This is not my topic today, but did you notice that in Great Britain new laws have been enacted which ban the long standing tradition of fox hunting or at least place some limitations on that sport which runs so deeply in the blood of our brother and sister Brits? Isn't it something that such marvelous concern for foxes can be displayed in civil law by a country and culture that is reluctant to express such concern for unborn or embryonic human beings, a country and a culture so much like our own!
A good question
Now to our topic of today. I have begun my series of dinners, roughly a dozen of them, where six to eight priests will gather with me for a social occasion where we can also express whatever might be on our mind in an informal way. There is no particular agenda for these meetings, apart from sharing priestly fraternity, and the first two gatherings were very different and both very wonderful. One of the questions reported was, "Why doesn't the Pope resign for health reasons?" Evidently this question is on the mind of many people as well as some priests, and it is a good question.
Cardinal Sodano, the Vatican Secretary of State, indicated that the matter of the Pope's resignation was something that he would have to decide in his own conscience. I certainly have no access to the depths of the conscience of the Holy Father, but let me humbly offer my own reflections on this matter.
Church is not a global corporation
In the first place, if one thinks of the Church as a global corporation and the Pope as our CEO, then one cannot really appreciate the difficulty with the idea of the Pope's possible resignation at all. Our faith tells us that the Church is not a global corporation and that the Pope is not our CEO. The Church is mystery, the Church is a communion which includes the angels and saints in heaven, the souls in purgatory, and the baptized here on earth. The Pope is the Vicar of Christ on earth, that is he is the head of the apostles, the direct successor of the apostle Peter.
Mystical communion with St. Peter
This is very important. Pope John Paul II is not the successor of Pope John Paul I. He is not one in a long dynasty of a monarchy, but rather he is the direct successor of St. Peter just as every Pope is. And so the special gifts with which the Lord endowed the apostle Peter are alive and well today in Pope John Paul II. When I was living and studying in Rome, frequently in the evening, I would find myself for a few quiet moments in St. Peter's Square at the hour when the Holy Father was having dinner, with his dining room brightly lit. It would always strike me that Peter is up there having dinner, the living Peter indeed.
It is this mystical communion with St. Peter, of whom he is the direct successor, this reception of the gifts of Peter, that present a difficulty with the Pope's resignation. Clearly if the Pope dies, the Lord calls him to eternal life and confers the gifts of Peter on another who is lawfully elected by the College of Cardinals. If the Pope were alive but mentally incapacitated so that he could not with his intellect and will exercise the office and the gifts of Peter, that would be a second clear indication that those gifts should be conferred by the Lord upon another, and the resignation of the Pope would happen.
Pope John Paul II in his intellect and will at the present moment is far more than capable of exercising the office and the gifts of St. Peter. He is not mentally incapacitated in the least. Thus if he were to resign, which according to Church law he could, knowing him, he would have to give a reason. What would that reason be? How much physical energy is needed to exercise the gifts of St. Peter? Was St. Peter himself as energetic as he grew older as he was when he first received the call from Christ?
The strength of intellect and will in the Holy Father, if anything, is probably greater now than it was 20 years ago, witness the number of volumes that he is publishing more recently (one of which will be released this week, his new book Memory and Identity), even though his energies do not permit the extent of missionary travel to which he became accustomed. But we must remember that no Pope has ever traveled like Pope John Paul II, and that travel schedule should not be required as a minimal expectation for one who is close to 85 years young.
An inspiration to others
Most importantly the Lord indicates in the Gospel in many ways that He makes His power manifest through our human weakness. The Holy Father is strong in intellect and will even at this very moment, and he is an inspiration to anyone who is physically weak or limited or fragile, especially those of our seniors with whom he expresses such strong solidarity. He is convinced that he still has a contribution to make as he recently said in the hospital, declaring that he was still serving the Church and the whole of humanity even from the hospital. The Lord is making His own power manifest through the physical weakness and fragility of the Pope who is still capable in intellect and will, quite capable of exercising the office and gifts of Peter. That may be why he does not resign and indeed why he should not resign.
I hope these reflections will be of some help to you. Thank you for reading this. God bless you. And please continue with your loved ones to have a Holy Lent. Praised be Jesus Christ!
Diocese of Madison, The Catholic Herald
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