Like scores of fellow Catholics, I was initially unnerved by the pope’s decision to resign. The more I think about it, though, the more sense it makes. At 85, Pope Benedict XVI realized that he simply couldn’t continue to do what’s necessary for the communion of faithful.
A strong administrative steward (butler and bank controversies aside) and a brilliant theologian, Benedict’s fulfillment of duty over the past 8 years has been truly impressive, albeit neither flashy nor duly appreciated. One of Benedict’s first undertakings was to address the child sex abuse scandal that recently plagued the church. Benedict moved swiftly and decisively. As a close confidant of Pope John Paul II, Benedict was familiar with the toll it was taking on the church, mincing neither word nor action: declaring the abusers “gravely immoral” and removing the likes of Father Marcial Maciel from active ministry. Pope John Paul was purportedly in shock and couldn’t fathom the evil required.
Nearing his end of days, John Paul aspired to show the face of God, emphasizing the sanctity of life to show that all life was paramount. His ailing health became an asset enabling him to embody the church’s pro-life doctrine, an undeniable example of the fragility and impermanence of the human condition. But his denial and infirmity may have inadvertently prevented timelier action.
As the controversy consumed the church, then Cardinal Ratzinger, witnessed the consequences first-hand. When he became Vicar of Christ, Benedict spent an inordinate amount of time readdressing issues left behind by his predecessors. Benedict instituted behind-the-scenes reforms and mechanisms aimed at preventing a repeat of the misdeeds of those vile few. The true impact of his contributions is yet to be seen. It is impossible to deny, though, that God’s Rottweiler cracked the whip.
In the corporate world, we see CEOs who know when it is time to pass the reins. We also see CEOs who continue long past their prime. Bill Gates handed Microsoft over, whereas Steve Jobs arguably left Apple too late. We can argue their respective leadership skills, however, one clearly bridged the transition while the other, simply, didn’t have a continuity of operations plan.
And now we see the pope, holding one of the most storied and impactful leadership positions in history, a visionary and servant leader, emerging, as a spiritual symbol of courage. Perhaps after deep reflection, Benedict decided that the church needed to bridge a leadership transition smoothly so that the progress and reforms instituted could continue, unaffected. Crises arise and fester when leadership is incoherent and incompetent; so too does spiritual decay.
The pope has dedicated 85 years to the ministry of Christ. It’s inconceivable to think he woke up one day and decided he was too tired to continue. Perhaps God is simply doing what he has done for millennia, using the humble as shining examples, a Christian grace, to be revered and replicated.
One of Benedict’s greatest contributions may well be his voluntary resignation: a status quo reset for the greatest of all CEO torch passes. Greater papal self-awareness could become the new norm. His actions could also pave the way for future popes to resign – engendering Benedict a trendsetter.
He has set the stage for the next-generation to take the mantle and lead Catholics globally. In a world increasingly turning away from God, Benedict’s example should well inspire greater leadership for the Apostolic church, particularly during periods of tumult.
It was with great humility that Benedict resigned. It would have been easiest to ride out his tenure in a limited fashion citing doctor’s orders. He chose a difficult and controversial path instead – one not taken in nearly 600 years. No doubt it weighed heavily and was made only with great deference to the larger needs of the church’s more than 1 billion followers.
By breaking with tradition, Benedict encompassed the nature of a leader who understands deeply what the job of the pope means. He refused to let the pressures of convention confine what he believed to be necessary. Instead, Pope Benedict, not the perceptions of and by others, defined his service and his tenure, and in doing so, defines the indelible mark of his legacy.
While Pope John Paul exemplified the human condition and the tenet of universal suffering, Benedict exemplifies a fundamental tenet of God’s nature – to reject the trappings of prideful arrogance and choosing instead to offer the church the divinely inspired representation of utter humility.
In the end, one of Pope Benedict’s most lasting teachings will remind us that to be a trendsetter necessitates we are first and foremost humble servants of Christ. “It is not that I have already taken hold of it or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue in my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ.”
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