makes us new.
Benedict XVI (@Pontifex) February 10, 2013

As the text of his announcement became more widely known, people began to reflect on the physical health of the Holy Father. Unfortunately, it only took a few more minutes before the shock of the announcement settled into the opportunity for puns, such as “the Holy Father sets a high bar for things to give up for Lent”, or “The Vatican orders ex-Benedict for breakfast”. You have to admit, both are pretty sweet. 

This is the text of the announcement:

Dear Brothers,

I have convoked you to this Consistory, not only for the three canonizations, but also to communicate to you a decision of great importance for the life of the Church. After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.

Dear Brothers, I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects. And now, let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff. With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.

Firstly I notice now that someone has changed the term “Bark of St Peter” in the first translation of the report to the more traditional rendering of “barque” in the current version. I guess this is appropriate in the description of this papacy, which has desired to restore so much that is traditional. As I read, and re-read the statement, I was struck not just by the historical significance of the announcement, and the clear intention of the announcement to fulfil all the requirements of Canon Law for the resignation to be effective [Canon 332] – something that had arisen in Canon Law classes as one of those examples that no one imagined would ever come to pass, but it was fun to think and speculate about. And now we have not just a possibility, but the reality of a papal resignation.

I suspect that the choice of the date of the announcement has some significance; it almost always does in Vatican circles. The fact that it was on the Memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes, 155 years after the first apparition, perhaps has some sociological as well as spiritual significance. The apparition became well-known, in part because of the claimed miraculous powers of the waters that flowed from the spring. The shrine that was subsequently built over the site of the apparition has become one of the most visited holy places in Christendom, attracting around five million pilgrims each year, and a place of continued renewal of faith and the spiritual life.

The Holy Father acknowledges his failing health – not unexpected in an 85 year-old – as one of the reasons that he can no longer adequately exercise his ministry. We watched in admiration during the final years of the papacy of John Paul II, awed by his determination to continue to struggle on, but alarmed at the many decisions that remained unattended to, because of his poor health. In making this announcement at this time, Pope Benedict exercises even more extraordinary courage and determination. In following in the footsteps of Pope St Celestine V (1215-1296) – whose tomb in Aquila the Pope visited in 2009 and again in 2010 – who first created the possibility of papal resignation, and then exercised it – the Holy Father reminds the church that this whole enterprise is about the true supreme pastor, Jesus the Christ.

Sociologically, the resignation is powerful, because – as the Pope acknowledges – we live in rapidly changing times. Leadership of the barque that the Lord has entrusted to us to navigate through the uncertain waters of contemporary society requires energy and vitality – as well as strength of character, holiness and dedication to prayer. Perhaps in these days, too many of the ministries in our Church have been hampered, because we have relied too heavily on the later qualities, but neglecting the equal need for the former (energy and vitality). Now, as one of the final gifts that the Holy Father offers to the church, we have his own example that sometimes the best gift that we can offer is to acknowledge that the Lord will call others to take our place. After all, the most important thing in sailing a boat is not first the quality of the boat or its sails – although these matter greatly – but the wind/spirit that provides the true life in the first place.