Pope Benedict XVI: Not On a Damascus Road

Last month, February 28, Cardinal Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, otherwise known in ecumenical circles as Pope Benedict XVI, officially abdicated his seat as Bishop of Rome and head of the Catholic faithful worldwide, leaving the position sede vacante.

His resignation, one in nearly 700 years, startled the Christian community and sent the rumour mill in frenzy as theories and accusations of child abuse rent the air.

Many have wondered what could have made a man holding such an exalted divine office to set his back on it, leaving his flock high and dry. Some have even gone beyond the ridiculous to speculate that he was a reluctant pope who was not spiritually worthy to step into the holy shoes of St. Peter. While others have reasoned that the “rough seas of the papacy,” which himself alluded to in his final address, must have been instrumental to forcing him out.  Whatever the theories or speculations may be, one thing is certain: Pope Benedict XVI encountered Jesus Christ not on a Damascus road but in the deep recesses of his heart, and so everything changed.

He did not put his hand on the plow and turned back; he put his hand on the plow and held his anchor taut, lest he misses the mark. You know, when a man encounters the divine, everything about him changes, he makes a 360 degree turn and forsakes all. When Paul encountered Jesus on his murderous mission to Damascus, everything about him changed. He forsook the legalism of Judaism to where the action is: Jesus Christ. And that was the same experience with Zaccheus the tax collector when he cried from the deep recesses of his heart: “I have sinned, Lord, and I will repay fourfold anyone I have defrauded”. That is what happens when we encounter the Master, there is complete transformation; we can never remain the same again. Not even the fineries and fripperies of this world nor the ashes of Lebanon and the waters of Meribah can heal a sin-sick soul but the blood. And when that happens, then will come to pass that which St. Paul said: “Christ is made unto us redemption, redemption from sin and hell!”

That was what happened to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, he was not prepared to play dice with his soul. It takes a man of courage and divine inspiration to reach such a lofty height only to spurn it for that which is greater. We look at that which is seen, but he, like Paul, looks to that which is unseen: heaven by it!

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger indeed is a man after my heart. A very pious man, theologian and professor, he knew that as a pilgrim he must keep his heart pure, lest he endanger his soul in the quest for temporal worldly honour. During an interview by a German journalist, Peter Seewald in 2010, Pope Benedict gave us a glimpse of what was to come. When he was asked if a pope could resign his pontificate, he said: “If a pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right, and under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.”

Although he gave age and health as reasons for his abdication, it is clear from the tone of his final address that he hated the schisms in the church which must have played a major part in his resignation. “There were moments of joy and light but also moments that were not easy”, he said. “There were moments, as there were throughout the history of the Church, when the seas were rough and the wind blew against us and it seemed that the Lord was sleeping.” God forbid, our God cannot sleep nor slumber!

The truth is that his conscience was bruised over what was happening in the Vatican. During his inaugural address as Pope in 2005, he foresaw this rough sea and urged the congregation to pray for him. “Pray for me that I may not flee for fear of the wolves”, he urged the congregation. He felt betrayed and considered it “simply incomprehensible” that his butler Paolo Gabriele should release confidential Vatican documents alleging corruption in the Holy See.

Of course there have been wolves in the church from the beginning.  Benedict XVI was not only disillusioned but fazed that such a divine institution should have such an avalanche of interests, cardinals competing among themselves to ease him out. Those conversant with Papal history know that Benedict was not the first, nor will he be the last, to witness such. Pope Pontian, the first pope to resign, abdicated his post on September 28, year 235 because of the persecution of Christians under Emperor Maximinus Thrax when he was exiled to the mines on Sardinia. Pope Marcellinus (296-304) was forced to resign because of his pagan conducts. According to Austin Cline, “he handed over the Scriptures to Roman authorities during the Diocletian persecutions of 303 and burned incense to the Roman gods.” This was a form of syncretism and he was therefore forced to resign.

Perhaps, what exposed the schism and in-fighting in the pontificate more than anything else hundreds of years ago—and up till today—was the rivalry between Pope Benedict IX and his godfather Pope Gregory VI in the Middle Ages. Dr Jeff Mirus tells us that Pope Benedict IX was elected to the See of Peter at the age of 20 but became morally licentious. “He brought such disgrace upon the office,” he said;

“That a rival faction set up an anti-pope. Eventually, the Pope’s desperate godfather, the deeply pious archpriest John Gratian, paid him a large sum of money to resign the papacy, which he did in 1045. The result was that Gratian himself was elected Pope Gregory VI in 1045. However, because he had paid Benedict to resign, his election was tainted by simony, and the Council of Sutri pressed Gregory, in his turn, to resign for the good of the Church in 1046. But Pope Benedict IX seized Rome and took up the papacy again!”

All said and done, what lessons can we learn from the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI? What lessons can our political class, those that decide the destinies not only of millions of Nigerians but also the country learn from the example set by this holy man? What lessons can even our religious class, the ubiquitous General Overseers and the church hierarchies learn from Cardinal Ratzinger? Of course, many!

Ratzinger ascended the papacy out of love for the Church and resigned out of love for the church when he saw that he was no longer physically and spiritually strong to carry on with the demands of the office. Can our leaders learn from this? Leadership is not about the number of years one serves but about results. It is not about the number of terms one serves but about fulfilling electoral promises to turn the fortunes of the people around. If a leader perceives he is, for any reason, no longer capable to lead, he should, for God’s sake leave as Pope Benedict XVI did.

However, I see Pope Benedict XVI’s conduct as a man of unfathomable courage, conscience and sagacity. What he did is rare as he acknowledged even in his final address. “I took this step in the full knowledge of its gravity and rarity but with a profound serenity of spirit,” he said. It happens once in a millennium!  Of a truth, he did not abandon his Petrine Ministry but elevated it and brought life and truth into it! I wish him well as he retires to a life of prayer.

In all, I join Catholic faithfuls to pray that as the world and Christendom await the emergence of another pope, may the road never be rough again; may the blizzard cease. May the tempest and turbulence cool. May the Lord never seem to sleep again. May He smoothen the rough edges of the seas and calm the storm so that another pope—perhaps an African—forged in the anvil of Matthias, holding unto Christ as the anchor, and chosen by the Lord Himself, as in the days of old, emerge from the ashes of the conclave. Amen!

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