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The media is crackling with the unusual news of a papal resignation. Roman Catholics are filled with wonderment. The pronouncement certainly caught everyone off guard. No recent precedent offered a softening effect.
Questions filled the air. Speculation began in earnest. Who might be the next Pope? In what capacity will Pope Benedict XVI serve? What title might be his? Will he be Pope Emeritus, Bishop of Rome Emeritus? How will this affect the church?
While the answers are yet to be discovered, or uncovered, there is much to note in response.
Pope Benedict’s papal resignation is perhaps the clearest sign of his greatness as a teacher in the church. His option, as reported, to reside in a monastic environment and devote his remaining years to prayer and study is a powerful message.
It indicates for all of us that prayer is far more potent than papal position. It is more powerful than the pen or preaching or productivity. It has more to tell the nations of the world than multiple plane trips. The pageantry, political intrigue, pomp and circumstance yet to come dissolves in the magnitude of his option for prayerfulness.
It was interesting to me the announcement came with the approach of the Lenten season. The conclave of cardinals is scheduled to gather during Lent, a time when Christians are called to a unique experience of penitence, remembrance, reconciliation, renewal, rebirth, rediscovery of God and our truest selves.
It is a time when we recall our covenantal relationship with God and with others.
Benedict XVI, in my view, is leading us along that path. He is offering ecclesiastical hierarchs a model to follow. It is not simply a model of stepping down when one feels no longer adequate for the job. It is an example of one who is choosing an alternate path to walk, perhaps a path less taken because one is less visible along its way.
The timing coincided, providentially some might say, with the Scriptures used by many mainline churches for the first Sunday of Lent. This year, the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert comes from the Lukan community. It recalls the familiar tale of the confrontation of good with evil.
I wonder if the Pope was moved by that story? I wonder if he is announcing his own experience of God? Is telling the world God is leading him from a desert filled with temptations to be important, to be comfortable, to have power, to remake God into an image and likeness that is small and confining? Is God leading him into a new desert, an inspirited place where he will be one with the poor, the powerless, those without position or prestige?
Unique opportunities emerge from that desert experience, from those desert experiences since they are multiple ones. There comes the chance to see as the blind see, with insight; to walk as the feeble do, with a halting pace. There comes the chance for solitude to be inspirational, for vision to be universal.
Standing on the parapet of the hierarchy will no longer be his. Any temptation to worship that stance, to guard it jealously, is now replaced by the gift of worshipping God alone, serving God alone.
All the power and glory Benedict was given, all the attention he received, will be transformed into the gift of profound prayerfulness centered in God and on God.
He will teach us anew how to believe with our hearts as well as our minds. He will learn, as we continually learn, there is no distinction to divide us for we have the same God upon whom we call, the same God who enriches us all.
Pope Benedict already knows these facts. He is a prayerful man. The point is he has recognized his own need to be a leader by becoming a follower. As he follows the Spirit into newness, he leads us to do the same.
As he realizes his prayerfulness must be so profound that all who walk in spiritual deserts will not be discouraged, so must our prayerfulness deepen. As he is not despondent or abandoning hope, so we are courageously accepting the challenges God sends. We will continue crying out to God, trusting God hears the cries of the afflicted. God sees the toil of the laborers. God is moved by the sight of oppression.
We will be renewed in optimism that God’s church will be one and holy. The timing is not ours, but God’s. The reality is both God’s and ours.
Pope Benedict is not retiring from life or from his office. He is not resigning from his God-given call. He is renewing his understanding of it to gain new insights. He is recognizing his limitations, respecting them, and accepting them as opportunities to serve, chances to become evermore authentic.
He may well have contemplated missed opportunities in his papacy. He may well be remorseful about inadequate pronouncements or ones that bore down hard on people, putting unnecessary burdens on already bowed shoulders. He may be recognizing the temptations that come with powerful positions, in the Church as in society. He may be saddened as he recalls the grief endured by victims of immorality, young and old, male and female.
Pope Benedict may be hungry for time with God in the desert all humans must experience before they can be filled again with their original blessedness. Whatever the reason, the cause, the desire, I pray with him that he will be and become the person God created uniquely in him.
I pray he will know that he is fearfully and wonderfully made. I pray his resignation will bring him to a deeper understanding that we are all made in that fearful wonderment. We are all children of God, created in the image and likeness of divinity.
May our individual deserts make us hungry enough to allow God to feed us as God wills and deeply conscious of the need to nourish others as God would have them fed. May Pope Benedict XVI experience that hunger with us. May we offer him the food of our own prayerfulness.
That’s what a Pope does when he resigns. It’s what we can do when a Pope resigns.
Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives [a trilogy of Scriptural meditations], lead chaplain at Brunswick Novant Medical Center, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. She can be reached at email@example.com.