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Pope’s exit a useful lesson
Between J’Ouvert and Monday mas, some Carnival revellers may have been brought to a brief, unexpected stop by some news of a spiritual nature that could not have contrasted more greatly with the issues that made the headlines in T&T, such as who won Panorama and what was in the lead for Road March. As masqueraders celebrated the pleasures of the body on the eve of Lent, the news of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation marked another, more profound renunciation.
Once the Carnival tumult and the shouting have died, Catholics and those of other faiths or none would do well to return to consider this drastic step. The current Pope is the first to resign in 600 years, but his reasons may not be dissimilar to those said to have been given by Pope Celestine V when he stepped down, after five months as pontiff, in 1294: “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, his longing for the tranquility of his former life.”
In hindsight, it is not insignificant that when Pope Benedict visited Celestine’s tomb in 2009, he left a pallium he had worn at his inauguration in 2005. Benedict’s papacy, though short, has been a difficult one. He was already 78 when he was elected by the conclave of cardinals, and came to the chair of St Peter at a time that would have been difficult for any pontiff, and perhaps especially for a man like him.
The Pope, who has lived and worked in the Vatican for a quarter of a century, would also have had before him the memory of the long and painful decline, which he would have witnessed first-hand, in the powers of the previous John Paul II, an outgoing and energetic man who was sadly diminished by his final years of illness.
Pope Benedict XVI is a deeply conservative, austere and reserved man, unlike his charismatic predecessor, and has had more academic than pastoral experience. In addition, he is German by birth, and his ascension to the papacy revived painful memories of the church’s less than assertive response to the moral issues raised by Nazi rule—during which he was a member of the Hitler Youth, although under duress. More recently and more extensively, criticism and deep hurt were provoked by his leadership of the church’s handling of and reaction to instances of sexual abuse by priests over the years.
Nothing becomes his papacy, however, as much as the manner of his leaving it. All power tends to corrupt, and one of the ways it does so is to feed the ego and persuade the holder of high office that he is indispensable, even when he is no longer able to fulfil the demands of that office. Nevertheless—no doubt after many hours of prayer—Pope Benedict has decided it is in the best interest of the church he leads and the millions who belong to it for him to step down. This acknowledgement of personal frailty and willingness to consider the greater good are a rare example of humility and selflessness.
Pope Benedict’s resignation is a useful lesson to many in positions of power in all spheres of life.
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