15Feb Pope Benedict’s resignation was his most radical decision

The Genius of Benedict XVI – he ‘saw sense’

The news broke on Monday morning (11th February) . A reporter (who knew some Latin) spread the story quickly. Some of the cardinals present either didn’t understand the Latin or were shell-shocked! (The bolt of lightning over St Peter’s added to the drama.)

Some church people used that word – shock. I didn’t understand their shock. Yes, it was a surprise but hardly a shock. The real shock was that John Paul II didn’t either have the sense, or gumption or even the depth of faith himself, to have done this. He probably wasn’t advised to do it either. Benedict surprised people. He often did. It was delightful that he has now broken that tradition of staying in post until death. This was possibly his most radical decision!

Benedict was an interesting man. Many were saddened in 2005 when he was elected. It seemed, we were to have continuity inflicted on us rather than any new energetic leadership. However Benedict was also misunderstood. He worked for John Paul II in the CDF office and was spoken of as John Paul’s Rottweiler which defined him.

I remember a time when Joseph Ratzinger was invited to give the Tablet Lecture in London. The journalists turned up to scrutinise him and to attack him. He charmed them. The discussion raged widely. He was then the real academic, at home in the banter of argument. He won them over completely.

I was asked by a Radio reporter about my views on his trip to the UK (prior to his visit). I said it would be a huge success. He would speak to the issues of the day; he would come across as a gentle man with a smile; he would listen; he would show his reflective mind. People would be won over by him. (And so it was). I was also asked how I felt he would be welcomed to Ireland. I was very dubious on this one. We can be more adolescent here. We can see only the immediate and the wrongs; we can miss the good.

I read also his letter to the People of Ireland after the Ryan and Murphy Reports. The core of the letter was very pastoral and warm. The best of the man came out in those words. When it came to recommendations, it didn’t sound like him at all; it fact it was ridiculous. But the ‘gentle’ man was there in the earlier words.

John XXIII to John Paul II

In some ways, this is a nostalgic moment. I go back to John XXIII. He was an old man. He was a warm and kindly grandfather for everyone. He showed the Church as living the Good News of Jesus Christ. He was an inspirational leader. Paul VI did try to carry on the spirit of John and the Council but came across as a worried and pained man who saw too many problems. If we look back in our history – we can see Humanae vitae as a pivotal moment where the Church lost the confidence of ordinary people. Paul too was focused on the chaos he saw emerging in the aftermath of the Council and didn’t harness the potential. He never managed to reform the bureaucracy of the Curia. That remains the damaging stranglehold in the present Church. The essential structures have not been reformed. The Synod of Bishops has never been given (1965) its proper role. Collegiality (Communion) wasn’t attempted. There is a mentality of protection and central control which then has suffocated the very heart of the Church.

John Paul II was a giant of a man on the world stage. He had a great presence; a man of influence who gave the Church a new place in world politics. However, he was a creature of his own past. He never managed to live the life of faith in the ‘free world.’ He was a very articulate battler. He spoke with great eloquence and his actor’s ability mesmerised people. But his words sounded better than they read or were. It was very sad that he remained as pope for too long. The Church needed someone better than he was and better than he could be. I was saddened by his lack of insight.

I also think that the process of his Beatification began with undue haste which disregarded the mistakes of his papacy and his rigidity. It follows too that many who were selected as leaders (bishops) throughout that long papacy then became clones of his outlook. They had an impossible task to do: They were chosen to be what Rome wanted but what their dioceses didn’t need. This was bound to be the case. However it doesn’t help our future. Sometimes it seems that the church being created is more like the Establishment that Christ came to replace!(The recent New Missal was an example of bad theology and bad English and also an indication of the weakness of our English-speaking hierarchies who allowed it to happen).

Benedict wasn’t a commanding media presence. However, he reflected deeply and did address the issues of the day. In many ways he came to the office much too late. His theological musings were deeply impressive and needed. Of course he was also snarled up in his own bureaucracy (the Curia) and fears. (Note Kung). He embraced retrenchment but he was an old man. He was tired. He couldn’t have the energy to celebrate the freedom of Jesus Christ. And he was wonderful in recognising that he must go.

A conservative conclave

What now? Who now? This assembly of old men (in the main) are very conservative who will gather in Conclave. Many are shattered by the collapse of the Church in the West. Some can only see one way forward – that is a retreat to the past. My hope is that they will listen to the wider church and to the wider world; that they will listen to what the recent Synod said and what was discussed; that they will search for some man who can be strong enough to have something to say in our world today and be a Leader of inspiration.

We want a big man who is not overwhelmed by problems and who shows that Christ is Good News. We need a man who isn’t afraid of the media;

  • who can speak and really work with others; who can lift our spirits;
  • who is young enough in mind and heart;
  • who is humble enough;
  • who is not afraid of change;
  • who knows that God can deal with every question and every problem;
  • who realises that not everything depends on him;
  • who truly can call forth Leadership in our Church in people who aren’t safe and quiet and subservient and robotic and fearful.

The local Church (often) is a wonderful place to be, where Community and the joy of faith is experienced; however Central Government can be such an embarrassment. Our Church has to be outward looking and refreshing. We must show that Christ does make a difference and we aren’t afraid. It would be right and proper if women were given their say; that all our leaders retired at 70; that … (This list could go on and on!)

But we need above all a man of real faith who isn’t afraid of the world and knows that the Word is always becoming Flesh in our daily lives now.

Seamus Ahearne osa (Rivermount Parish, Dublin, Ireland)

11 Responses

  1. Mary O Vallely

    I like what Seamus Ahearne has to say, most of the time! He paints a very tender portrait of Benedict XVI. It’s very touching though I can’t but think of survivors who might not be so sympathetic. The buck stops with the Pope, after all.
    Seamus says we Irish can be very adolescent. Perhaps there is some truth in this but at least adolescence is a step further on from dependent childhood where “Father” did our thinking for us and it is a stage closer to full maturity. We now know that we have a voice, we are not afraid to use it and we realise that we need to educate ourselves if we are to take responsibility and share in the task to which we are all committed.

  2. Fr John Wotherspoon (Hong Kong)

    As the days go by since the announcement of Pope Benedict’s resignation, media writers are going round in circles repeating themselves about the details and implications of the resignation.

    Meanwhile, the most important thing doesn’t get much, if any, coverage in the media: we should be praying and fasting for God’s blessing on the conclave. Every little prayer creates spiritual energy. Every little prayer for the conclave can have an effect.

    Before choosing the apostles, Jesus spent the night in prayer.
    Before choosing leaders, the apostles prayed and fasted.

    Let’s encourage one another to take this Lent more seriously than any other in our lives. Let’s use the support of Lent’s prayers and customs to pray for the conclave.

    Let’s think of the conclave often during the day and night:

    Father, as I walk along the street, as I sit in the train, as I drive my car,
    I pray your blessing on the conclave: Our Father….

    Jesus, as I wash these dishes, I offer up this little job to you as a prayer for your blessing on the conclave.

    Holy Spirit, as I use my computer for a new assignment, I offer this time to you as a prayer for your blessing on the conclave.

  3. Pól Ó Duibhir

    Contributions like this completely vindicate the existence of this site. Would that there were more such in the media generally.
    While I would have a different take from Seamus Ahearne on the Pope’s letter to the Irish people (despicable) and from Vincent Twomey on his Nuremberg defence of Cardinal Ratzinger (unacceptable), I do agree that the introduction of the resigation option is far sighted and will eventually hopefully be a game changer.
    The list of desired qualities in a new Pope is impressive, but with the current composition of the Conclave, it would need to go on for as long as Vatican II, and listen to currently gagged Periti, and unbar the door to the Holy Spirit, for it to make a whit of difference.

  4. Veritas

    Reasonably fair and balanced analysis ( the second para a little uncharitable perhaps towards JP11 ). I’ll own up and declare that I would be in the ” conservative ” camp by and large. It seems to me that many people have the perception that all would be rosy in the garden if the Pope would be more ” liberal/flexible “. I totally agree with compassion but in my opinion just conceding to every demand of human nature is no more than cheap grace – even though it would suit me on occassion. Change of itself is’nt always for the good. In fairness to Pope Benedict I think he ticks most of the boxes in Fr. Ahearnes wish list.

  5. Soline Humbert

    We need a man who…
    Like Martin Luther King I have a dream: That some day we’ll be no longer judged by our gender and we will be able to say: We need someone, a man OR A WOMAN.Then the church will have recognised sexism for the sin it is and not the supposed will of God.
    As Mary Cunningham asks in another thread, Aren’t women persons?

  6. Rosetta Whyte

    Thank you Fr Ahearne for this response to Pope Benedict’s retirement. It is nice to read something that mentions his Faith in Jesus and his deep thinking. I believe we need a Pope with energy and Faith and a desire to reflect Christ in our midst.

  7. Darlene Starrs

    Thank you Father Seamus for your contribution about the radical decision of Pope Benedict and the discourse that follows. I was struck by your words in a couple of places. The first being: “The Church needed someone better than he was and better than he could be”. “I was saddened by his lack of insight”. I realize you are making these remarks in reference to Pope John Paul II, but unfortunately, these same remarks could be applied to many, many, members of the Church leadership from local Church to the Vatican! The second being: “Word is always becoming Flesh”….The Vatican has been fixated, on the words from scripture, that Jesus chose men for his disciples, rather, than seeing and understanding the bigger story: that “Word is always becoming Flesh”. The Word becoming Flesh, is an incarnation for the whole of the Church…men and women. When we look at each other, we ought to be able to see the “Word made Flesh”…..Unfortunately, this happens all too rarely, and certainly, with the Vatican, they wouldn’t appear to understand, how women, in particular, given the Grace of Christ, also are Word made Flesh. We expect people in the Church leadership to have insight, and particularly, insight about the length, breath, and depth of the Incarnation…..of how the Word is Made Flesh, particularly, in the life of the Church, but even more so, in a Church which since Vatican II has been mindful that the Church as the People of God are Word made Flesh with the indwelling presence of Christ. We, or certainly many of us, resonate, with the words such as, Church as Eucharist, Church as sacrament, and on it goes.
    It is so, so, so, frustrating and sad, to have a leadership that simply has no real “insight”…..I’m thinking of Father Bernard Lonergan……..and how he talked about real insight. Jesus’s words: are very true for this Church Institution, “They will see and see, and not perceive”, and “They will hear and hear, and not understand”.

  8. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    There are two things that I will remember Pope Benedict for : 1. Caritas in Veritate and 2. the new seven deadly social sins; two documents that most people don’t even know. He has made it less difficult for most of us who attempt to fight for human rights. I think we will one day refer to him as the “social” Pope. He certainly was a courageous man and despite being at the center of much controversy and public outrage, did focus his intelligence on paving the way for a greater good to emerge.

  9. Anne

    Thank God for our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI. His homily on Ash Wednesday was absolutely beautiful, it really touched my heart. He is a wonderful witness to the Love of Jesus Christ and has touched many many people throughout the world with his deep humility and love for God and the Church. May the Lord bless him in his retirement and I will pray for him always. Thank you O Lord for giving us such a wonderful Holy Father.

  10. Kevin

    I just remember Benedict stepping out onto that balcony. Was not one for following any of it then. I looked at a man I thought would rather have been anywhere else in creation than on that balcony. Seeing him in England – an older man clearly suffering. Whatever about his Pope’ing – he was an elderly human being having all that thrust upon him. I could not have done it. I liked something about him though not sure what – that he had, has a contemplative heart. He is going to ‘intense prayer’. And as regards survivors – a LOT more could have been, could be done. I was delighted to see him deal with Maciel though – where his predecessor was ready to canonise that man.

    I wish the man the best in the latter part of his life – and in his prayer. I like what the man above said too about all our prayer creating spiritual energy that can work to really change our selves and our world. So very true. We could all be doing praying more perhaps. As Jesus asked, “Pray always.”

    Don’t know how or why, but I do feel a sense of hope for the future whatever comes. The Spirit is still in evidence – blowing where She will.

    And despite it all, and thanks to you all here with all kinds of thoughts and differing beliefs, with a heart wishing the same I believe – I am finding myself back with the Church in ways I’d not have even thought possible a few years back. And the peace you could not buy.

    So for many reasons and for you all here too – the Spirit IS working. 🙂


  11. S T Ramosesane

    The more I read these articles the more I get to know about our church, thank you.

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