CNS PHOTO | L'OSSERVATORE ROMANO
Pope Benedict talks with Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith in his role as president of the Canadian Bishops in November 2011.
EDMONTON – The mind of Pope Benedict was sharp, but his flesh was weakening when Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith last met the pope in November.
"It was evident to me and it's evident to everybody that physically he's failing," Smith said in an interview Feb. 11, hours after the pope said he would resign on Feb. 28.
"He tires very easily; he finds movement very difficult."
Although Pope Benedict's announcement was a surprise, the archbishop said, "I certainly respect the judgment of the Holy Father. He knows the demands of that office and he knows his own limits."
Smith, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, met with the pope for about 15 minutes in November to report on behalf of the conference.
He thanked him for the canonization St. Kateri Tekakwitha and gave him the framed first page of a 330-year-old biography of the saint.
"He received us so warmly, so graciously, so attentively," the archbishop said. The pope was very attentive and asked probing questions. "When he speaks to you, it as though you are the only person on the planet."
In retrospect, he said, it is not surprising that the pope decided to resign. "It takes him a long time to walk any significant distance."
Smith said the pope has a deep love for the Lord and for the Church. "Any decision he would ever take would be for what he felt was the good of the Church." The pope would have prayed and examined his conscience before God for a long time prior to deciding to resign.
Pope Benedict's greatest accomplishment, in the archbishop's view, has been the clarity of his teaching. This involves more than presenting the tradition of the Church "in ways that are clear, intelligible and moving."
More basically, "He understands the dynamics of grace in the reality of our human condition," he said.
The pope has taken the issues of the day and "pinpointed them with laser-sharp clarity" in ways that call us to greater fidelity and new ways of thinking, he said. The legacy of his teaching will remain with the Church for generations.
Smith also lauded the pope for his handling of the clergy sexual abuse issue forthrightly. His letter to the Church in Ireland, for example, contained both a strong rebuke to offenders and "a heartfelt apology" to victims of abuse.
He has attempted to everything in his power to ensure that abuse issues are dealt with properly and to eliminate "this horror, this scourge" from our midst, the archbishop said.
In a letter on behalf of the CCCB, Smith thanked the pope for his years of ministry as priest, bishop, teacher, writer, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and pope as well as for the support he has given to the Church in Canada.
"I particularly wish to express our deep appreciation for expressing the sorrow and regret of the Church for past errors toward the indigenous people in Canada, while opening the way to a new future with the canonization of St. Kateri Tekakwitha."
In the interview, Smith also pointed out that Pope Benedict's pontificate has shaped pastoral activity in the Edmonton Archdiocese over the past six years.
His words in his first homily as pope – "There is nothing more beautiful than to know Jesus Christ and to tell others of our friendship with him" – have been the core of pastoral endeavours in the archdiocese, he said.