THE wisdom of resigning from the petrine ministry will take sometime to settle in the minds of canonists, ecclesiologists and theologians. The last pope to resign over six hundred years ago is too remote to establish a plausible precedence although, on hindsight, observers are now looking back to the 2009 third visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the tomb of Pope Celestine V in Aquila, Italy where he prayed and placed his pallium over it as symbolic if foreboding gesture.
Pope Celestine V abdicated the papacy in 1294. Centuries later, Pope Paul VI wrote why Celestine resigned: “After a few months he understood that he was being deceived by people around him who were profiting from his inexperience….As he had accepted the supreme pontificate our of duty, so out of duty he renounced it—not out of cowardice, as Dante wrote, but out of heroic virtue, out of a sense of duty.” (cf. Joseph A. Komonchak, Benedict’s Act of Humility).
This, of course, does not allude to the supreme sacrifice of Pope Benedict XVI who explicitly pointed out age and poor health: “…I have come to the certainty that my strengths due to an advance age, are not longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry…in order to govern the bark of Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
Admittedly, there is an ecclesiological significance to this pontifical act. It may be that the greatest contribution of Pope Benedict to ecclesiology is the yielding of his person to the office that he has “humanized” in the process. It may not be too un-ecclesiological to say that his retirement is some kind of magisterial teaching that trail-blazes a strand of pontificate that seriously considers the humanity of the Papacy and the existential demands of history.
Be that as it may, but according to Jaro archbishop Angel Lagdameo Benedict’s resignation sets a tone to church leaders. He says: “I feel that the resignation of the Holy Father for reasons of health and old age sets a tone for other cardinals, bishops and even priests…What we in the clergy should really think about is the good of the Church even to the point of comparing or even considering who can serve the church better.”
Or as a comment in social media puts it: “The papacy can perhaps in the minds of a billion Catholics and all others become a ministry rather than a kind of monarchy.”