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It was very cold on the winter morning of Wednesday 27th February 2013 in the Vatican City, yet St. Peter’s Square could not contain the crowd from all over the world that came to bid Pope Benedict XVI farewell. Pope Benedict XVI addressed the crowd with a serene and loving voice. He narrated his moments of struggle and joy in this unique Wednesday of his final public address as the successor of Peter.
In his words, there had been “many days of sunshine” but also “times when the water was rough and the Lord seemed to sleep. But even as the church passes through stormy seas, God will not let her sink.” He recalled that when he was asked to be Pope eight years ago, he prayed for God’s guidance and ever since felt the presence of God every day. He saw this as “a part of the journey of the church that has had moments of joy and light, moments that were not easy.”
The Holy Father acknowledged the fact that there has to be a time in life when “tough choices” had to be made. In this last general audience, akin to a father addressing the children for the last time before his final exit, he called for a renewal of faith and speaks of his own spiritual journey through eight years as leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. He thanked the cardinals, the clergy in Rome, Vatican officials and priests worldwide for their work, as well as their congregations, saying “the heart of a Pope extends to the whole world.”
He said his strength was fading hence he had to resign honourably even in the face of the loudest ovation. He was aware of the gravity and novelty of his action. He affirmed that he stepped aside “with a deep peace of mind.” He gave a perfect definition of love in the context of this great moment of the world history saying, “Loving the church also means having the courage to make tough choices.” He called on the faithful to pray for him and the new Pope.
Pope Benedict XVI described the life of the pontiff as a life without any kind of privacy. He admitted that this kind of life is particularly difficult for a man known for his love of scholarship and the church. He said his life in retirement will be simply a return to the private place where he would forgo the exercise of active ministry but not revoke it. In other words, he would “return to a private life, not to a life of travel, meetings, receptions, conferences and so on.”
The ovation that followed of his speech was akin to unceasing flowing torrents of thunder in the continuous clapping and hailing. Yes, cheers erupted from the tens of thousands gathered in the square. The Pope acknowledged this with an open-armed embrace. It was amazing how many languages the Pope used as a sign of respect for the people from the different parts of the world. He spoke Italia, English, French, Spanish, German, Portuguese and Arabic to show the global reach of the church that is one, holy and universal.
Rev. Fr. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman said the Pope will still keep the papal title Benedict XVI, rather than reverting to the name Joseph Ratzinger and will be referred to as “His Holiness.” He will also go by the title “Pontiff Emeritus” or “Pope Emeritus.” When he finally retires into a small monastery within Vatican City, Benedict will wear a simple white robe, without the papal red cape, and will swap his red shoes for brown ones. According to Lombardi, he will no longer use the Fisherman’s Ring; the symbol of the Pope. The ring will be destroyed, along with Benedict’s papal seal, after his departure from office.
It is interesting to note that Pope Benedict XVI gave the College of Cardinals authority to freely choose the date of the conclave to elect his successor. He signed a motu propio on the issue, setting aside parts of a previous mandate from Pope John Paul II governing the working of a conclave according to Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson, at a press conference. At the conference, Vatican officials said the pope had not ordered the cardinals to change the date. He merely gave them the power to do so.
Now we can once again reflect, philosophize and theologize on the value of power and authority. From the messages I have received from my Muslim and Christian friends, it is clear that a person is more potent, powerful and respected when he or she is aware of the zenith and limit of his strength to lead. A wise leader knows when there is need to relinquish power for the sake of the people to whom power rightfully belongs.
Pope Benedict XVI was selfless and did not cling to power such that someone else would do the work while he claimed the glory or left the work to suffer. What a perfect way of putting the words of Jesus into practise: “it is better for me to go so that the advocate, the Holy Spirit of God would come” (John 16, 7).
I pray that some of our leaders who want to glue to power even when they are old, sick, incapacitated and incompetent will have a rethink. Some of the old dictators in our world today who want to rule at all cost have caused a lot of terror using religion as a veritable tool. Some have caused war because they believe that an incumbent cannot be defeated in an election. To die in power, some politicians have invented different styles of rigging elections even to the extent of kidnapping and killing those whom they see as rivals.
In cannon law, the Pope cannot be forced to resign. The decision must come from him in conscience and freedom. His resignation is not subject to the acceptance or rejection by anybody because he is the Supreme Pontiff. This makes the decision and action of the Pope a message to the world. He was conscious of the implications of his actions, yet he resigned for the good of the church and the people.
It is shameful to be chased out of power like we have witnessed in recent times. Every good leader must demonstrate power in the ability to plan for the next generation akin to Jesus who said, “Do not let your heart be troubled, I am going to prepare you a place so that where I am you too may be (John 14, 1).
It is very funny that in the world today, while the young people are unemployed, the retired old people are busy recycling themselves by various political appointments. We must really think about this as we continue to find solution to insecurity and violence in the world. A word is enough for the wise. The Pope has spoken and acted, let those who are wise take the message to heart and put it into practise.
Father (Prof) Omonokhua is the Director of Mission and Dialogue of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, Abuja, and Consultor for the Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims (CRRM), Vatican City