Perhaps the greatest mind to sit on the throne of Peter has judged his body no longer capable of doing so. Pope Benedict XVI will resign as successor of Peter on Feb. 28.
The stunning news arrived while I was en route to the Knesset to meet with some of the newly-elected leaders in the Israeli parliament. It was said to be a historic election. News like a papal resignation reminds you of what history really is. Even in Jerusalem, which is older than Rome, there is nothing currently going on that last happened in 1294.
That was the last papal resignation freely chosen, by Pope Celestine V. The Church gave a favourable judgment of Celestine's holiness, canonizing the reluctant pope who returned to the monastic life. The world remembers Celestine V differently, thanks to Dante, who placed him the outer rings of hell: "Who by his cowardice made the great refusal." (Inferno, III)
So the uncomfortable question might as well be confronted first: Did Pope Benedict do a cowardly thing by renouncing his Petrine ministry?
Many Catholics – including me – were not only surprised by the news, but terribly unsettled. Could it be the Holy Father simply preferred a quiet life to the crushing burden of the papacy? Could it be, to borrow a local image, he simply laid down his cross on the Via Dolorosa?
Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, lest anyone miss the point, observed that Blessed John Paul suffered to the end in public because Christ did not come down from the cross.
Other voices, such as the president of Italy, spoke of it as an act of great courage. The easier thing would be not to choose a path untaken for seven centuries. Benedict has risked the judgment of history, if not Dante, for doing what popes simply don't do.
Cowardice? Courage? If Joseph Ratzinger was a coward, he could have simply refused in 2005 a mission he clearly had no interest in taking on. He described his election as a "guillotine," yet he allowed it to fall on his neck.
Someone who has given 35 years to episcopal service he did not seek, away from his theological work, is unlikely to balk at giving the last few years too. So a coward he is not.
Courage is more ambiguous. To take such a momentous decision requires by definition a certain boldness, if not courage. On the other hand, the retirement he will begin on March 1, Benedict has earnestly desired for 20 years, and courage is not how we usually describe fulfilling such desires.
A Catholic friend got a lot closer to the reality when she emailed me: "I am experiencing the strangest grief: I never imagined losing a pope to prudence and wisdom instead of death."
Prudence and wisdom are cardinal virtues, as is courage, and Benedict has long been a man of disciplined virtue. It is entirely plausible that the wisdom gained from John Paul's last years, and a measure of prudence about his own limitations, best explains the renunciation of his office.
John Paul told us how it would end at the very beginning. In his inaugural "be not afraid" homily in 1978, he could not have been more clear.
"According to an ancient tradition (given magnificent literary expression in a novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz), Peter wanted to leave Rome during Nero's persecution," the new pope from Poland said. "But the Lord intervened: he went to meet him. Peter spoke to him and asked. 'Quo vadis, Domine?' – 'Where are you going, Lord?' And the Lord answered him at once: 'I am going to Rome to be crucified again.' Peter went back to Rome and stayed here until his crucifixion."
The Holy Father watched the papacy crucify John Paul, and he experienced that same cross himself. He knew that the last years of John Paul were a great and heroic witness, but also a period where the governance of the Church was necessarily deprived of full attention.
Benedict also told us how it would end at the beginning. He was not, he repeated to all who would listen after John Paul's death in 2005, a "man of governance."
And when his strength diminished, he was wise enough to see that the Church could not suffer a further diminution in that necessary part of the Petrine ministry. Prudence and wisdom. Or perhaps the Lord simply let the humble worker in his vineyard know that it was time – after almost 86 years of life, after more than seven centuries of history – for a man to climb down from the cathedra of Peter.
It has been asked what Benedict will be called after his renunciation takes effect. A Christian disciple is what he has always been. Perhaps in the future, like Celestine: A saint.
Fr. Raymond de Souza - firstname.lastname@example.org