Thought and Ideas
What Pope’s resignation means to Uganda
Posted Sunday, February 17 2013 at 02:23
The Pope’s action raises the question of term limits and retirement ages for office-holders, both ecclesiastical and political leaders. These limits are an objective standard to ensure that office-holders are still able to carry out their responsibilities. Of course term limits and retirement ages, being objective standards, may sometimes push people who are still capable out of office.
Like many people the world over, Ugandans and especially Catholics, were shocked at the news of Pope Benedict’s Resignation. As far as ordinary Catholics knew, popes do not resign; they die in office as Pope John Paul II demonstrated, remaining pope even when he was seriously impaired by Parkinson’s disease.
Of course it is not true that popes cannot resign. Up to 10 popes in the history of the Church may have resigned, with the most recent ones being Pope Gregory XI in 1415 and Pope Celestine V in 1294. Even the current law of the Catholic Church (Canon Law 332) says that a pope’s resignation is valid if it is freely made and properly manifested (published).
And yet even knowing these precedents does not completely eliminate the shock at Pope Benedict’s resignation. For modern people associate sudden resignations with scandal and wrong-doing.
In fact some pundits are already suggesting that the “real” reason for which the Pope resigned is a yet-to-be revealed scandal or crisis. But as Pope Benedict himself speculated during a 2010 interview with German journalist Peter Seewald, if a pope were to resign, the appropriate time was not during a crisis; that would be running away from his job.
There is still a deeper reason that particularly makes Catholics shocked by the resignation. For dedicated Catholics, the Pope is a father (actually the English word “Pope” is a translation of the word “Papa” which in Latin and indeed many languages, including Ugandan languages means “Father”.) A father never resigns from being your father, however old he gets or however ill he might be. And so, on a spiritual level, some Catholics feel the sense of loss and even abandonment if you like. One friend told me, “Daddy has left us.”
Term limits and retirement ages
And yet it is not true that Pope Benedict has abandoned his flock. As he said when he announced his resignation, he reached this decision after having repeatedly examined his conscience before God and “come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”
Pope Benedict is concerned about his flock and realises that at this time his flock needs a more able shepherd. Especially since, “in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque [ship] of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary.” And although he is not suffering from any particular ailment, at his age he does not have this much needed strength of mind and body.
The pope’s action raises the question of term limits and retirement ages for office-holders, both ecclesiastical and political leaders. These limits are an objective standard to ensure that office-holders are still able to carry out their responsibilities. Of course term limits and retirement ages, being objective standards, may sometimes push people who are still capable out of office. In principle, however, mandatory term and age limits serve a useful purpose, especially in those situations where the office-holder is not likely to step down willingly.
For theological and historical reasons, there is no retirement age for the Pope. The decision to resign is left to the Pope himself, who after all, is first and foremost a spiritual leader rather than a chief executive officer. It is hoped that like Pope Benedict has done, after prayerful reflection and consultation with close co-workers, each Pope will do what is in the best interests of the Church and in accordance with God’s will.
Why then did Pope John Paul II not retire? Every man chosen to be Pope makes a personal decision according to his conscience, whether or not to accept the office, and whether or not to remain in office.
John Paul II and Benedict XVI, after prayerful reflection reached different conclusions: one stayed on despite his poor health, the other resigned from office because of his decreasing strength of mind and body.
In reaching these conclusions, both men did what they thought was God’s will for the good of the Church.
In fact, both men, by their choices have served the Church. John Paul II did so by his great witness of perseverance and commitment in suffering, a ministry which Benedict XVI acknowledged in his own letter of resignation when he said, “I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering.” Now Benedict himself is choosing to serve the Church in another way, by stepping aside so that another, who has the strength of mind and body, can lead the Church through the turbulent times of the world today. What an act of selfless humility!
Both secular and church leaders can learn from Pope Benedict’s humility and selflessness, always putting the good of those they govern, before their own good. This will sometimes mean offering oneself for service when called to, like Benedict did at 78 years, already past the retirement age of bishops which is 75. Most times, the lesson will be to step aside like Pope Benedict has done, when one feels he cannot serve effectively anymore and another person can. Pope Benedict is one of the brightest and wisest minds of the Church and the world today. That he thinks there is someone else out there who can do the job better than him, should be, especially humbling for leaders who think they are the Messiah!
What next, an African Pope?
No sooner had the shock gone away than people began to ask: “Who will be the next Pope? Will it be an African?” This is a fair question, after all the minimum qualification for election as pope is that one be a baptized Catholic male, and there are millions of African Catholic males, some of them are even Cardinals, the usual source for candidates elected to the papacy.
What I find nonsensical and entirely inappropriate is the oft-made demand that the next pope must be an African. Such considerations of nationality, race and continent of origin, which might be entirely useful for the secular management of society, have no place in the selection of what is after all a spiritual office and ministry. In my opinion, the best man, regardless of his provenance, should be elected to steer the ship of St. Peter.
That such a man is also an African should be only a secondary cause of joy for Africans. But to demand that he must be African is to reduce God’s Church to a social club, with a rotating presidency and to completely misunderstand what the Christian faith is all about.
What Pope Benedict has done is nothing short of being simultaneously bold and humble, traditional and innovative, in accordance with God’s will and with the Church’s well-being. By this one act, the Pope has perhaps preached the gospel message of servant-leadership, more effectively than any of his finest sermons would have done!
The writer is a Catholic priest in Tororo Archdiocese