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The challenge Pope Benedict has left for his successor—and for ordinary Catholics

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Feb 11, 2013

Although Pope Benedict caught nearly everyone by surprise when he announced his resignation, we can’t say that he didn’t give us fair warning. In an interview in 2010, the Holy Father explained at some length why a Pope should resign when he no longer had the strength to carry out his duties. He even said at the time: “I also notice that my forces are diminishing.”

For months now, visitors to the Vatican have reported evidence of the Pope’s physical decline. He not only needs help walking because of aching joints, but also has trouble concentrating through a long work session because of flagging energy. After a nap his mind is as sharp as it ever was, but the need for rest is coming more frequently. Apparently the Pope assessed his own condition—humbly, prayerfully, and unsparingly—and concluded that he can no longer do the work.

The decision must have been a painful one, because Pope Benedict still has several cherished projects to complete: the liturgical “reform of the reform,” the completion of the Year of Faith, the new encyclical. An ordinary man would no doubt struggle to complete those last few projects, even if he knew that his strength was failing. But Benedict XVI is no ordinary man.

This has been a pontificate of surprises. The most important announcements have come without accompanying fanfare, without premature news leaks. Yet when he has taken action, Benedict XVI has always been decisive. His resignation announcement is no exception.

As my colleague Jeff Mirus points out, a papal resignation is not unprecedented. But nothing of the kind has occurred in this era of instant worldwide communication. From this day forward, for better or worse, every Roman Pontiff will face questions about if, or when, he plans to resign. The Twitter generation will begin asking questions whenever a Pope experiences a health crisis. (Is it possible to serve as a Pope while fighting early-stage cancer or heart disease? With failing eyesight?) More ominously, the same sort of questions will arise when the Pope loses a popularity poll; the political pressures on the papacy are sure to increase.

Count on it: The mass media will remark with surprise that the next Pope, whoever he is, is “conservative” on doctrinal issues, because he upholds perennial Church teachings on matters such as the male priesthood and the dignity of human life. The secular media cannot be made to understand that every plausible candidate for the papacy is “conservative” by their standards, since the papabili are all believing Catholics. An unbelieving world, accustomed to appraising all disagreements in political terms, cannot comprehend that the Bishop of Rome has no personal discretionary authority on questions of doctrine: that he can only teach what the Church teaches. So the pressure on the new Pope will begin from the day of his election; the media will demand radical change, and attack him when he fails to meet their expectations. Pope Benedict has endured this sort of pressure for nearly 8 years now, and never buckled. But the hostility of the mainstream media have undoubtedly taken their toll, as they will on his successors.

In retrospect we can see that Pope Benedict has been preparing for his own departure. If he has been contemplating resignation for months, as his brother reports, it is much easier to understand why he called two consistories within the space of one year. He wanted to ensure an appropriate balance within the College of Cardinals, among the men who will choose his successor. He chose to step down now, no doubt, so that he will not leave that successor burdened with too many tasks that he himself was unable to complete.

So now Pope Benedict has left us, the faithful, with a task of our own. We have a day to swallow the news of his resignation, and another day to digest it. Then Ash Wednesday will arrive, and we must all buckle down to a season of prayer and fasting for the good of the Church, and especially for the strength of Benedict’s successor.

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  • Posted by: lovison4584 - Feb. 12, 2013 5:49 PM ET USA

    "we must all buckle down to a season of prayer and fasting for the good of the Church, and especially for the strength of Benedict’s successor." I would say the most important line in the article. I would also suggest that while a "conservative" selection is ensured for the reasons Mr Lawler cites, a holy, saintly pope is not ensured. How about "40 Holy Hours for a Holy Pope" as being promoted at ?

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