Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Vacant Chair

Today is the day that the papal reign of Benedict XVI comes to an end. The pope turned in his two-weeks (er, two weeks and three days) notice on February 11, two days before Ash Wednesday. The official announcement was in Latin, but I’ve seen and heard it called, variously, a resignation, an abdication, and a renunciation. In the official English translation, he states, “… I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter….” The See of Rome will be vacant as of 8:00 pm (Central European Time) today – that’s 2:00 pm for those of us on Eastern (U.S.) Standard Time.

I’ve avoided reading anything other than headlines and excerpts about this for the past two weeks. Most of the respectable Catholics have called Pope Benedict’s act one of great humility. I can see that. The Catholic Church is probably the largest institution in the history of man. The administration of it has got to be physically demanding, and Benedict was an old man when he was elected. Any sensible person would deem himself unfit for the job.

Speaking just for myself, however, I don’t like it. The office is more than an administrative post – it is a sign. If a man undergoes an ontological change when he is ordained a priest and becomes a living icon of Christ, wed to his bride, the Church, how much more so must that be true for a man who takes the title “Vicar of Christ?” Only a priest can consecrate the bread and wine; only a pope can teach infallibly. And now our pope has quit. As understanding as I try to be, I can’t help but feel abandoned.

To acknowledge the emotion is not the same as giving in to it. The feeling of abandonment is real, just as is the sure knowledge that God will not abandon his Church. There will be a new Peter.

Everything seems wrong, though, for a pope to announce just before Ash Wednesday that he will leave the chair of Peter vacant in the middle of Lent, less than a week after the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter the Apostle, in the middle of the Year of Faith that he called. The next pope, when he grows old, will come under immense public pressure to follow the precedent of Benedict, rather than the example of John Paul II. That cannot be a good thing.

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