VATICAN CITY - A long queue of men dressed in black is winding silently around St. Peter’s Square: They are Roman priests here to say their last goodbyes to Benedict XVI at a recent Vatican audience.
When he decided to resign, did it cross the Pope’s mind that the cross he'd bear would also affect thousands of parish priests? What would he say to his astonished shepherds of the faithful flock? How can these priests encourage their congregations -- think, for example, of a married couple in crisis -- to weather the difficult times if even the Holy Father must let go?
“Initially, even for us it was a shock,” said Antonio Lauri, a priest in a local church in Rome, “It’s normal to ask: Why? What’s the meaning of it?”
But the divine purpose, rather quickly, began to reveal itself. "After some time," says Lauri, "I began to see it as a courageous decision, generous and modern -- one that is intended to shock the Church.”
How did his parishioners take the resignation announcement? “They were very upset," Lauri concedes. "It’s the first time that this has happened during our times and so -- unfortunately -- there was the comparison with the agony that John Paul went through.”
Don Savino Lombardi, from the Orionine order, notes that he took the three canonic vows- poverty, chastity and obedience- but also a fourth vow of loyalty to the Pope that is required for his order, like with the Jesuits.
“We were all left surprised, it was like we had lost a point of reference,” Lombardi said. “But Benedict XVI has the capacity and the intelligence to make a choice of this nature.” Was it the assistance of the Holy Spirit that helped the decision? “Just because of who he is, the Pope has a place before God. I told this to the faithful in my congregation: I’m convinced that he made this decision after a long reflection and a lot of praying. And the Holy Spirit did work.”
Strength in weakness
After last Monday's surprise announcement, there were plenty of tears “especially the women” said don Fabrizio Benincampi. “I tried to comfort them, telling them to remember, above all, one thing: Don't be overwhelmed by all of the media coverage. Use your own discernment.”
Benincampi says that we must look at this event with the logic that in this upside-down world, the Gospel remains: “There’s great strength even within an admission of real weakness. I believe that it can be confirmed in the words of St. Paul: ‘when I am weak, that is when I am strong’.”
So, what will become of the Church on February 28, when Benedict is flown away by helicopter? One of the priests is sturdied by the past: “The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s fear. We must remember the words of Jesus that another pope, John Paul II, repeated at the beginning of his pontificate: "Be not afraid."”
As Ratzinger speaks off the cuff, and even jokes, at the General Audience, the question returns: why is he resigning? At the same time, his calmness gives the impression that he made the right decision. The ceremony ends with Benedict assuring his priests that he will not leave them alone: “Retired in my prayers, I will always be with you in the certainty that the Lord will prevail.”
“It’s very difficult,” Don Elio Lops confides on the way out. “The people are worried. In Rome, the Pope is everything. Even for us priests it’s hard to understand. But, we must believe that everything that happens is willed by God. One day, we will understand.”