Catholic Priests Struggle To Make Sense Of Pope's Resignation

A moment for reflection
A moment for reflection
Michele Brambilla

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.”

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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