Five years on: a Vatican reporter remembers Benedict XVI’s resignation

Pope Benedict XVI addresses the faifthful for the last time on February 28, 2013 (Getty Images)

February 28, 2013, was a blur. I’m pretty sure I was in the newsroom at Vatican Radio for some of the day, but I can’t recall whether I was there, or at home, or in a bar watching the chopper take off and carry the soon-to-be Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI to his retirement at Castel Gandolfo.

I can talk a little about my feelings that day — they are with me still — as the reality of the situation pressed itself upon me. My thoughts were clear, and have not only stayed with me, but sharpened over the past five years.

To be perfectly frank, I thought the resignation was bad for the Church and for the Petrine office. I understand the arguments for it, but I did not then and do not now agree with them. A lot has changed in the world over the last fifty or one hundred years, and people do generally live longer, but human nature has remained the same. As Karr said, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Bishops in general are said to be the spouses of their dioceses, and last time I checked, “…until death do us part,” was still in the Catholic marriage vows, however often the promise is honoured in reality. The See of Rome is supposed to be exemplary in this and every other regard. The idea that the world has made exemplary witness impossible – that we ought therefore to abandon the standard and give up even trying to meet it — struck me then and continues to strike me as an attitude arising from jadedness if not despair.

If a man like Benedict XVI did not feel himself equal to the task of governance, let alone of reform, then he nevertheless might have done his best with what he had for as long as he had breath in his body, and taken a page from Pope St John XXIII’s book, saying at the end of every long and trying day, “It’s your Church, Lord. I’m going to bed.”

There is a whole system in place, designed to be a buttress for weak Popes, who would reign but not rule, as the saying goes. If that system — the Roman Curia — is broken, then the thing to do is to fix it.

To be sure, the crisis of governance in the Curia did not begin on Benedict’s watch, and was not ever going to end on his watch either, even if he had the vigour of a man of forty, and unlimited resources at his disposal. Nevertheless, things in the Curia did get worse on his watch, largely because he simply did not govern it. Even as his teaching and leadership of the universal Church were strong.

He put an ill-equipped and incapable man at the head of the Secretariat of State (Cardinal Bertone), because that man had been for him a competent lieutenant and was an old and trusted friend. Then he refused to pull the trigger on his man – for friendship’s sake? – and preferred to throw in the towel (or the Pallium, if you will). Retiring oneself when one is unable or unwilling to send troublesome underlings into retirement is perhaps the necessary and even praiseworthy thing. Still, here we are.

Benedict was not always a weak or ineffective governor, though. This is perhaps why his weakness in dealing with particular issues during the course of his reign stood out so prominently. His weakness in handling the Legion of Christ, for example, was in stark contrast to his handling of the Legion’s notorious founder, and gave the impression that, if only folks kept their heads down, the moment would pass, and it would be back to business as usual. That has largely proven to be right.

People were already praising Benedict XVI’s courage and humility — not wrongly, I hasten to add — but that never struck me as the story, then or now. All the words I could muster that evening were, “I can think of nothing to say, except: let us pray for Bishop Benedict, emeritus of Rome. God only knows how I love him.” I also remember feeling what I imagine sons feel when their fathers abandon them. It looks absurd to me as I write it on the page, but I confess I wondered if it was somehow my fault, and what I might have done differently, and how I might have served him better. What if I’d prayed more for him?

In any case, I knew the job he’d left for his successor would be hard, and I knew he’d made it harder. His successor would have all his problems, and the new ones, and he would have the spectre of resignation as an option.

I can and do believe that the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI was, in the ways and respects most everyone says, to the good. It was not unalloyed, however, and while everyone else is focusing on the good, I can’t help but see the rest. There’s a lot to see, if you look.