Pope Benedict has dramatically announced that he will step down as pope from 28 February due to “advanced age”, making him the first pontiff to step down since 1415.
In an immediate response, Bishop Sebastian Francis, the Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Penang, responded, “It is a prophetic and courageous decision on his part.”
His resignation holds a lesson for politicians and religious leaders everywhere who insist on clinging on to power no matter what.
The decision by Benedict, an arch-conservative, comes 50 years after the ground-breaking Second Vatican Council, which called for a constant renewal of the church. This is a highly meaningful anniversary in the journey of the Church and it has been officially described as ‘The Year of Faith’.
Events in recent years must have added to the mounting stress and pressure for Pope Benedict. Five areas stand out:
- The church’s handling of the sex abuse cases involving some members of the clergy drew persistent criticism.
- The Vatican has been Euro-centric in terms of the composition of Cardinals. Latin America, Asia and Africa are under-represented.
- There have been calls for greater prominence to be given to the role of women, both laity and religious. North American women religious have reacted with alarm at attempts to scrutinise their independence. Harsh action was taken against dissident voices such as a progressive religious priest, Roy Bourgeouis, who was dismissed from the Maryknoll religious order in November 2012 after he supported calls for the ordination of women.
- The calls for transparency and accountability in the church shot to prominence following the persecution of the pope’s butler after he exposed documents about shadowy issues in the Vatican. A newspaper report said the documents touched on spies, secret services, the occult, scandals involving the Vatican bank, and P2, a shadowy Masonic lodge whose members numbered many prominent Italian politicians. This saga could have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Earlier an archbishop was transferred after he exposed corruption within the Vatican. And it highlights the importance of protecting whistleblowers.
- And the most important issue: ever since Vatican II was convened by the greatest pope of the modern era, Pope John XXIII, there have been attempts by conservative forces to roll back the renewal process. In this 50th year since Vatican II, it would be timely for the church to look again at this watershed Council and reflect on its documents and the renewal process that it heralded.
Benedict may have been an accomplished, if conservative, theologian, but perhaps the pastoral angle was lacking during his tenure.
Ordinary Christians have had to cope with the pressures of life in the modern world and not a few of them are suffering – either from religious conservatism and a rigid interpretation of canon law and an emphasis on rituals that sometimes lacks appreciation of deeper spirituality and the pressures of economic forces including poverty on the community. Indeed, the sufferings of the ordinary people have perhaps not received an adequate voice or hearing within the corridors of the Vatican or even in local parishes. Instead, we have quite a few parishes that are more concerned about building and beautification projects than the sufferings of the community.
In sum, what is needed is not just reforms – a strong brush to sweep out the dirt – but a wholehearted re-commitment to the momentous principles and ideals of Vatican II. A good place to start would be to look at the opening paragraph of the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, 1965 and start from there to recover the lost dynamism and hope ushered in by Vatican II:
1. The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for every man. That is why this community realises that it is truly linked with mankind and its history by the deepest of bonds.