Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.
(Romans 12:11 NRSV)
Pope Benedict XVI dropped a bombshell this past Monday when he announced he would resign as pope at the end of February. Yes, there is precedent for it. But it hasn't happened in almost 600 years. By all accounts, the announcement surprised virtually everyone -- even many, perhaps all of his closest advisers.
Here, in his own words, is what he told a group of cardinals who gathered for what they expected to be an ordinary public consistory to approve the canonization of new saints. "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."
He continued: "In today's world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me."
Near the close of his remarks, he addressed the cardinals directly. "I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects. And now, let us entrust the holy church to the care of our supreme pastor, our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the cardinal fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new supreme pontiff."
From where I sit, in announcing his resignation, he is an inspiring model of humility. So I'm guessing it was no accident that he did not use the occasion to talk about his plans in retirement, except to say: "I wish to also devotedly serve the holy church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer."
Clearly, the point of his decision and his announcement was: It's not about me.
Yet, in deciding to resign in the face of advanced age (85) and declining health, he chose the road not taken by the last pope, Blessed John Paul II. He reigned for over 26 years, and in that time the whole world saw him go from a relatively young and vigorous 58-year-old attracted by challenging ski slopes to a stooped and shaking octogenarian barely able to shuffle across the floor.
Watching his physical decline in his last years was a painful thing to see. And yet, in his selfless service right through to the very end he gave us an indelible model of leadership as servant, steward and shepherd -- and he reminded us more poignantly than words ever could about the inherent dignity of all people, most especially the aged and infirm.
In publicly sharing his physical decline and persisting in his demanding role to the moment of his death, Blessed John Paul II was also an inspiring model of humility.
So we see two leaders choose diametrically opposed paths to love and serve God and His church. And I think there's a profound lesson in that. Clearly, the very best choices for us to serve the Lord and be Jesus-like leaders aren't always clear nor do they always have universal applicability.
No doubt there is a universal call for us to love and serve God, first and foremost, and to love and serve our neighbor as much as we love and serve ourselves. But precisely how we should do that from moment to moment, decision to decision, is not always clear.
Thus, it is incumbent on us to strive to do our best and to give our best by making prayerful, thoughtful, God-centered choices in every instance, asking the Lord for guidance from moment to moment.
It is also incumbent on us to accord others the same discretion, assuming the best about them, their motives and their choices -- in effect, giving them the same benefit of the doubt that we give ourselves as we rationalize what we do and say to others.
My guess is that having been part of the inner circle throughout Blessed John Paul's long and painful physical decline, no one was more deeply aware of the toll taken on the organization as well as the man than Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. My guess is that this experience is so deeply seared in his consciousness that he resolved to step aside as pope not for the sake of his own health, but for the sake of the faith and the church's health in the 21st century.
He is convinced that the church and the world need a vigorous pope. And he knows he cannot be that person. We all have "seasons of leadership." When we discern through prayerful reflection and listening to the wisdom of others that our season is ending, it is time to turn our role over to God's graciousness -- to let go and let God, as the saying goes.
It remains for us to begin this season of Lent with prayers that the Spirit, working through the College of Cardinals, will soon send us another selfless, God-centered leader. Pray, too, that we live up to the models of leadership these two men have given us in Jesus' name.
Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute