11 February 2013

on the resignation

The international headlines today are repeating the news that Pope Benedict XVI has chosen to resign his office.  Most people probably do not realize that a sitting pope can resign, for it hasn't happened since 1415 (Gregory XII).  In the statement which was released by the Vatican, this comes from a "deterioration" of the physical and mental strength required to perform his demanding duties.

Pope Benedict has also said, "I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering."

Here is a perspective which, sadly, many church leaders and pastors do not share.  First, the notion of resigning from such a lofty post within the church is shocking to many, because we have a tendency - even within the church - to view position as something that is to be gained and kept.  Although we could parse out the differences we might have with the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church, we see here the humility of Joseph Ratzinger emerging through the high-profile papal office.  His heart is for the church, and how he might best be a servant of its work in the world.

Second, I notice that Pope Benedict also makes reference to the "prayer and suffering" which must necessarily be a part of spiritual leadership.  His words speak to the behind-the-scenes work that takes place for the public ministry to function.  And this is a lesson for everyone, not simply church leaders.  Every day begins with Pope Benedict celebrating a private mass and prayers.  Modeled on the activity of Jesus, it is important to have time in quiet solitude and prayerful reflection before the busyness of ministry and daily life can be confronted.  Yes, we can do ministry without such a meditative heart, but it will be ministry which is void of the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Although we could parse out the differences we might have with Mass and the Roman Catholic prayer traditions, we see here the heart of Joseph Ratzinger emerging once more, if I cannot endure this prayer and suffering on behalf of the church, then I cannot be suited for this type of papal ministry and leadership.

I am certain that there are many perks to being the Pope.  But I am equally convinced that the amount of stress and difficulty which comes with such a demanding role is quite burdensome as well.  We have a tendency not to see those things, not allowing ourselves to see beyond the glimmering gold of the basilicas, the communion table, the vestments, and such.  This situation gives us opportunity to see the work that goes on behind all of the adorned beauty which is representative of the glory which God bestows in the church, to see that there is a great deal of work and sacrifice in order to make the church function.

My comments, of course, assume that Pope Benedict XVI is a God-honoring and devout man of God.  From my viewpoint (which is, admittedly, from a distance), I see that he is, and that he has strove for biblical values and sound theology throughout his ministry life.  There have been papal authorities that have certainly failed the church over the years, and there are certainly those within the Roman Catholic Church who are 'less-than-devout' in their own practices.  I am not offering - nor am I required to offer - a defense of the church whatsoever.  But I have come to admire the spiritual sacrifices which form a necessary part of spiritual leadership within the church, and thus this papal resignation is quite interesting to me.

And this should serve as a thought-piece for those who are in ministerial leadership, for we must evaluate whether or not we are (first) committed to the spiritual sacrifices of leadership - both mental and physical - and (second) able to conduct the work in such a manner that honors God and serves the church as God has called us.  If the church is viewed for position or prominence, or if any of its leaders believe themselves to be indispensable in their current roles, then these questions probably won't make much sense.  Therein lies a great problem.

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