I knew I was going to have trouble with two popes; when we pray for the ‘Holy Father’, it’s still Benedict I think of. Fathers don’t resign: they just get old

Pope Benedict XVI conducting one of his weekly general audiences (AP)

The health of Pope Benedict XVI has, according to a Spanish Vatican correspondent, Paloma Gómez Borrero, writing in the Spanish newspaper El Mundo dramatically deteriorated in the last two weeks. According to her, Benedict suffers from something “very severe”. She adds: “We won’t have him with us for very much longer”.

This has been denied by Fr. Federico Lombardi, who told Edward Pentin that reported on Father Blake’s excellent website; I was greatly taken by some of the comments under his report (unlike me, he seems to attract very few nasty trolls), which made me ruminate once again on the whole business of the pope’s resignation, which at the time I found very distressing. One comment was “Why not leave the poor man alone and stop speculating?” to which came the replies “so that people will pray for him”, and “This is concern for one we Love, It pains me to think of our beloved Pope Emeritus sick or suffering” and “because we love him”. Other responses were “My family continues to pray for the ‘Old Pope’,” and “Will someone outside The Vatican please check in on our Holy Father who should be in a hospital, not in seclusion?”

All I can say to that last suggestion is, God forbid: Castel Gandolfo is a beautiful place with wonderful views over the lake, just the place for someone in fragile health: hospitals, even the best of them, are ugly and dispiriting and colourless: God protect him from dying in one of these places. I am sure that he has proper medical supervision; maybe that crack about “somebody outside the Vatican” was prompted by memories of the gross neglect by Vatican insiders of the health of John Paul I, which led to his scandalous premature death. But that mistake won’t be made again, I am quite sure.

What we see in such comments is that there is a real love for Pope Benedict, which lingers for many of us; and I still, I have to say, find this a source of some confusion. When he resigned, I wrote
that when his resignation came into effect, “for me he will still be the Pope whatever the juridical procedure says
. This isn’t a matter simply of procedures in canon law; the feelings are engaged here, and at the deepest level. Catholics love their pope; and for the pope simply to disappear, for this beloved person to say, in effect, that after the end of this month we will never see him or hear from him again is like a kind of bereavement without a death and the final closure that a good death brings. We are being told by the Vatican authorities that we will have a new pope in place in time for Easter. But I rebelliously find myself saying that I don’t want a new pope: I’ve got a Pope, I’d like to keep him, please.”

In a later post, under the headline “How, during the lifetime of a pope, can his successor gain the authority he needs?….”, I recalled an article I had written about a year before, explaining why popes, unlike Archbishops of Canterbury, never resigned: “It does, in a way, explain why no Anglican archbishop can ever have the kind of spiritual authority for Anglicans that a Pope has for Catholics: the fact is that in accepting the crown of thorns that is papal office, the Successor of Peter gives himself absolutely and irreversibly: there is no escape, no possibility of a peaceful retirement; it is — or would be without the strength that only God can give — a truly fearsome prospect.”

My headline did conclude with the words “We are in a time of uncertainty: but we are also in God’s hands”: and this pious sentiment does seem to have been borne out by events, with the election of Pope Francis, who really does look as though he is exactly what we all need at this juncture in the history of the Church. I am sure that in the end, he will fully engage all the love and loyalty we –I—ought to be feeling for him already as our pope: but I have to admit that when I come to my prayers for the Pope, it is still Benedict who comes first, unbidden, to the forefront of my mind; deep within me he is still ineradicably Pope Benedict: I really can’t be doing with all this “emeritus” stuff. Then, I shake myself, and change gear, and click my mental computer mouse on to the image of Pope Francis. It’s not hard to do: he is himself a strong and lovable person who has for very solid reasons already inspired an affectionate response from most Catholics.

But a father is a father: he goes on being one no matter how infirm he becomes: and the words “Holy Father” still mean Pope Benedict for me. I have to admit it: when it comes to the papacy, I’m still in a state of some affective confusion. It’s not a serious matter, I don’t think; I’ll get over it. The Church is still the Church; and no actual long-term damage has been done. But I still can’t get over the persistent (and of course totally indefensible) notion that rather than Benedict being Pope Emeritus, it is actually Francis who is Pope coadjutor….