I’ve seen a few comments today that have taken Pope Benedict’s resignation as some kind of implicit criticism of Bl. John Paul II: Benedict’s predecessor stayed in office until his passing, despite severe health problems. Others have said that Pope Benedict’s decision was somehow cowardly, and that he should have soldiered on to the end like the last Pontiff.
Both of these responses completely miss the mark.
While we are all part of one Body, we are different parts. St. Paul says that “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’” While we are all called to reflect Christ to the world, we are not all called to reflect the same aspects of His beauty and character. I think this must be true even of those that God has chosen to be Popes: within the Petrine charism, I think that the successors of Peter bring different charisms to the office.
Bl. John Paul II passed from this earth in a very public manner and with great dignity. The author of Evangelium Vitae bore witness to human dignity, even on his death bed. He seemed to be preaching, even from his death bed, that human life always bears the image of God, even when, in the world’s eyes, it is frail and weak. This was the finish line to which Christ Jesus called him.
Pope Benedict is laying down his authority for the good of the Church. Rather than seeking his own glory, he is showing grace and humility. With his abdication, he is preaching servant leadership, prayerful discernment, and seeking first the Kingdom of God. This, also, is the finish line to which Christ Jesus called him.
Both men have truly lived out their calling to be the Vicar of Christ on earth, albeit in different ways. Both have been gifts to the Church. Both have finished the race well.