Just days ahead of Ash Wednesday, a surprise announcement has come out of the Vatican. To the shock of both clergy and Catholic faithful around the world, our dear Pope Benedict XVI, has announced his plans to abdicate the papacy on February 28th, 2013. It has been just shy of 600 years since a Pope has stepped down, making way for a new successor. Commonly, the Pope leaves office as he leaves this world.
As many will remember, the world watched as just over 8 years ago our beloved Pope John Paul II, a figure much loved and respected by Catholic and non-Catholics, gradually died before our very eyes from the complications of Parkinson's. His timely witness to the dignity of humanity even in death was at once heartbreaking and inspiring. As one of the millions of young people who saw John Paul II as a dear friend, watching his slow dignified decline through the lens of the media, I recall the deep respect he earned from me through his life and his death. When he finally passed into the hands of our Heavenly Father, my heart cried out "Well done, good and faithful servant!". My grief over the loss of a living Saint who had touched my own life in such a personal way was tempered by the knowledge that he was before the throne of God, being rewarded for his lifetime of suffering service.
When I heard the news today that Pope Benedict would be resigning, my brain ran through all the moments leading up to his election, from the death of his successor, the funeral Mass, the conclave and then the joy of seeing for the first time in my lifetime the white smoke floating over St. Peter's Basilica. Today I gladly have no grief in my heart as I had when Pope John Paul II passed away. We have before us a man who is not on death's door. Yes, he is frail at clearly at the beginning of the last decline before he finds his home in Heaven, but he leaves us with clear mind and sharp wits. I do feel lost knowing that in just over two weeks my Church will be without a spiritual leader, and that another successor of Peter who I have loved as family will be leaving us. I find great comfort that he will go to the life he has always wanted, a quiet life of prayer and writing. He is a man of incredible intellect with an easy and accessible style that can feel the soul without having to wade through too much jargon. I've enjoyed his books for nearly 15 years, and I look forward to reading the surely deeply spiritual works he will produce from his future life in a cloistered monastery. While he may not be acting as the successor of Peter anymore as of the end of this month, I know his legacy in the Church won't end as of March 1st. Beyond his own personal work, I think his huge legacy today has been the reminder that we have to always keep our hearts open to the will of God. This isn't about his frailty, his health, or his personal struggles. Today is about the fact that God has said that Benedict's mission in this world is now somewhere else. Just as John Paul II gave us the witness to the dignity of a natural death, Benedict leaves his role as Pontiff by giving us a witness to the fact that God always has a care and concern for us, and guides us on our path is we would remain open to his call. Jesus is reaching out to each of us with a plan for our ultimate good. I'm sure on the day of his election, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was filled with deep humility and was surely even shocked that he was elected, but he prayerfully accepted knowing God would support him and guide him through his years in the Papacy. Now, we see the fruitful continuation of that life of abundant prayer, that God would release him to a life of quiet piety, by invited Benedict through the silent whisper in his heart to accept a new call, even a call that would shock and surprise the Church he leads.
So we see our Pope as he follow God's plan for him, to leave the difficult call of the Papacy to the fruitful desert of the cloister, led always by prayer and closeness to Christ through his personal devotion. And he leaves me with an abiding feeling of hope. The Holy Spirit is working with great vigour in the Church. Already in the hearts of the Cardinals I trust that the Holy Spirit is planting a spirit of openness, and recognition of who it is God is calling next to wear the heavy mantle of the Papacy. As the Cardinals sit locked in conclave within the beautiful Sistine Chapel, I will be glued to my TV full of prayers for their weighty task, but I will also be full of excitement and expectation to see where God is leading us now. I know I will be spending my Lent offering special devotion for the man who God will call and our Cardinals will elect. The media has their idea and their spin on who would be the "right" choice in the eyes of the world, but I delight in knowing that the choice isn't up to us, it is up to God, who will use the Cardinals as willing instruments of His will. I will be praying for whomever God chooses that he find solace in his faith, and strength in the confidence God will show in him.
To Pope Benedict, I say "well done, thou good and faithful servant" just as I did to Pope John Paul II. I remain filled with the deepest gratitude for his long life of service. In leaving the role as Pope, he draws the eyes of the world on our Church, giving us a chance to share a witness to the joy of our faith and our love of the Church. May God bless all of us within the Church to be as good teachers as Pope Benedict has been, to share with clarity the truth of our faith and to inspire others with our steadfast love of God.