Blessed John Paul II recounted to his biographers that his father was a man of constant prayer. Often he would find his dad praying (sometimes in the middle of the night or the early hours of the morning) before an icon of the Blessed Mother. This example of prayer was one of the greatest and most profound influences on the future Pontiff. The spiritual leadership of John Paul II's father would radically change the world. All of us share in the fruits of that prayer through the holiness of his son. The retirement of Benedict XVI may prove to be a similar example that will inspire a yet unknown future.
My Godfather was ordained a Deacon by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. This was back when Ratzinger ran the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. I asked my Godfather if he knew the Cardinal and if so, what he was like. He did know him, as well as any young seminarian studying in Rome could know the prefect of the CDF. However, he recounted to me that Cardinal Ratzinger was very accessible. He remembered him as a very gentle, pious, scholarly and quiet man. But he also described him as a, warm, kind, and grandfatherly man. Particularly, he told me that, spiritually, everything that was commonly said about the prayer life of John Paul II was also true for Ratzinger. He was, even then, known to be a man of deep prayer.
It seems that he will continue to be a man of deep prayer.
The Holy Father has indicated that following his retirement he will spend the rest of his life dedicated to prayer and contemplation. It's a fitting end for a man who took the name Benedict upon his succession to the Chair of Peter. He will be free to exercise those gifts of prayer, study, and contemplation, given by God, for the sake of the Church.
This is a good thing for the Church. By resigning he is able to demonstrate that the authority of Peter is not about consolidating power. Even the Papal Office is subordinated to seeking a life of holiness. Freely relinquishing the authority of his position is a sign of this reality. It can also be taken as a statement against the Pelagian tendencies of our time. He's able to remind us that our job description or productivity cycle is not the end purpose of our life. Instead, our urgency should be primarily directed to prayer and seeking holiness. His resignation, if nothing else, should serve as a reminder of this reality. It's also, practically speaking, a good thing for the administration of the Church. While the decline and death of John Paul II was a necessary sign for the dignity of human life, it was a strain on the administrative necessities of the Church. This protects the Church in our modern, fast–paced world from too much of an interruption in her temporal management.
There are any number of hope laden spins that can be given to the Holy Father's decision to resign.
Yet, I find my own optimism to be hollow.
Admittedly, this is completely selfish.
When John Paul II was Pontiff I prayed that Cardinal Ratzinger would be his successor. During the Conclave held after the death of John Paul II I was cautiously optimistic. Upon Ratzinger's election as the Successor of Peter I was elated. I couldn't contain my joy. I was so inspired by the movement of the Holy Spirit I entering the Dominican Order. This was my response to Benedict XVI's election. A vocational renewal, if you will. Because I'm in my 30s I'm often mistaken for being a part of the so-called JPII Generation. That's only partially true. While John Paul II was a profound influence on me during my initial conversion back to the practice of my faith, it was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger who influenced me after I returned home. Really, I tend to think of myself as part of Benedict's Generation.
His love for the faith has always inspired me. His love for the liturgy has moved me to seek authentic liturgical renewal and reform. His decisiveness and clarity are traits I personally strive for. His gentleness and peaceful disposition are an examples I greatly desire to live up to. Now, I'm seeing that I missed the virtue he most prominently exudes – humility.
This is a far more difficult virtue to emulate.
Leadership in my Order is always transitory. We have saying, "Peacock today, feather duster tomorrow." We elect our leaders for a defined term and upon the completion of that term the brother returns to the ranks. We don't receive ecclesiastical titles. When a brother is made a Bishop they cease to properly be members of the Order. The bond established between a Bishop and his Diocese, in some way, overwhelms the bond between him and the Order. In the typical Diocesan structure this is not the case. As a Diocesan priest put it, their structure is a totem pole.
A priest becomes a pastor, dean, vicar, Monsignor, Bishop, Cardinal, or Pope. There's a clear hierarchical structure that one can ascend. The history of the Church is filled with those who have deliberately sought after ecclesiastical honors for any number of reasons, some not so noble. But, by retiring from his office, Benedict XVI, will have exemplified a profound humility toward the Office he occupies, the authority it commands, and the Church he serves. He has attained the height of ecclesiastical authority. And, yet, he has freely chosen to lay it aside for the benefit of the Church. He's done his part. Now, instead of clinging to his Office, he will step aside and submit his obedience to his successor. Who among us would be willing or able to do the same? It's an example to us of both profound humility and great wisdom.
He does not do this to escape the trials of this life. Rather, he's indicated that he will end his days in monastic retreat. I assure you, this is no easy road. The loving diligence required to live the monastic life is rigorous. He will spend the rest of his life dedicated to prayer with and for the Church. Like the father of John Paul II, he will be an example and force, by his prayers, that will enrich and strengthen the Church both now and for future ages to come. He will be an unwitnessed witness to the faith.
I'm sad to see Benedict XVI retire and renounce his Office. But, in this action he's given us a profound example. He has typified humility. It's an act that I will try to understand as I strive to live an authentic Catholic life in conformity to Christ, "who though he was in the form of God, did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. But, emptied himself, taking the form of a slave ... obediently accepting death, even death on the Cross." (Philippians 2:6-8)