Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Benedict XVI: The Pope Emeritus

HAD  he remained in office Joseph Aloisius Ratsinger would have clocked eight full years on the throne of St. Peter as the 265th Pope of the Catholic Church in April.

But on February 11, 2013 just as the West and the rest of the world that has caught the bug was getting feverish with last minute plans for Valentines Day in came the news that the Pope would resign effective from February 28.

The news had earth-shifting effect and millions were left nonplussed at the Pope’s decision. As I write this, it’s just been five hours since Benedict XVI’s resignation came into effect and he began life, in his own words, as a “pilgrim on his last journey on earth”.

Now to bear the official title of Pope Emeritus, Pope Benedict was the first Pope to give up the papacy voluntarily since 1415. April is an important month in the life of Pope Benedict. It was in April, on the 16th day to be precise, that he was born in the German city of Bavaria in 1927.

He was on April 19, 2005 elected Pope by the conclave of cardinals when John Paul II passed on and at 78 he was the oldest person to become pope since Clement XII who reigned between 1730 and 1740. Right from the beginning he was something of an unwilling pope.

Not, as the records show, for lack of qualification. If anything he was by most accounts first among equals by the time he was elected. There was probably nobody more qualified for the position of pope than the effacing Ratsinger.

His reluctance, it seems now, was informed by his sensitive awareness of his role as a priest whose duty was to illuminate the teachings of Christ to an ignorant world. What better way to do this than as a teacher, a theologian of the Catholic Church?

For most of his life before becoming pope, Joseph Ratsinger was an academic of no mean repute becoming a full professor by his thirty first birthday. He taught from one university to another until the late 1970s when he was first appointed archbishop and shortly after cardinal by Pope Pius VI. Thus he was not a career church man in the traditional sense of it.

The newly-appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is in the same mould. Perhaps the apparent rise of academics as influential leaders of the church, a phenomenon that can be observed even in Nigeria in the careers of the likes of Pastor E.A. Adeboye, W.F. Kumuyi and Daniel Olukoya, among others, testifies to the pedagogical foundation of Christianity.

This observation may look surprising now only because of the many generations of charlatans that have emerged as founders/leaders throughout the history of Christianity as well as other religions. Otherwise, religions right from time had been founded and led by teachers, people of knowledge from Jesus Christ and Mohammed through Buddha to Orunmila.


But Ratsinger’s reputation as an academic was solidly earned and at the last count he has to his name nothing less than 65 books. His rise through the Church was meteoric and his intellectual input prodigious. To be pope is to combine spiritual reverence with earthly power.

The Pope is the Bishop of Rome. More than this, he is the head of the Catholic Church worldwide, a position that sometimes frames whoever is pope as the leader of Christendom. He is also, as pope, the sovereign head of the Vatican, that is the leader or head of the government of the Vatican.

This puts him in the same class as the president of any country, from the US, Russia to Britain and France. It was all of this that Pope Benedict turned his back on to live a life of prayer and contemplation in a monastery.  This is one man that has come to full awareness of the vainness of worldly recognition, power and material acquisition. All indeed is vanity Ratsinger says without for once alluding to it.

Nobody expected a papacy could carry a retirement caveat. Once elected, a pope dies in office. At least so it’s been in the last 600 years. But none of those who expected a pope to die in office thought of a Ratsinger.

None reckoned with the leadership of a quiet revolutionary in priestly frock and nothing but the firmness of his belief that leadership is service and once such responsibility could no longer be effectively met there leadership ends.

As he put it in his last public audience at St. PetersChurch on Wednesday February 27, “one receives life when one gives it up” and “loving the Church means being brave enough to make difficult decisions”. He made no show of his retirement plans; gave no indications that he was about to make a momentous decision, nor did he leave room for any pretentious avenues for him to be talked out of what he thought was the right thing to do.

Having prayed and reflected deeply on it, he made his move and announced his retirement. The conclave of cardinals got the news the same way as the rest of the world. Nothing rehearsed, nothing scripted.

Failing spiritual and physical strength, both reasons that could be overlooked in an 86 years old man, were his reasons. He gave enough room for a successor to be elected by Easter nor did he stay back to influence the choice of a successor.

He chose his pontifical name, Benedict, in honour of St. Benedict and the Italian Pope Benedict XV who was pope in the period of the First World War. Well did he choose, for whereas Pope Benedict had the onerous task of uniting a world devastated by the First World War, Benedict XVI’s reign had a lot to contend with by way of sex scandals.

Aside his mission to forge unity and peace between Christianity and Islam among other religions, his was a pontificate nearly marred by serious allegations of sexual misdemeanour against senior leaders of the Catholic Church.

This was very ironical for a pontiff who probably more than any other leader of the catholic Church fought to stamp out sexual misconduct among Catholic priests. One of such cases involved Keith O’Brien, the Archbishop of Scotland, who had to step down just three days before Pope Benedict left office and has now admitted to sexual misconduct.

In his time as the pope, Benedict XVI tried to hold the Catholic Church together in the face of contending forces pulling it at the seams. Whether you agree with him or not, you cannot but admire the life and career of such as Benedict XVI, now Pope Emeritus, a leader and teacher of the Word whose life is a lesson in Christian humility.

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