Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reportedly told a visitor to his residence at Mater Ecclesiae Monastery last week that his abdication from the Chair of St. Peter came about not because he was unwilling to stay on the job, but because he had a mystical experience in prayer wherein the Holy Spirit planted a strong desire to remain alone with the Lord secluded in prayer, something that he could not realistically do while carrying out the daily duties and functions of the Petrine Ministry. The Pontiff Emeritus is reported to have told the visitor that his mystical experience with the Lord has continued these past few months, and that the Holy Spirit has confirmed his decision when he observes the charisma of his successor.
It is easy for many in the secular media, and indeed many of us, to try and attach other external reasons to Benedict’s decision to leave the Pontificate. We want there to be some other reason, some deeper explanation aside from the one that Pope Benedict himself gave when he said to us:
After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. 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. However, 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 of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.
Benedict understood the seriousness of what he was undertaking to do, so much so that he said that he “repeatedly examined my conscience before God.” It is difficult to truly do that considering that one holds the weightiest and most powerful position in the Church on earth and not have a mystical experience. Benedict didn’t get out of bed one morning at the Apostolic Palace and decide that “I really feel rotten today, I feel like an old man, I think I’ll abdicate.” He was the Pope, and he knew that popes just don’t leave because they feel badly, he left because the Holy Spirit let him know it was time to go.
The secular press wants the answer to more complicated because they are looking for something scandalous to report, and the Pope abdicated, so it must be because of scandal. Those of us who truly respected Benedict and his Pontificate were looking for some deeper answer because the man who many of us had looked up to as a theologian and as a leader of the Church for many years was just…leaving. We wanted to understand, and we wanted to understand right now. But God’s ways are not our ways, and in fact God’s ways are so far above our ways as the heavens are above the earth (Is. 55:9). If God wanted a new Successor of Peter, but did not want to take Pope Benedict out of this world, are we so faithless as to believe that he would not reveal that reality to Benedict himself in some way?
What we easily forget is that Benedict XVI, the priest of God who was ordained Father Joseph Ratzinger, is a man who has devoted virtually his entire adult life to the service of God in his Church. He didn’t just talk to us about “the spirit of Vatican II,” he was there, he knew what “the spirit of Vatican II” means in a way that other people who use that phrase have no earthly clue. The priests, bishops, and theologians that he has influenced not only through his writings but through his public teachings continue to have a vast influence on the theological outlook of the Church today, and they still meet to discuss how his teachings help them grow in faith. He also founded one of the most influential theological journals in the Catholic world, Communio. Benedict has taught or influenced thousands of people who in turn have influenced millions of souls for Jesus Christ and his Church. Two of these are Father Robert Barron and Dr. Scott Hahn, both of whom will be speaking at our Diocese of Knoxville Eucharistic Congress on September 13th and 14th, and both of whom continue to reach millions of hungry souls through their respective apostolates. These are just two examples of people who have been influenced by the work of Pope Benedict.
Benedict has said that he felt that the Holy Spirit was leading him to go. We live in an age of skeptics who do not believe in their hearts that God can speak to men and women through the Holy Spirit, but as Catholics we believe in a God who is very much interested in our affairs. Benedict doesn’t appear in public anymore, he says, because he does not want to be seen to undermine Pope Francis’ authority. The very fact that he is obedient and believes that the Holy Spirit is guiding his successor shows us what a man of God Pope Emeritus Benedict really is, and it also shows us that the Holy Spirit is guiding the Church in ways that we can’t even fathom.
UPDATE 8/27/2013: Archbishop Georg Ganswein, who is the prefect of the Papal Household and the personal private secretary to Pontiff Emeritus Benedict said that the story, first circulated by the Catholic News Agency Zenit, is untrue.
Rather sad, really, because one thing that isn’t hard to believe is that the Holy Spirit has been at work in all of this. Was it a “mystical experience?” Maybe not…but did Benedict act under the guidance of the Holy Spirit?…