Is He Resigning From The Catholic Priesthood Or From The Catholic Church?
This brief reflection was written by Rev. Fr. Njoku Canice Chukwuemeka, C.S.Sp. He is a Catholic Priest and a member of the Congregation Holy Ghost Fathers and Brothers, Province of Nigeria South East. He is currently the parochial vicar of Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church Woliwo Onitsha, Anambra State, Nigeria. For more details contact him on:firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
The world woke up on Monday, 11 February, 2013 to embrace the shock, surprise and disappointment orchestrated by the news of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. This news of the Pope’s resignation has since been the talk of the town as a result of what many considered the “breaking of an age long tradition of the Roman Catholic Church.” In as much as this may sound true, the factor that needs adequate consideration is whether he violated the canonical norms of the church amongst other factors. Many have tried to suggest other possible reasons for the resignation of the Pope other than the one the Pope himself gave, as if they knew him better than he knew himself. This is another moment in the history of the Church and should be seen as such. It is only by the help of the Holy Spirit can this sign be adequately interpreted and understood.
A reverend Monsignor once said that “the priesthood is a celebration of courage”. There is no doubt that the news of the imminent resignation of Pope Benedict XVI on the 28th of February was sudden and has left many surprised and shocked. Yet, I do not consider it unthinkable, if for no other reason, for these two that I wish to look at here. First, at least the whole world acknowledged the fact that he is not the first pope to resign from the position. History has it that some seven hundred and nineteen years ago a Pope resigned. The Pope in question is Pope Celestine V who resigned in 1294. The former Benedictine hermit Celestine had never wanted to be pope. After just five months in office he issued a solemn decree declaring it permissible for a pope to resign and then promptly did so himself, citing “the desire for humility, for a purer life, for a stainless conscience, the deficiencies of his own physical strength, his ignorance, the perverseness of the people and his longing for the tranquility of his former life as his reasons for resignation”. Some might say he did it for a different reason or that he did it under pressure, but whatever the reason, the most important thing is that there must always be a reason for something to happen or for a decision to be taken. If Benedict XVI says he feels “physically incapacitated to carry on with the demand of his munus and ministry” is it not reasonable enough?
Second, by resigning did Benedict XVI violate or contravene any Church law? Though I am not an expert in canon law, but to the best of my little knowledge, I do not think he did. In fact, canonically, there is room for the supreme authority of the church and in particular the supreme pontiff, to resign. Hence, Can.184.SS 1 states that: “an ecclesiastical office is lost on the expiry of a pre-determined time; on reaching the age limit defined by law; by resignation; by transfer; by removal; by deprivation;” Can. 187 also states that: “Anyone who is capable of personal responsibility can resign from an ecclesiastical office for a just reason (see also Can.188-189). His reason is that he recognized his incapacity to carry on with the demands of his munus. Going by these facts before us, one can see that in spite of the “unprecedented action of Benedict XVI” (i.e. recalling the words of an Aljazeera correspondent on February 11, 2013), that canonically Benedict VI did not err safe, that he made history by bridging an old aged tradition. Furthermore, Can.333 SS 2 states that: “Should it happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns from his office, it is required for validity that the resignation be freely made and properly manifested, but it is not necessary that it be accepted by anyone.” In fact canonically, there is room for resigning, and I am yet to see any aspect of the canon law which says that the head / leader of the Catholic Church MUST DIE in the position. As shocking and as “unprecedented” as the news of Benedict VI might seem to most of us Catholic Faithful and the entire world, I think we really need to see the positive lessons his action teaches us in our modern world. This however is not to say that those who died in their munus as Popes were not sincere to themselves. They are equally heroes of faith no doubt, but the fact is that Benedict has simply proved to us that he is different and unique. This lesson is for us living in the modern world and especially, in African where both religious and secular leaders prefer to remain in power or on the throne until they rot away.
Instead of sniffing for, and speculating on any other reasons other than the sincere truth this courageous man has told the world for his resignation, we should appreciate the fact that in his eight years of pontification as the pope he made significant impacts in the church and the whole world at large. He was a theologian per excellence, a spiritual leader, a disciplined, courageous and charismatic leader. Today, it has gone down in the annals of history that he is the 2nd pope to resign for a very good reason (Cf. Can 187). The reason this historic action looks and sounds bizarre to us is that we have not experienced it before. After all, the death of Pope John Paul II was equally a shock to many of us not necessarily because we did not know that as a man he will die, but because, most of us had never experienced the death of a pope before in our life time. Six hundred years is quite an eon and am sure none of us living today experienced the resignation of pope Celestine V in 1294. History repeats itself once in a while. Though this one took many years before repeating itself, we must let it be.
Rather than feeling disappointed concerning Benedict XVI’s resignation, we should hail him for teaching us that our health is not ours; that physically we will all go down someday or sometime (Benedict was strong yesterday, but today he is weak. If we appreciated him when he was strong and toiled for the church, should we not appreciate him now that he is weak?); that we are different functionally and essentially. Furthermore, he has taught us that nobody is indispensible in the Church; that the Church is the Church of Jesus Christ who himself instituted her and sustains her; that without Benedict XVI, Christ will continue to take care of his Church. This is evidenced in the fact that a few minutes after the news of his proposed resignation on 28th of February, 2013 which is still two good weeks away from the date of his announcement, the question that occupied the minds of many faithful and “sympathizers” is WHO NEXT, WHO WILL REPLACE HIM? This question is for the Holy Spirit in whose hands Benedict has returned and entrusted the Church to answer. We can only speculate about the answer to this question, but only the Holy Spirit has it in its fullness.
My dear friends and people of God let us not feel disappointed or allow un-necessary sentiments tear our Church apart. Instead, we should go on our knees to ask God at this crucial moment of the Church’s history to appoint for Himself the next Pope to lead his flock. Let us not lose sight of the fact that at various points in time in the Church’s history, the Holy Spirit has moved the Church in directions that defiled human understanding. At such moments, Christ has moved the Church forward instead of allowing it collapse. The Church has witnessed many and great upheavals in the course of her journey yet, she is still stands. This one also shall come to pass for good. Let us remember what St. Paul tells us: “all things work for good for those who love / trust God” (Rom. 8, 28). One very important truth that must not elude us all in this is the fact that Benedict XVI is going to resign from his position as the Pope on 28th February, 2013 but not from his Eternal Priesthood or even from the Holy Roman Catholic Church. Our Church is a Church in the modern world where there are endless possibilities and Pope Benedict’s resignation is only but one of such possibilities. It is a reality we must come to terms with if we must move forward as a Church.
Let us pray:
Oh Lord, here is your Church, watch over her whether we are asleep or are awake. Amen! Come oh Holy Spirit and fill the Hearts of the faithful! And enkindle in us the fire of your love!