ROME - The Pope’s resignation is a unique event, although not entirely without historical precedent. Benedict XVI is retiring not in failure but as freely and serenely as Charles V -- who wasn’t a pope but an emperor, and one of the West’s major rulers when he put down his crown on October 25, 1555. It was one of the most gripping scenes in the history of Europe.
In 1530, Charles V was the last Holy Roman Emperor to be crowned by the Pope. His realm, in which the sun never set, stretched across large expanses of the planet. He presided over the split in Christendom – the Reformation -- in Europe. Crippled with gout, dressed in black velvet, he turned the crown over to his son Philip at his Brussels court. What he said on this occasion needs to be quoted in full here:
Forty years ago I became King of Spain, then Emperor -- not to increase my possessions but rather to engage myself more vigorously in working for the welfare of Germany and my other provinces in the hopes of thereby bringing peace among the Christian peoples and uniting their fighting forces against the Ottomans. I had high hopes, only a few of which have been fulfilled and only a few of which remain. It has made me tired and sick. I have nonetheless never ceased resisting my foes or striving to fulfill my mission.
But now it would be irresponsible to put off abdicating any longer. I simply don’t have the strength anymore. I know well that in my long reign I have fallen into many errors and committed some wrongs, but it was from ignorance, and if there be any here whom I have wronged, they will believe it was not intended, and grant me their forgiveness.
Charles V never became a monk, but he did retire to the San Jerónimo de Yuste monastery in Spain where he spent the last three years of his life before his death on September 21, 1558.
Parallels to Charles V’s abdication sprang to mind when two weeks ago Benedict XVI appeared before the cardinals. He was the first new pope of the 21st century. Even if it was not of this earth, the sun never set on his “realm” either. The Roman Catholic Church has never in its history been as big as it is now, and the Pontifex Maximus faces new and unprecedented challenges.
The one who has just stepped down will also withdraw to a life of prayer: “the Lord is calling me to climb the mountain, to dedicate myself even more to prayer and meditation.”
Joseph Ratzinger's biography is full of synchronicities and symbols, from the rainbow that formed over Auschwitz when, as a German-born Pope, he spoke there, to the lightening that struck St. Peter’s dome on the evening of his resignation. He was born on the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday – on April 16, the feast day of Lourdes mystic Bernadette Soubirous, which was just three days before the date he became Pope, on April 19.
The Madonna of Lourdes’ feast day, on the other hand, is on February 11, the day he resigned from the papacy. On February 28, 1982 he stepped down as Archbishop of Munich and Freising, then 31 years later on that same day came his abdication as Bishop of Rome and Pope of the Roman Catholic Church.
More modern than you might think
But if some kind of heavenly timing seems to rule his life, he viewed the papacy in a much more sober and modern way than many of his predecessors. If he never doubted that as successor of the Apostle Peter he embodied the rock on which Catholics believe Jesus of Nazareth founded his church, as a theologian he was fully aware of how weak Peter was. According to the Gospel, Peter was the only person Jesus prayed for.
But rock is rock. And when Benedict XVI became aware that he no longer had that solidity, he stepped down to make way for somebody who does. He is not fleeing the papacy: he has enriched it. He is not fleeing a burning Rome, rather moving deeper inside the Church.
Benedict’s legacy is already impressive. "Enlightenment" is probably the word that has played the greatest role in Joseph Ratzinger’s life, and it hovered like a star over his papacy, shedding light on matters as far-ranging as theology, holy liturgy, and the mystery of evil, to the roots of Christianity in Judaism and the essential need for Christian dialogue with Islam.
He didn’t please everyone, of course, least of all many Germans. And with Benedict’s abdication, a cultural challenge to the land of the Reformation that many didn’t feel up to meeting falls away as well. The nation was not proud of its greatest son of this century.
Now this universal Church’s German hour is over. With regard to his old home, Benedict’s departure is a little bit like that of the gatekeeper in Kafka’s The Trial who at the end closes the gate with the words: "No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it."