The resignation of Benedict XVI is historic for the Catholic Church, but it also shows the difficulty of growing old in a society of constant demands and real-time technology.
Ours is a society that demands speed, adaptability, reactions in real-time. Facing these facts, Pope Benedict XVI confessed his weakness last Monday with disarming awareness and words of utter clarity in announcing his plans to resign from the papacy: “In today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith," he said, speaking in Latin during a Vatican ceremony, "in order to govern the bark of Saint 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.”
Almost an act of surrender before a world that is changing at a speed that a man who was born in 1927 could have never imagined. The pace and nature of communicating is shifting, as we are called on to comment on everything, immediately. But still, this 85-year-old man – even as he was already thinking about stepping down from the Pontificate – tried to keep up with this bustle of contemporary life by signing on to Twitter, with its short and syncopated 140-character messages.
Benedict had tried, not without difficulty, to follow the global agenda and its rhythms as dictated by 24/7 media broadcasting. It is an agenda that, each day, slides further away from his ethical and social conventions – a seemingly unnatural race for a man who consecrated his life to study, reflection and silent meditation.
In his words and in his historic choice to step down, the first Pope to resign in nearly 600 years, a short-circuit seems to have been set off between his deep studies of the life of Jesus and the requirement to respond blow-by-blow to modern life.
The spreading of scandals, controversies and leaks on a global scale can be followed only by young people: "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..." But it has not always been this way. Pope Pius IX went to Emilia Romagna for a one-month journey in 1854 solely to bless the faithful, without making a single speech. Pope Paolo VI answered to his believers only during the Sunday Angelus or at the Wednesday audience. It was only during the Pontificate of Pope John Paul II that the number of journeys and rhythm of the speeches multiplied.
Is this a train destined only to accelerate for a Church that is of this world? If it wants to be heard, such a global institution would seem to have little choice but than to adapt to these modern rhythms and cadences. Still, one of the Church's great strengths is its ability to lay low and sing to its own tune while taking part in the world where it resides.
The time of the millennial Church was possible when information didn’t spread through the walls, and mobile phones were not the extension of our body, when butlers didn’t make photocopies or send faxes and email – a time when the Vatican walls could keep secrets. A slower pace and its own unique vision had guaranteed a leading role to the Church for 20 centuries.
And so in surrendering to old age, and recognizing a centrality of youth, energy and speed, what value can we find in contemplated thought, wisdom and experience? He gave us part of his answer by choosing to return to being Joseph Ratzinger, even if the question of how this will actually play out remains unresolved and of great importance.
Obviously, the Pope's difficult decision cannot be read only through this question and its answer, as it is the daughter of a complexity of issues we will be writing about for a long time.
We can compare Ratzinger’s resignation to the courage of Wojttyla’s choice to carry the Calvary cross till the end of his Pontificate as John Paul II.
Benedict XVI knows that the price of the long Calvary of his predecessor was paid in the absence of effective governance of the Church – he knows because he inherited all the unresolved issues and internecine fights in the Vatican. He confronted all of them with courage, starting with the crisis of priest sex abuse, but may have also had particular awareness of the strength it takes to govern – and it was this that convinced him to step back now and avoid leaving an even more difficult path to his successor.
This is perhaps the most revolutionary decision he ever made.