As the story goes, St Anthony of Egypt, the first known Christian monk, lived to be 105. When asked about that, I often respond “that’s what years of clean living will do to you.”
Remember when the Church hated the Enlightenment? Even if you’ve been alive as long as Anthony of Egypt, chances are you don’t. Though we’ve had our ups and downs with such Enlightenment principles as democracy and science, we’ve made peace with most of them.
Many of the fruits of that traumatic, transformative era for the church, such as hygiene and medicine, brought us to this moment today. For most of history there was no need for an exit strategy as Popes lived into old age. No one lived into old age.
Yet here we are, with Pope Benedict XVI announcing today that he will abdicate his office in a few weeks. Obviously I take a professional interest in this news, and I’m always astonished by how much attention papal news gets among the general public. What is it about the papacy that matters to much to us? Is it that we love symbols? Is it fascination with an office that has existed for millenia?
Although abdication is rare, I’m not falling out of my chair over it. Things change for the papacy: the papal states were lost in the 1800s, the papal tiara (a far lesser item) was abandoned in the 1900s.
There’s a lot to say, and a lot of people saying it better than I will. Everyone wants a piece of this story: people who hate bishops are speculating that there will be some bombshell revelation about him. People who love the Latin Mass want to canonize him as patron saint of the Tridentine Rite. American journalists are turning the story toward American interests, whether or not it belongs there (NB: This is not about sex). Many want to apply terms like liberal and conservative. Stories about Catholicism are as big as history and as big as the world. People are going to spin it a lot of ways, some appropriate, some not.
Let me focus on this: After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.
I beg you, no matter what your allegiances, no matter where you are coming from please give Benedict the benefit of the doubt and believe that this comes from an examination of conscience; that is, from prayer. I know how hard this is: we are trained to be skeptical of everyone, to assume the worst, to look for the sinister or selfish motive behind every action.
As I write this I realize I’ve wanted to ask this for a long time, about more than just the Pope. As one who strives to be a person of prayer, I hope that people will believe that my decisions come from a place of prayer. I hope that even when I falter people will believe that it is because of my own failings in hearing God’s voice, and not because I never listened at all.
I’m in no prominent position to do this, but I wish I could ask the world to assume the best about the Church and its leaders. Despite our many flaws and mistakes and terrible history, assume we’re trying to do the right thing. Even as I write I realize this may be too much to ask. But if you’re so inclined to believe the Pope when he says he’s prayed, believe the same about the rest of us, and perhaps you too could pray for us and him.