I’m nearly two weeks into my chocolate and biscuit free Lent. So far so good, with the occasional slice of Victoria Sponge to help me through. But my sugar-related abstinence is not the story of this pre-Easter period. Instead it is the abdication- I prefer this word as it gives it the historical significance it deserves- of the Pope. The Holy Father. The leader of over 1 billion Catholics around the world.
The is not an analysis of his Papacy or a discussion about where the church needs to go from here- although an end to celibacy, allowing Priests to marry and ending the sickening discrimination against our gay brothers and sisters would be a start- this is a brief reflection on his decision to stand down. A decision that I believe will be his lasting legacy to the Church.
I declare an interest first. I like Pope Benedict (not just because we sort of share a name). I have always viewed him as a quiet, humble and thoughtful man. No, I don’t agree with every one of his thoughts but I respect him. He showed on his visit to Auschwitz and to the UK a gentle kindness which runs country to his cartoon-like media image. He seems to me like a man who cares about others’ feelings.
Looking at his recent decision, it is surely inconceivable that watching the last Pope fading before his eyes didn’t leave a deep mark on Benedict. To see the most active, well-travelled and charismatic Pope of all time reduced to a frail figurehead damaged the church and left it looking cruel. Making him endure the suffering of his illness in public with little dignity was an awful spectacle. The job- for that what’s it is- of Pope is so demanding and requires amazing reserves of health, strength and stamina. I would argue that it has become even more the role of a major world as well as spiritual leader, with a constant need to show leadership and respond to social, economic and political challenges, let alone provide the spiritual leadership which the role demands. To do this in your eighties, with the inevitable fading of strength and health, is nearly impossible.
By stepping down this Pope has said loud and clear that the job of Holy Father needs to be done not just by someone chosen by God but someone who can work for more than a few hours a day. Someone who can fly around the world and not take a week to recover. Someone who can stand up and speak for more than a few minutes at a time. And someone who can provide the visible leadership and connect with people on issues such as child abuse, gay marriage and AIDS. Pope Benedict has said, I am not that person. He is also saying that whoever gets this job next, it is not their for life. He has enacted a major reform leading inevitably to informal term limits on Popes and a focus on his ability to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. It is not the big social reform of the Church many of us want. It is not an end to some of the worse attitudes of intolerance towards others we crave but it will prove to be a legacy that will make every Pope from here on it younger, fitter, more in touch with modern life, and more able to tackle those big issues that remain a millstone around the Church’s neck.