POPE Benedict XVI’s resignation may have shocked many in the Church and in the world. Personally, I was not surprised. The Pope had been alluding to a possible resignation for the past few years, and the homilies and reflections of the past few months were clearly a preparation for a gesture of this magnitude. It did not come lightly. He prayed and reflected on this decision for a long time. If any Pope would teach us the lesson of resignation, it would be Benedict.
Early in his Pontificate, a relaxed Benedict XVI told a group of priests in northern Italy, while he was vacationing, "The pope is not an oracle; he is infallible on the rarest of occasions, as we know." Acknowledging that the Church was moving through some painful moments, he admitted, "I do not think that there is any system for making a rapid change. We must go on, we must go through this tunnel, this underpass, patiently, in the certainty that Christ is the answer... but we should also deepen this certainty and the joy of knowing it and thus truly be ministers of the future of the world, of the future of every person." They were prophetic words that would mark his papacy over the past eight years. So many moments of his papacy seem to have been lived out in a dark tunnel where light was very distant.
I look back over nearly eight years of his Petrine Ministry and am very grateful for the privileged moments I spent in his presence. I have known Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and now Pope Benedict XVI, for many years. Over the past years, I have been with him in Rome, Germany, Australia, the United States and Spain on his pastoral visits. I served as the English language media attaché at two Synods of Bishops where we had the privilege of being with Benedict for days on end in the Synod Aula in Rome.
When I was with the Pope in Cologne for his first World Youth Day in August 2005, he exclaimed to the throngs of young Christians and the curious mixed in: "The Church can be criticized, because it contains both grain and weeds, but it is actually consoling to realize that there are weeds in the Church. In this way, despite all our defects, we can still hope to be counted among the disciples of Jesus, who came to call sinners."
If any pope dealt with the weeds among the wheat during his pontificate, it was Benedict XVI. He called sin and evil by their right names, and invited people to become friends with Jesus Christ. He faced head-on scandals and was unafraid to speak about them; he admitted errors made under his watch; he reached out to schismatics and experienced rejection of his efforts for unity; he extended peace branches to the great religions of the world unafraid to name the things that divide us and also the great hopes that unite us. He walked among kings and princes but never lost the common touch. As one who was not expected to travel due to old age, he surprised all of his with a daunting schedule of world travel over the past eight years.
With the announcement of his resignation, a man who has been the champion of tradition and was labelled "conservative," left us with one of the most progressive gestures made by any pope. Acknowledging what he called his "incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me," he told us that we must be painfully honest with the human condition, that we cannot be enchained by history and tradition when it no longer makes sense and frees people. For a man known for his masterful writing, exquisite kindness, charity, gentleness, humility and clarity of teaching, Pope Benedict’s resignation offers us the epitome of a courageous and humble decision. He teaches the Church and the world right up to the end of his Petrine Ministry.
This is an opportunity for the Church and the world to give thanks for the courageous, extraordinary teacher and leader who has occupied the throne of Peter since April 19, 2005.
In the Old Testament, we find the moving story of Joseph, who, after generations of family turmoil, disunity and even hate, united his family in forgiveness and love. In emotional scenes that could easily be part of a great opera, Joseph questions his brothers, who do not recognize him, about their beloved father, still grieving over the supposed death of his missing son. When he confronts them and sees that they have undergone a change of heart, he embraces them and utters the immortal words, "I am Joseph, your brother" (Genesis 45:4).
Blessed John Paul II taught us the profound lesson of suffering and death with dignity. Joseph Ratzinger teaches us the meaning of sweet surrender — of not clinging to power and the throne, of prestige, tradition and privilege for their own sakes. Pope Benedict has taught us what it means to serve the Lord with gladness, humility and joy. He has truly been for us, Joseph, our brother — the one that many refused to accept in the beginning, but in the end, recognized and embraced as a beloved brother.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B., is the CEO of Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation, president of Assumption University and consultor for Pontifical Council for Social Communications.