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An 'instrument in the Lord’s hands'

Archbishop Wenski's monthly column for the Florida Catholic newspaper

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Pope Benedict XVI certainly surprised everyone this month when he announced he would resign as pope effective Feb. 28. Even Vatican insiders were unaware of his decision, judging from the comments of the cardinals who heard the announcement in person Feb. 11.

While perhaps it is shocking to hear that a pope would resign, Pope Benedict would certainly not be the first pope to do. And perhaps we should not have been too surprised. When he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he indicated many times that his intentions were to retire at the conclusion of Pope John Paul II’s pontificate. So he did not go into the conclave expecting to be elected pope; in fact, he was well beyond the age when bishops are required to submit their resignation. When his fellow cardinals elected him, he accepted it as the will of God and said he would serve as long as God gave him the strength to do so.

During his seven years as pope, he has kept a schedule that would tire out a young man.  At 85, he is obviously much frailer than he was at the time of his election – something I and other U.S. bishops noticed during our ad limina visit last May. Travel, especially transatlantic travel, is not easy for a man of his age — and his doctors have discouraged him from traveling. When he visited Mexico and Cuba almost a year ago, much “down time” was scheduled to help him recover from the fatigue of jet lag.

Apparently he has been considering his decision for a while. Some even noted that in 2009 he visited the gravesite of Pope Celestine V, who perhaps set the precedent that a pope can retire (1294). Reportedly — and I am told a picture of this has been making the rounds on Facebook — Pope Benedict laid down his pallium — the symbol of his authority as metropolitan archbishop of Rome — on Celestine’s tomb.

Pope Benedict, in making this decision “for the good of the Church,” has given us a great example of humility — even as Blessed John Paul II showed great humility while bearing the weight of the papacy in spite of the infirmities he suffered in his later years.  They enjoyed a long friendship dating from the time of the Second Vatican Council though each had distinctive personalities: with John Paul being more of an extrovert and Benedict more of an introvert.

As Pope Benedict himself put it in his resignation announcement, there is only one Supreme Pastor — Jesus Christ. Popes for the universal Church and bishops in their dioceses are only his vicar. Recognizing the limitations that health and age have imposed on him, Pope Benedict XVI has given his “two weeks’ notice” as it were. Coming just before the beginning of Lent, there is sufficient time, I believe, for the cardinals to gather, to hold a conclave and elect a new Vicar of Christ in time for Holy Week and Easter.

In Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI wrote: “There are times when the burden of need and our own limitations might tempt us to become discouraged. But precisely then we are helped by the knowledge that, in the end, we are only instruments in the Lord's hands; and this knowledge frees us from the presumption of thinking that we alone are personally responsible for building a better world. In all humility we will do what we can, and in all humility we will entrust the rest to the Lord. It is God who governs the world, not we. We offer him our service only to the extent that we can, and for as long as he grants us the strength. To do all we can with what strength we have, however, is the task which keeps the good servant of Jesus Christ always at work: ‘The love of Christ urges us on’ (2 Cor 5:14).

We thank God for the gift of this good servant of Jesus Christ, Pope Benedict. We pray that the cardinals will be guided by the Holy Spirit as they elect a new pope — to be an “instrument in the Lord’s hands” as he walks in the shoes of the Fisherman. 

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